When director Céline Sciamma envisioned the sea-wind swept Brittany that defines the setting and atmosphere of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” she imagined something quite different than what she got.
“We went there because we wanted the grey sky, and it was very sunny,” said Sciamma. “And we felt, ‘OK, it’s a blessing for the film.’ It should be luminous.”
The challenge for Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon then became how to bring that luminous light back to the film’s interior scenes. While the film takes place in Brittany, where they shot many exteriors, much of the action centers inside an 18th-century castle. They found a perfect specimen: Unlike many other estates scouted for the film, this one, located in a Parisian suburb, hadn’t been restored, or used for weddings and lavish events. It had largely gone untouched, with paint, color, texture and a weathered facade that was perfect.
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“There were so many discussions about the choice of the set,” said Mathon. “Céline wanted to do mostly longer shots. We [chose] a complicated set, but it was so exciting, inspiring. The volume, the colors, the existing materials and the purity of the decor — it was exactly the aim of the film.”
However, Mathon would need a great deal of light. Further complicating matters: Her grips were extremely limited in where they could hang lights and flags because the deserted castle was a historical monument. Everything would need to be on stands. The large main room — the workshop/bedroom where the portrait is painted and the love affair unfolds — was more than 25 feet above a courtyard on one side, and more than 50 feet above a moat on the other.
The solution: Build an enormous platform, and light it from outside the windows. It was a bold move for the low-budget film. Not only did the lighting setup consume a chunk of the production budget, it also cost time.
“It was a big production decision because the movie is cheap. It has a low budget [for a] period piece, and that was a decision because we didn’t want to make any compromise in the way we worked,” said Sciamma. “The lighting took a lot of time, which is a difficult decision because then you have less time to shoot the scene. Still, [Mathon] could work very, very precisely with a lot of lights. I couldn’t see the lights. It felt like magic; you didn’t see anything, There was no light in the room, but it was so accurate.”
One reason Sciamma could sacrifice shooting time is she designed shots to be longer, well-choreographed takes that required few setups. And, what she wanted from Mathon’s cinematography required tremendous control of the light.
“We wanted the light,” said Sciamma. “We were very obsessive… The light would seem to come out of the character.”
Mathon and Sciamma made pre-production trips to galleries to study portraits by female painters of the era. Mathon was inspired by how the subjects’ skin was rendered, and its texture, but not necessarily by the light. “I thought that it was as if we never felt the light,” said Mathon. “I tried to de-emphasize the light’s directionality by working on an all-encompassing softness and to capture the variations, the slightest trembling, to reveal their redness, to feel their emotions without ever letting the light take over. It was as if the light emanated from the faces. Whatever their positions, I tried to keep this same non-realistic look.”
With a strong light source from the windows that she could control, Mathon shaped and softened it with an elaborate combination of flags and diffusion. No matter where the two actresses turned or walked, the light would seem as if emanated from them. Mathon worked to maintain contrast in the frame that accentuated the dynamic sense of the location’s space, but keeping all contrast (which indicates light coming from a specific direction) off the actresses’ faces.
“The rendering of skin color was primordial in my work. The study of portraits encouraged me to find our own tools, our palette,” said Mathon. “I sought both softness, with no hard shadows, a slightly satiny and non-realistic result that remains natural and extremely living. The makeup artist and I together took the time to visualize this mix of lens, lighting, filters, and makeup over the course of several tests with the actresses and the costumes. We had to blur the raw and contemporary aspect of the faces, while keeping the precision and the nuances of the colors, but finding a rendering of the skin that would bring a bit of the period into the image through its pictoriality. We often discussed the faces in terms of landscapes.”
Their skin had a texture that suggested an oil painting, and the color was detailed and heightened. The goal was finding the right combination of tools (including a satin filter) to accomplish this in-camera rather in post-production.
“We [chose] to shoot with the Red Monstro camera, Leitz Thalia lenses, and used a film-look LUT after our first tests,” said Mathon. “The huge colors were one important reason for our choice. The film look enhanced the cyan that I liked very much in balance with the red and the green dresses.”
The large sensor (the film was shot in 7K) on the Monstro, combined with the lenses and LUT, produced the skin tone Mathon wanted. Yet the choice to shoot digitally went beyond the way the Monstro rendered color, creating a “contemporary echo” to the film.
“With Celine, we chose to shoot digitally for the actual resonance it gave to the film, combining memories and period films,” said Mathon. “We were talking about re-inventing and enhancing our 18th century image to current realities.”
For evening interiors, Sciamma and Mathon required the same exactness in creating the period-accurate candlelight.
“The nights were all about putting lights in the room and inventing [candlelight], without any candles being in the frame,” said Sciamma. “It’s the big decision when doing a period film: What are you doing with the candles? Is there somebody holding them? You can look at period pieces and see the different choices, and Kubrick has figured it out [in “Barry Lyndon”], as always. But it was a totally different process [from the daylight interiors]. The night shots were mostly long takes with dollies, and so it was also very, very accurate in [terms of the] lighting, little lights everywhere, and we were surrounded by the lights. You couldn’t move.”
One of the things that Sciamma and Mathon took from their study of the portraits was the inherent relationship between painter and subject. “We were touched by the meeting between the model and the painter’s look,” said Mathon. “And we often spoke about the simplicity, the apparent simplicity.”
That also lay at the heart of Sciamma’s exploration of portraiture, cinema, and the spark of desire that becomes love in the film. When she was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, the director talked about wanting to patiently chronicle the rise of desire and to feel what it was like to be in the presence of that desire as it turns to love.
“Filming the dialectic of the gazes, the force of attraction between the two women, was one of the subjects of my work,” said Mathon. “I had to try to be a camera that looks, that peers and to always find the correct centering of the faces within the frame. Céline wanted to make this proximity palpable. We had to look at these faces and not to frame them. To be with them.”
Sciamma and Mathon re-watched some of Ingmar Bergman’s films to study how he filmed women with a unique proximity and intimacy. Here, the director and cinematographer decided their camera should linger, almost as if reading the actresses’ thoughts and desires. So much of this came from Sciamma’s careful staging with the actresses, dictating even the number of footsteps each would take as she controlled the building tension and release between lovers.
“Céline’s directing style is very precise and the image is one element of that,” said Mathon. “The long takes of the two actresses were extremely choreographed, down to the millimeter of the position of their faces in relation to one another.”
Sciamma supplied Mathon with a detailed technical breakdown of each scenario, allowing the cinematographer to spend time visualizing the camera movements.
“I always tried to immerse myself in the scene, in Céline’s thoughts. We always searched for the shots with the camera. We worked a great deal on the rhythm of the shots. It was really an amazing collaboration,” said Mathon. “The relationship that I have with Céline is truly one of the cinema. We have a shared pleasure and faith in cinematography and in cinematographic fabrication.”