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Back to One

A podcast about acting -- just the work. by Peter Rinaldi

Back to One, Episode 95: Portrait of a Lady on Fire Special Episode

(Photo: Arin Sang-urai)

This is a very special episode of Back To One. Last year, in September, I sat down with the stars of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, and their director, Céline Sciamma. On this show, I only sit down with one actor every week, so for me to sit with two actors and their director from the same film, it must be very special. And it is a very special film.  For me, it is the purest example, in recent memory, of a perfect synthesis of direction and performance. The exemplary work of these three women combined to create an extremely rare cinematic event. As illustrated by the first thing I say to them in this conversation, I might be a little obsessed. 

(What follows is an unedited transcript of the conversation contained in this podcast.)

Filmmaker: I am happy that this film will not be nominated for an Oscar, because it will soil it. And I’m happy that it didn’t win the Palme d’Or because that’s beneath it. 

I can talk for an hour, to you Céline, about different layers of it that I appreciate, the use and non-use of music,  the playing with my anticipation of certain cinematic endeavors going on in the film, the idea of it happening post “me too,” and how, me as a man, as a straight man, If I saw this before “me too,” I would have maybe appreciated it in a different way, now it all works in and it’s something very very special. 

But, because this is an acting podcast, we have to kind of keep it about performance. 

Noémie, you talked about how you didn’t meet Adèle before the production began, right? And all of that work was done on camera, in the present moment. But I was wondering if that was something you were worried about, you know? How did you trust Sciamma that these things would happen on camera? 

Merlant: Actually, I met Adèle before, at the audition. She was there. So I had the chance to try something with her and Sciamma at this audition, and so this convert[ed] me. I trust her. I trust them because I felt at this audition that the way Sciamma wants to work and Adèle wants to work, it is an equality collaboration. We’re all collaborators and we’re gonna…everything is in the script, like the looks and the breathing, all the words, the text is in the script, but we still have a space to play. And Adèle was there at the audition and she was, you know, just really excited, and she was, I don’t know, already proposing things, and I knew that something would work because we’re all in the same level and point. We want the same. We want to work. We want to play. We want to make fun and we want to do something good. And even if we have restraint, we want to get out of our comfort zone, and that’s the point.

So when we started to shoot the movie, we didn’t rehearse together, but we started at the same point we were at in the audition, just “ok, now we are in the present. we have restraint from the text, you know, the script, but now let’s play.” And sometimes Adèle was looking at me, I knew that she would look at me, but I don’t know how she would look at me, for example, so it was a new way every time. It was a new proposition. And so I was responding differently, and the opposite, all the time it was like that. So we built this relation of love and collaborators—Adèle, Sciamma and me, as in the movie—Marianne and Héloïse. It was a parallel. 

Filmmaker: Yes, and I felt that really strongly the second time I watched it. This is a movie that rewards multiple viewings to understand this. 

Adèle, you talked about this “traveling” from object to subject. And you talk about three different…parts. That’s not the right word. 

Haenel: No. It’s right. 

Sciamma; Steps?

Filmmaker: Steps, yeah. First of all, tell me how much Sciamma was in collaboration with you on that idea. Because this is kind of like a radical performance idea, in a way. 

Haenel: Well, she was not aware of it. 

Sciamma: No. 

Filmmaker: That’s amazing. 

Sciamma: I discovered it in promo. 


Haenel: But to me it was very clear, if she like…I had like, I don’t know, like all the scenes, you know, like resume [list] of all the scenes, I had it on my glass Mac, you know? So, I just knew, I had the three portions, because we don’t shoot in continuity, so I just had to say like, “Ok, now we are here.” So, it’s three parts. The first part, I call it the “Japanese Part”, because I, even if it’s a bit cliché, but I wanted to use, to do it like when I think about Noh, the theater Noh, even if it’s a clichè, it’s not exactly that, but it’s the way I think about it. You use your face as a mask. You use your face as if you were not there, or just behind something. So, this was the first phase. And then after there’s the, I call it dégel. 

Sciamma: Unfrozen

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, you said it like a ”crack.”

Haenel: Yeah, crackle. So, it’s just when you start to have the intimacy that comes, then you start to crackle, so it’s kind of this transition phase. And the last one is the warmest phase, so when I talk about that I say it’s more spontaneous, it’s more intense, more joyful, more everything actually. It’s more life. So this was the plan. And at the beginning, I thought about this idea because I wanted to create this impression of an inside… (when I say “traveling” it’s the word in France which is the movement of the camera on the rail, you know?)

Filmmaker: Like a dolly?

Haenel: Dolly, yes this is the word I’m looking for. So it’s like a dolly movement, but through acting. This is what I was trying to do. So it’s a bit like an idea. And because the movie was about gazes, so I thought my character is not a character that is based on a psychological unity with its own history, blah blah blah, the past, future, I don’t care about that. I don’t build my character this way usually, but for this one, like, absolutely not. I wanted to create a character that would be not its own psychological unity, but an object seen through the eyes of somebody else, which would be, like, Maryanne. 

So I try to have this movement inside, through acting, that would be this way, I was talking about Picasso because, he’s not the only one who did that, but even the Egyptian, he put like sometimes the face and the foot are not possible to be on the same level but it’s still the way he sees. Because art is also about what you see, the relationship you make, through element in life, you know you create the representation because you put in connection stuff that are, like, in our common eyes, not in relationship. I don’t know how to say that. But it’s the way you link these things. So when he decided to put the nose, the eyes, the ear, whatever, on the same level, he choose to offer his perspective on reality. So I tried to do something like that, but with acting. 

Filmmaker: This is fascinating—

Haenel: Well then, therefore, I have never said that before. 


Filmmaker: But I’m trying to understand though, moment to moment, how you can play such a complex philosophical idea, you know what I mean? Moment to moment. 

Haenel: Well, it’s all about…To me, the art of acting is about trying philosophical hypothèse, or idea, on the field. It’s like, ok, I believe this is interesting, this is my idea, this is the rule I settle in my head, and I’m just going to try to see what it brings when you hit the reality with this thing. So, this is the first point, and the second— it’s huge, in my mind it’s huge. I’m always like, this is my great fantasy, but when it hits the reality, it becomes something else. So it’s not the pure form of it, it’s like, I really want it to be pure, but when you strike the reality it’s too complex, it creates other waves, blah blah blah, but you don’t reach the point you want it to reach, but still there is the trace of the journey.  

Filmmaker: And then it comes to me, and then it’s in me as something mysterious, that it wouldn’t have been if you didn’t have all those complex things. But, the person who set the field is here and that’s important. What you did to have these artists, authors as you call them, be able to confidently have authorship, how was that important to you, Sciamma, and what were you doing, moment to moment yourself, to keep that going? 

Sciamma: Well it was part of my desire to make this film, also as a departure from my previous work, is that I would work for the first time with professional actresses. Otherwise I used to, you know they would become actresses in the process of making the film. 

Filmmaker: Even Adèle wasn’t a professional actress when you first had her in Water Lillies?

Haenel: No I wasn’t. 

Sciamma: No she wasn’t. But that’s how I learned. We became professional together. I wasn’t professional either. Then when you work with kids and teenagers, you’re pretty much in charge, and you’re very lonely. It’s a beautiful experience but you’re lonely with the film. You’re alone with the film. The whole process. Of course you give the whole intellectual outline of the film to your cast and there’s a strong intellectual link to the thing. It’s not about taking, it’s about them giving you something. But you can’t negotiate, you know, when they’re not professional. There’s some things they won’t do, they’re not able to do, and it should stay this way. Whereas with grown-up character, and grown-up actresses, to me it was like, ok, so now this is a new film, and I’m going to learn from them, because they’re professionals. And also, you know, I think this companionship with Adèle for a lot of years, I saw her growing as an actress.

Haenel: A lot.

Sciamma: And we were talking also about our intellectual process so I was really really confident that I would learn a lot from them. So that’s how you make it happen. And that was I think the process of Adèle’s philosophy for her character, or Noémie’s, it’s not about discussing this, it’s also about language that you build from scene to scene. 

And the first time Adèle spoke as her character, I was totally surprised at how she embodied it. And I said “Oh ok, this is a very strong position and now we’re going to work around that.” But also how she pitched her voice, like this was part of the process of building the character. I wanted Adèle to pitch her voice a little higher than usual, so she knew that, we talked about it, but we didn’t try it. We weren’t like “ha Ha HA” it wasn’t like that. It was like she just did it. And then, it was more and more accurate. 

And even in the process of post production, when we did post synchro. Like for instance, sometimes there’s this thing where you do post synchronization, and the actresses, they haven’t seen the film. Which I think is totally crazy. So they were the first ones to see the film. Even though we weren’t totally done with the editing, but so that they would see what we built together. And so there were things we had to re-do because of the sea, whatever, because of technical sound things. But there were also things that Adèle, watching the film, said “I wanna do this line again.” And I was like “Okay.” And we didn’t need to do it, I was happy with it, and the sound person was happy with it, but she said “I wanna do this in a different way.” And everything went “boom.” There’s like one word, there’s a “yes” on the beach, and she says “yes” when she says she wants to go to swim, and Noémie says “Do you know how to swim? Maybe when the sea will be more calm.” And she says “yes.” And that’s something that she wanted to re-do. And, there’s a miracle in that “yes” that really actually just broke my heart. And it’s just being more and more accurate in the process, in the whole process of making the film, even in post production. 

Haenel: It’s all about details, as well, as Noémie says. I mean, we have, like, ideas, but then we are, like, in the inner kitchen, it’s line after line, it’s scene after scene, and we are just always like, “okay, I want to reach that point, so I think I have to change the rhythm, I have to change the melody, I want to see less the actress and more the character.” For example, in this way also we re-did the line in post production, because I felt, I mean, I’m myself so I know, but I felt like oh, I was scared that my tongue would slip on that precise line so I can see that I’m a bit stressed and I don’t like this feeling because it brings back the actress and you lose a bit of character. So to say she’s settling the field, she settled it in a very….she has a very rhythmic way of thinking the direction of acting. Of course we are talking about emotions, we are talking about the main movement, but what Celine really cares about is about rhythm and about opening and closing. It’s like – you close, you open and you know that, like for example, she would pay attention, so much attention, if the scenes would end with an in or out breathing. 

For example, like “at this moment you have to…” for example I remember a gesture that Noémie should do at the end of the scene when she’s putting back the corset. She’s supposed to just make it tight again. And this was, for example, something that Sciamma really cares about, because she says “No, you do one, two, three, [makes pulling motion]” because she knows she will edit after. It seems like a bit simple, but it’s our meeting point on the scene, we had several meeting points like that. 

Filmmaker: One of the things you said was, the gazes, the looks, are like words. And when she first sits down and poses for you, that’s a very important moment that I didn’t realize until the second time. It’s like the end of the act there or something. Something very very important happens there. And this time I noticed something with you Noémie, what she was giving you and what you were giving her back. But I wanted to know if you remember this moment and what you were “playing” there when she first sits down to pose?

Sciamma: Well I remember we would say “Look at me,” which is, like, for the first time the painter and the model is here and the sentence the painter says is ‘Look at me.’ So it’s not about her looking at the model, so it’s this kind of paradox. We could say, pitching the scene would be it’s the first time she’s going to look at the model as a model, but it’s actually the first time the model is going to look at the painter. 

Filmmaker: Yes. 

Sciamma: That’s where suddenly she’s confronted to what she feels, and she’s moved. 

Filmmaker: Yeah, it’s like she’s looking at you for the first time in a way. 

Sciamma: Uh huh.

Merlant: And for the first time, like… I was looking at her to paint her in secret. So, at that moment when I ask, kind of, this order, ‘Look at me,’ I’m surprised and shocked by something that I couldn’t imagine, like, this is a detail, like I said, but this is where started everything, like, it’s the magic, you know, of love, because you’re surprised of something you were not expecting, and so I was trying to, as I was playing, I was trying to be like, ok, I will ask her, like really, I’m doing my job, I will ask her because I’m someone who likes to control things, to concentrate, so “look at me,” and then she looks at me and that’s the moment where starts the sharing. And that’s kind of a huge big thing. And so I was trying to open. You know it was all about open things. So open my eyes, and open my heart, and even just the air, something in the air, and receive Héloïse/Adèle, receive her in my environment, so I think it was it was something like that. 

Filmmaker: And it’s so perfect how, something so big as that, was played so finely, that you can just feel it.  

Haenel: I think it’s an in-breathing. She does like, when I talk she does this [makes breath noise]. Something like, something to do with the breathing in there. And I think this look, when they’re like [looks at Noémie] there’s something, just something you get instinct. 

Sciamma: But, the groove of the face, because in the shot-reverse-shot process, which is something that I’ve never done before. Very few shot-reverse-shots in my previous films. Well, I think we shot Adéle first. And so, then I have this as a reference, I know what she sent. Maybe she’s going to send something different when the camera is not on her, obviously, but I have this groove that she did. And so then also I can talk to Noami, cause it’s silence [MOS] and I can tell her, also like, “open your mouth.” Which is something that is really like an event, you know. “Open your mouth and breathe.” So we would also graft things on the moment based on what was happening between them, and half of it is not on camera, because we’re not on Adele. But, we have in mind what she did, and also so I could adjust also, and, even myself, be in the present. And so, yeah really about the breathing and looking, and so sometimes we could recreate like a whole package of looks and breathing and we would do it in the present. 

Haenel: I definitely want to say something. 


No, what I want to say is also the way that, I mean, it’s a detail, the fact that she opened her mouth, but it creates, like, the environment, the air becomes essential, there is something in the air because then you can feel like almost like a wave through the air, so it’s a way that it changes the quality of the atmosphere. And so paying attention, and that is what Celine does in her movies, really, like we say “ligne claire” for the comics, you know? 

Sciamma: Clear Line. 

Haenel: Clear line. And it’s all about clear line. So, then, because you pay attention to details, because there is no, like, if you look at the movie, the frame is empty, there’s no like thousands of stuff in the frame that are supposed to be there because it’s the 18th century so we put all that, like, stuff that are usually in the 18th century films, because everything is very significant. This is a way, also, to portray desire, because it changed the atmosphere of the room, and so we are now in the same water, we are now in the same atmosphere. This is also why I think it’s something very relevant in the way that Celine would direct us, because we don’t overplay because it’s very simple. It’s not about us, it’s about the air changing. 

Sciamma: And there’s a little bit of sound editing in the moment that is very discrete. A little bit of rain. Happening when Noémie opens her mouth. 

Filmmaker: Now I gotta see it again. 

Sciamma: Yeah.


Merlant: I think, if I can add something— I think all the movie is built like that, and so the acting too about sobrie—sober?

Sciamma: Sobriety? 

Merlant: Sobriety. Like for example the music. There is just, you know, the two musics and that’s all. And the fact that there were two musics it’s more profound, more deep, you wait to hear it because you feel the silence first and from the silence you feel the music. And it’s the same for the acting. It’s not like, if there were a lot of things in the play, it’s a different kind of acting, but when its too much, I think you imagine and fantas—and the erotic is less. Because everything is offered to you, and when you can just take the time, and this movie takes the time, and leave the silence and let all the details come, all the details of what we say and what we don’t say when we fall in love. How we look. How we touch. Everything comes out. And so it’s, I think, this acting in the… retenir?

Haenel: Holding back. 

Merlant: Holding back, in the acting, I think it’s really powerful. And you use more your imagination. And I think we need that. 

Haenel: It doesn’t all rely on us. It’s not like, separate bodies. Acting is about creating a new atmosphere, so, when we don’t find a solution…sometimes we don’t find a solution of expression to a specific emotion on our face or in our body, this is why, when I talk about the atmosphere, there’s also a certain…I don’t know how to say it… but it’s also about, not how we can change not our relationship between the two of us, but between us and the space. And this is also, like, the stakes for filmmakers to try to not only rely on the face of the actor or their separate body but try to create this common body. So good luck with that. 


Filmmaker: We have to talk about this because you’ve mentioned it a lot, and you’ve kind of talked about it— the joy. 

Sciamma: Well, it’s difficult to talk about joy, but, there was definitely the movie’s… [notices Adèle huffing]

[To Adèle] Do you want to speak?

Haenel: [To Sciamma] No. Because it’s an acting podcast, this is why I want to speak! 


Sciamma: You see, breathing is important!


You can’t decide…well, yes, you can decide that you’re going to be joyful. You know, it’s not something that happens because there’s magic. It’s like you have to commit to the fact that you’re going to have a good distance with things, that even though you’re doing something really really important for yourself, and maybe for the world, you know, hopefully, there’s not going to be that kind of tension, there’s not going to be a hierarchy of “this is important so we should be…” it’s really about deciding that things are going to be joyful, because then you’re going to be at that standard. So it’s not about we had large because we loved each other whatever, it’s a decision that you’re going to have a good distance, you’re going to be pissed off about silly things, like, for instance, I wanted gray weather. I went to Brittany because I wanted to be Brontë Sisters, I wanted it to be gray and rainy, and had this big sun, and I just said “well, that’s good news” because, why wouldn’t it be? I don’t know. It’s about not fetishizing what you’re going to do, and it’s about, yeah, deciding that this is going to be happy so you’re going to have a good distance with it. 

Haenel: And in the process of acting, it’s very important to get this lightness, because when acting strikes it’s like when you have your ideas, but there’s kind of like, yeah, it’s like a sparkle but it’s kind of like a lightness thing that is in life, even if you have a hard moment or whatever, there’s always this…you can face it actually…and for me joy is like, also believing that, whatever the shape—it’s doesn’t matter, there’s no perfect shape, but there is a good relationship to shape. You know what I mean? So art is not something that is….I don’t know how to say it….but there is no perfect shape, so you can relax with that, and just also try to do it, try to find the rhythm that would be the rhythm for the film and eternity, like this is it now, but when you do it you just know it’s because it was that day, and have this idea that we talked about before, about the dolly thing, for example, and you have your fellow actress, with whom you play, and, when you invent, it make you, there’s a little bit less weight on your shoulder when you have this perspective. 

Merlant: As you see, we are all excit[ed] about what we do. And I think when we create something we are happy. And when we create something, we have to be in the present moment, and it’s when you’re in the present moment that you have the good distance with things, so if you’re in the present moment you’re open to all the accidents and what can happen. And so, if you are in this spirit, and I think we all are because that’s how Celine wants to work, and she is the one who opened the thing first to let us all come, so then it was in joy and humor, love, in this shooting. Celine has a big capacity of, how do you say, jokes, and this is an important thing also, to put humor on what we do. 

Filmmaker: Yes. Céline Sciamma, Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant, thank you so much. 

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(Photo by: Arin Sang-urai (FB/general: Arin Sang-urai, IG: photojuice, Twitter: thatarin).

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