The Artist Behind the Paintings At the Heart of "Portrait of a Lady On Fire"

The painter Hélène Delmaire's work (and her hands!) feature heavily in the award-winning film.

by Christopher L. Inoa
Nov 24 2019, 10:45am

When the film director Céline Sciamma reached out to Hélène Delmaire via email, saying she was looking for a painter for her next film, the 32-year-old oil painter had no idea who she was. After meeting her, reading the screenplay, and seeing her previous work, Delmaire agreed to lend her hand (literally) in helping Sciamma achiever her vision. What Delmaire, whose work has shown in galleries in both Europe and North America didn’t realize, was that she would play a major part in one of the most acclaimed love stories in recent memory.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of two women living in 18th century France: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the latter the daughter of a countess whose marriage portrait Marianne is secretly commissioned to paint. Since premiering at Cannes where it earned the award for Best Screenplay, along with the Queer Palm, it has moved and enraptured critics and audiences in festivals around the globe.

When it came to filming the painting of the portrait, Sciamma wanted to do away with dissolves and other editing tricks. “She didn’t want to cheat,” Delmaire said. Meaning that every time the camera shows us the canvas, it is Delmaire’s hand we see brushing the canvas in real time.

With the film releasing on December 6th, GARAGE spoke to Delmaire about her time working on the film, other works of art she did for the production, and where all those portraits ended up.

When filming the portrait scenes, how close was the camera to you?
She [cinematographer Claire Mathon] was right behind me. I couldn't actually move very much and I had to be slightly at an angle, which was quite tricky as I had to be careful not to revert back to my natural position, otherwise I'd hear “move your head” (laughs) It's quite strange but you get used to it pretty quickly.

Did you have to paint multiple portraits?
Oh my god so many. I can paint it by heart now. I had to do one different portrait for each sequence of the film, which ended up being six or seven versions of each of the main two portraits, which is an enormous amount of work.

How many hours do you think the whole process took?
I think I worked 16 hours straight for three months straight, including weekends. It's the most work I've done in my whole life in that amount of time.

Did you also do the drawing of Marianne that’s inside the book?
I did pretty much all the paintings except the one that's without a face. Céline and the actresses would work out how the scene was going to go. Once that was set up, I’d come, take a photo and while they were shooting the scenes, I went to a little corner of the castle and did my sketches.

A still from "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"

Did Adèle model for you?
She only posed for photos, she hated it actually. She’s an actress, she’s not static, she has to be moving all the time. So even sitting down for the photos was quite tricky for her, which was amusing actually.

What happened to the portraits once the film wrapped?
A couple of them are hanging in Céline’s house. Some of them are going to the Centre National du cinéma [et de l'image animée] Archive. I'm gonna get like two or three of them, hopefully Adèle will get one.

Tell us about about the painting that gives the film its title?
That's my favorite one. It just worked. Sometimes you struggle a lot on a piece and then sometimes things just seem to work themselves out seamlessly and that was the case for that painting. I think Céline kept that one.

This is the first time you’ve ever worked on a film and it's one that has gotten to travel around the world and gained a lot of attention. How does that feel for you?
I’m really pleased to have been a “stone in the building” as we say in French. I got to witness the making of the film from the beginning, even before the beginning to the end. While we were filming I told myself, I would never do this again, even for a million dollars. And then a few months later, after you’ve moved on with your life, you see the finished product and your mind is blown. It was crazy going to Cannes with the crew, I felt like I was at the carnival. It was teamwork, which I never get to do as my work is really solitary, so it's nice to be a part of something that's way bigger than yourself.

Cannes Film Festival