Céline Sciamma on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” The Lesbian Gaze, and Queer TV That Gives Her Hope

There were two movie-going experiences that completely changed my relationship to cinema. The first was discovering Jane Campion and in her work the notion of a female gaze. The second was watching Céline Sciamma’s debut Water Lilies (2007) and realizing that the female gaze doesn’t have to be straight.

With her next two films – Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) – Sciamma continued pushing the formal and representational boundaries of cinema. Her latest, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is an 18th century lesbian romance and meditation on creation that is epic in its intimacy. Watching this film reminded me of my teenage discovery of Water Lilies – the feeling that I was experiencing something new, something made for a person like me, by people like me.

In anticipation of its official release this Friday I was lucky enough to sit down with Céline and talk to her about adolescence, the work of lesbian gaze, and crafting queer sex scenes.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Drew Gregory: It’s so nice to meet you, because, well, Water Lilies was maybe the first lesbian movie I ever saw.

Céline Sciamma: Yeah?

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Drew: Definitely the first one made by a queer woman and it was very impactful for me.

Céline: When did you see it?

Drew: I was pretty young. 14 or 15?

Céline: Wow I love that.

Drew: Yeah it blew my mind. I’d love to start there before moving onto Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m curious about your personal experience of queer adolescence, since it’s such a big part of your previous films.

Céline: Well my teenagehood took place before the internet, so basically I was very curious and frustrated and had to find out about lesbian culture starting from scratch. I was living in a new town like 30 kilometers from Paris – which seems close but wasn’t – and craving stories I could relate to. So I read Virginia Woolf and then just went to the cinema a lot, relying on culture from elsewhere. For instance, I remember when Go Fish came out. Go Fish was the first lesbian film that I saw.

Drew: How old were you?

Céline: I was 16 or 17. And it was discovering that kind of indie ’90s US film and this lesbian culture. Having both kicks.

Drew: Did seeing that sort of independent lesbian movie make you feel like you could make your own? I know you came to film a bit later, but was that an inspiration in anyway?

Céline: Well, I don’t know. Retrospectively there are all these steps that make you feel more legitimate just in life, in public space, and so it’s part of the whole process of belonging. But at the time I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker. I was just really craving this experience as a viewer. That was the most important thing.

Drew: Do you feel like a lot of the work you make is still with that goal in mind? You want to make the films you’re not seeing elsewhere?

Céline: Oh yeah. I’m always trying to look for missing storytelling, missing images, whether it’s in a contemporary setting or a historical piece. But the good thing about that is when you’re trying to bring to life what’s been missing from your life you’re also making new art, telling new stories. That’s why thinking about representation and deconstructing fiction is also a cool dynamic for creation.

Drew: So then skipping forward three films later, you worked with Adèle Haenel again.

Céline: Yeah.

Drew: Autostraddle is a lesbian website so we’re not strangers to working with exes.

Céline: (laughs)

Drew: How has that working relationship changed over time now that you know her as a person separate from the work?

Céline: Well, working together again wasn’t about having a new conversation, but just sharing our conversation with other people. Because we constantly talk about cinema, politics, everything, and we were just going to do that with more people starting with Noémie Merlant and the crew and then, I mean, the world. It’s just a very fluid way to share the conversation we’ve been having on a wider scale. And has it changed our relationship? This relationship keeps changing and growing and it’s also a kind of steady bond.

Drew: That to me feels very queer. We allow that in a way I think a lot of straight people don’t.

Céline: Yes. And that’s also what I wanted to do with Portrait. Because you know there’s this lesbian frustration about fiction – that I know very well – that we are sacrificed on screen. Our stories always end tragically either with somebody dying or somebody being straight.

Drew: Same thing, sure.

Céline: It’s impossible love in the most painful ways! It has to be painful. And this is propaganda. Fiction has an impact on our lives. So the fact that it’s represented in a very painful way is a way to make us feel bad about ourselves. And also just to maintain power over the narrative.

It was already the case on Water Lilies where lesbians were saying we want a happy ending we want a happy ending. But what is a happy ending in a lesbian love story? Eternal possession? We want a frozen image of two people getting married? We have to tell our own narratives regarding how we lead our lives and how we love. Talking about the different power dynamics in a lesbian relationship is the first thing. Then building a love dialogue without expected conflict, departing from love as conflict, love as a bargain. Saying that love is fulfilling! Love can be emancipating. And it’s also about friendship. Relying on that kind of eternity. I feel this is all something we have to put out there because it’s the politics of love. And I think our approach is very dangerous to those in power which is why it’s never shown.

Drew: Speaking of a different way of approaching these narratives I’d love to talk about the sex in the movie. Because there is sex even if there’s been some talk on the internet that there isn’t. Taking the drug in their armpit or the spitting of the water or even when Marianne is describing Héloïse’s ear – those moments feel more erotic and more in line with queer sex than most queer women sex scenes we usually see. I’d love to hear about how you decided to show sex and eroticism.

Céline: There’s definitely a sex scene! And it’s also a reflection on a sex scene. The film is being very playful in that it’s portraying something and also aware that it’s portraying something. It’s very Russian doll. We’re in the workshop of a painter watching a painter watching, an endless mirroring situation. And so for the sex scene, it should be about ideas. Cinema is all about ideas, but I feel like there are no ideas behind sex scenes. Here I didn’t want the performance. It’s almost always a performance, but this armpit thing is true. That’s true penetration, you know?

Sex scenes should embody how joyful, fun, and inventive sex really is. And it’s a process for me. I can’t wait to see how I’ll think about and craft sexuality in my next film. It depends on the story, but it’s also a really personal journey and a deconstruction. I’m on that path so I’m curious what’s coming next.

Drew: There are a lot of media narratives around queer movies where people say, This is just a love story. It isn’t a queer love story.” But there’s something about Portrait that feels like it’s seeking a way of viewing that’s very lesbian or queer or woman – these words have limits, but you know what I mean.

Céline: Yeah yeah.

Drew: So I’m curious how much you think about your work as a project of queer cinema. Or does it just come naturally out of your own queerness? Because even the cinematography, the sound design, everything formally feels very new to me. Is that a result of you consciously thinking about how to portray this type of story?

Céline: Well, it’s like female gaze. You have to deconstruct it. It’s a job. It’s work. It doesn’t happen to you because you’re a woman. And lesbian gaze isn’t going to happen to you because you’re a lesbian. Even if you look at lesbian representation made by lesbians — like for instance let’s talk about The L Word – the original. There was a lot of male gaze going on in the sex scenes. So it’s really about putting thought into this, being excited and curious about where you can go. And you have to be brave, because cinema is very codified and writing a story that is not based on conflict or writing sex scenes that are not based on male domination you can sometimes feel you’re not writing cinema.

So it’s about taking this bold step and saying I’m going to make a film with strong tension that isn’t going to be built along a power dynamic we’re used to. And maybe to some people this won’t feel like cinema and maybe even to myself I’ll question if the emotional journey is intense enough. But I know how to write conflict. It comes really easily. You have to put a lot more work into this other approach.

I think politics are part of the initial spark and desire to make film and then you find it back in the end. But it’s also the politics of your sets. What kind of power dynamic do you have with your collaborators? Power dynamics are everywhere, and I’m trying to make films that are manifestos. It’s always micro and macro, a constant reflection. But also I don’t give myself targets. There’s a philosophy to it but then you have to find the right idea for cinema. And surely if you challenge yourself with trying to create new narratives, new images, challenge yourself politically, then you will have creative ideas. It’s why it’s so important that we get to work on this.

Drew: What is your set dynamic like? I feel like there’s been a lot of conversation lately – maybe more in American cinema and Hollywood – about set dynamics and creating safe sets. How do you approach your various collaborators? I know there are a lot of women on your sets.

Céline: Well, my sets have always been female driven, because it’s just the best atmosphere for me. (laughs)

Drew: I understand that! More specifically, what’s the energy on your sets? I mean, is there a lot of laughter or is it very focused? Do you move quickly or do you do a lot of takes?

Céline: I make a lot of jokes. I like it to be lighthearted and fun. I’m not doing many takes – like four or five. But also I write the mise en scène. If I don’t already see the film – what the shots are going to be – it means the writing process isn’t done. So I have strong ideas and I put up a lot of constraints. Like I’ll tell the actors you’re going to take five steps to get that kiss and it’s not going to be six. Because it’s very musical. It’s really about the rhythm.

Drew: Maybe this would be giving away future projects, but are there things that you feel are still lacking in the landscape of lesbian cinema? Or is there something you’ve seen recently that made you feel like oh we’re in this together, we’re moving towards something?

Céline: Well, there aren’t enough lesbian directors. But TV is doing a good job. I mean, Work in Progress

Drew: Yeah!

Céline: It’s really important and I imagine growing up as a teenager today and I feel such a relief. I’m really enthusiastic. When I watch Sex Education I just think about how different my life would’ve been if I’d had that show as a teenager. It’s a strong thing, you know? And I’m glad I get to be a contemporary of this and be a part of this. But there are still very few of us who get to make our films, so I hope lesbian cinema has a whole future.

Drew: It hasn’t been that long since Water Lilies, but so much has changed. There had obviously been a lot of lesbian cinema beforehand but there wasn’t enough on my radar as a young cinephile that I’d seen anything else. So I think you also played a part in these changes we’ve seen and continue do so and I’m just very grateful. Thank you!

Céline: Oh thank you!

Drew: Well, thanks so much for talking to me. This was such a pleasure.

Céline: I was glad to. I follow Autostraddle! It’s smart, it’s fun. I like the whole culture that you’re building. It’s really cool. There’s a strong identity to the way you’re having the conversation.

[And that was when I died in the lobby of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills]


Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens today in select cinemas and officially this Friday. 

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 99 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Thank you, Céline & Drew, for this interview! It introduced some new details I did not quite understand when I watched “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” last week (it was in the theatres in Taiwan). It was a beautifully crafted film but this interview definitely left me with more to think about!

  2. This is such a great conversation…thanks Drew!

    I’ve read a lot of interviews with the prominent creators of queer content lately (I won’t name names but you can guess) and despite the fact that they’re injecting new material into the culture, they don’t really have an understanding of where TV and film depictions of queer women are today. I really appreciated that Céline is engaged and looking to evolve the landscape of lesbian cinema.

  3. Céline! I’m in awe of this film and haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. I volunteer in an independent cinema and managed to take home the film’s poster and now it hangs by my bed and is a wonderful object to gaze on everyday.

  4. Omg I love her. This was my favorite movie last year and easily in my top 3 films ever.

    I think Portrait does something revolutionary as far as film goes. It feels like a film from the future or something…or from a better world.

  5. “But what is a happy ending in a lesbian love story? Eternal possession? We want a frozen image of two people getting married? We have to tell our own narratives regarding how we lead our lives and how we love. Talking about the different power dynamics in a lesbian relationship is the first thing. Then building a love dialogue without expected conflict, departing from love as conflict, love as a bargain. Saying that love is fulfilling! Love can be emancipating. And it’s also about friendship. Relying on that kind of eternity.”

    Yes! This. This would be perfect. I feel like it’s so hard to get lesbian films made that this should be the norm. Instead we get the same four tropes over and over again. And the goal is usually eternal togetherness (if someone doesn’t die). It’s gotten better in recent years, thanks to movies like Water Lilies, but we have a long way to go. So I find myself relying on TV to make up the difference, and honestly it’s a still rarity to see anything of the caliber that I want on TV. Work in Progress is definitely tops. Mr. Robot somehow stumbled onto a meaningful lesbian storyline with a power dynamic I hadn’t really seen before and a take on relationship politics that was pretty unique. IDK how the hell that happened – Sam Esmail doesn’t even go here – but I’m not looking that gift horse in the mouth. But I want more.

    Can we all make a pact to just write? If we all just write and write and write and film and film and film, maybe we can swamp the media waves and drown out all the bullshit? I think that’s the solution?

    In other news, I have to figure out how to dodge taking my straight friend with me to go see Portrait. I need to experience this on my own terms.

    • Thumbs up to this ! I hope you get to experience the movie on your own terms, is this the kind of friend to whom you can straight talk ? LOL

      I simply haven’t told anyone I’m going. Secretly bought my ticket online. No one to demand my attention. Soooo looking forward to taking myself out on this date. Sayyyyy, maybe you can tell your friend Sorry I got a date…

  6. Thank you Celine & Drew for this amazing and refreshing interview. Yes like most of people here I’ve read + watch millions billions interviews about the movie and this is by far one of my favorites too.

    Others have all said what I wanted to say, and to be honest, words fall apart in front of this movie, the dynamic, the philosophy, the beauty and the subtle yet powerful emotions created by Celine, Adele and Noemie.

    It’s not and probably won’t be shown in my home country China but we the fans there have built a community around this movie and we translate and share these interviews, these quotes and thoughts (what Celine, Adele and Noemie said in interviews) within each other. The movie gives people space to escape and imagine, and to create their own love stories. And to me personally everything about this (movie, interviews, videos, photos) is just like a love shelter. Thank you.

  7. Gosh!! This is so good!! I waited to read it until I saw the movie tonight and what a treat. I feel like everything has come full circle since I was illegally, secretly watching ‘Water Lilies’ at 15 and it’s been such a delight. I can’t wait to see this film again.

  8. I love this movie a lot. The first time I saw it I was so struck by how radical it is, ie the female gaze, the muse, and how the artist broke down barriers between classes (that dinner scene with the three of them, especially). And just how super gay and feminist it is (the armpit! the abortion scene!)

    But watching it a second time I realized this movie is really about what we’re not seeing on screen. There’s really no men on screen but all conflicts in the film arise from the patriarchy in some way. And while it is about how women find joy, sorority, love and survival in the face of patriarchal violence, ultimately it’s pretty depressing in its realness. I love that Sciamma was honest and showed us that the characters didn’t live lives of “exceptional destiny” in the end because we’ve seen that narrative a million times and it diminishes the tragedy of what we’ve had to endure and continue to endure.

    But how cool is it that we get to live in a time where women (at least some of us) can openly tell our own stories honestly.

    Can’t wait to see what Celine Sciamma does next!

  9. Great interview! Wish it was longer. I also agree that that final scene in the movie is so beautiful. If you’ve ever experienced a great love and passion, it is so healing to watch that ending on screen. It’s beautiful to think of a love affair as a creative discovery that keeps giving even after it has passed into memory.

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