The moment comes just a little past the halfway mark of the two-hour “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) have yet to acknowledge their growing desire when they are brought to an evening gathering of the women who live on the isolated island in Brittany. As the two soon-to-be-lovers exchange glances across the bonfire, a low, slow chant starts to rise as the rest of the women gather to sing.
The song grows, clapping starts, and they begin to repeat a lyric. When she was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, director Céline Sciamma talked about how she looked for an 18th century song to adapt, but wasn’t able to find one that fit her needs.
“I listened to a lot of old melodies from the time; some of them we are still singing to our kids to bed,” said Sciamma. “But I wanted it to be kind of a trance, I wanted the BPMs to be very high, and didn’t find something. It was all very instrumental, and I wanted no instruments. I wanted just the voice and the clapping of women.”
[You can listen to the song, which plays during the second half of the trailer below].
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In an effort to get a song that had the beats per minute, polyphonic, and polyrhythmic qualities she needed, Sciamma decided to write the lyrics herself.
“I wrote the lyrics in Latin. They’re saying, ‘fugere non possum,’ which means ‘they come fly,'” said Sciamma. “It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.'”
As important as the love that develops between the two women is the backdrop that enables it: Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), who is trying to marry off her daughter with the aid of Marianne’s portrait, has left. The barriers between artist, maiden, and their servant (Luàna Bajrami) break down. In the scene prior, we watch the three women relax together as they prepare a meal, drink wine, and debate Ovid’s version of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth. The scene that follows literally sets Marianne and Héloïse’s love aflame against an even larger scene of sorority. That was a specific choice by Sciamma.
“There’s a lot of lines that are merging at that moment,” she said. “This group of women, this big sorority that actually accompanies them, and taking the leap of love. There’s also literally the incarnation of the film; it’s very literal. They are facing one another, there’s fire between them, and one of them is going to be on fire, for real. I’m not spoiling because it’s on the poster. It’s also the moment where the film shows how literal it is, and that we’re going to set fire to the characters. The mise-en-scène is totally [consuming]. There’s no special effects; everything is done practical. So it’s also this idea of cinema.”
Sciamma described the scene as the film’s clear turning point. The transition from putting out the fire on Héloïse’s dress is a fluid match cut to the lovers leading each other to their hidden spot on the beach where they will finally kiss. In addition to mirroring the rising of emotions that propel the transition, Sciamma also wanted the chanting and gathering around the fire to reference the 18th-century concept of witchcraft.
“It was a way to also convoke the imagery [of] witches,” said Sciamma. “In the meantime saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s just women gathering, living their friendship, exchanging knowledge, wise women, doctors, whatever, and, you know, drinking. It’s cold, so there’s a fire, and they might do drugs, you know, they fly. We wanted to convoke the imagery around witches.”
Prior to this scene, there is no music in the film. Sciamma knew that decision would force her to find the musicality in the rhythm of the scenes and movements of the actors. In directing her leads, she would even count out the number of steps they would take toward one another, so as to control the tempo and pace.
“Thinking about making a love story without music was really frightening,” Sciamma admitted. “Because every love story we know, we think about ‘Titanic’ we think about the music, we think about ‘Gone with the Wind’ we think about the music, we think about ‘E.T.’ we think about the music, and every love story has its own tune, ‘That’s our song.'”
In the film, Héloïse asks the far more worldly Marianne about music, which she dreams about, but has never heard. Sciamma’s choice to deny the audience music stemmed from wanting to place us in the character’s perspective, as well as the ideas of the film itself.
“The movie is also talking about the connection between love and art, and how love makes you love art,” said Sciamma. “I wanted the audience to be in the same position as the characters that they are frustrated because they don’t have access to beauty, in general, and to art in particular, so that was to put the viewer in the same physical condition and frustration regarding music, so when it occurs, it’s something.”
And it is really something. It’s one of the most powerful musical moments in recent cinema.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.