Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Reassessing “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: NEON

With awards season already underway, let’s look at a film that received over 80 world-wide award nominations and over 25 wins. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” received its wide release two years ago next month, in February of 2020.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” tells the story of two women who fall in love while trapped on an island together. One, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is set to marry a man she has never met. Before the wedding can happen, her would-be husband wants to see what she looks like. In 18th century France – long before the photograph – the only way to appease this rich man is with a portrait that Héloïse doesn’t want to sit for. The other woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is hired to paint this portrait without Héloïse knowing.

What transpires over the course of the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. Shot in digital 7K by cinematographer Claire Mathon, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” looks simultaneously classic and modern. With the crisp visuals of digital combined with the painterly colors of celluloid, this is a truly beautiful film.

Captured in only 38 days, this movie redefines the female gaze and turns cinema’s longstanding depiction of love on its ear. Instead of the usual love story with a power imbalance between pursuer and pursued, Sciamma created a love story built on equality.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, let’s look through the COVID lens at one of 21st century cinema’s greatest love stories, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

To help illustrate what this instant-classic can teach us about pandemic safety on set, we’ve broken things down into three parts:

  • Safety first: what makes this movie safe
  • Counting steps: the importance of detailed shooting scripts  
  • Fresh Perspectives: 2022 considerations

Safety First: What Makes This Movie Safe

Much like “Before Sunrise,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is nearly as safe a film as one can make during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s look at three big reasons why:

  • Location Control
  • Cast Size
  • Short Schedule

Location Control

From the very beginning of this series, we have emphasized the importance of location control. In order to establish a safe set, we must be able to set up several different layers of safety. To do this, we must have complete control of the location.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was shot on two communes – the island commune of Saint-Pierre-Quiberon and the Île-de-France region’s La Chapelle-Gauthier. This allowed for spectacular levels of location control and cast isolation.

By filming in sparsely populated areas that allowed for maximum control of each and every location, Sciamma and company created a very safe filming environment.

Cast Size

Not only does this production have the safety that location control brings, but it also has the added safety of a small cast. With the exception of the framing device, the epic bonfire, and the final scenes, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is made up entirely of two-to-three person scenes. The credited cast is only eight names long.

When we can keep our cast size small, we can keep our sets from getting crowded. Uncrowded sets are safer sets in a pandemic. They allow for more social distancing and better air flow. Not all movies can have casts this small, but all of us should focus on limiting the number of characters in each scene when possible.

Short Schedule

Principal photography lasts, on average, 106 days. Sciamma wrapped in just 38. As we have mentioned before, the riskiest portion of a production is principal photography. Pre-production and post, while not without their special safety issues, are far safer than production.

By filming “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in less than forty days, Sciamma limited the amount of time her actors and crew members were exposed to the risks of production. Sciamma moved her story quickly from pre-production to post and, in so doing, made her film much safer from a pandemic perspective.

The real secret weapon – the thing that allowed Sciamma to shoot so quickly – is her extremely detailed script.

Counting Steps: The Safety of a Good Script

It is no secret that scripts are a dime a dozen in the entertainment industry. But good scripts are rare. In a pandemic, a good script can also ensure safety.

More often than not, films go into production with a sub-par screenplay and fix things on the fly. This reduces the amount of possible pre-planning and increases risks, especially during a pandemic.

Sciamma’s script for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was so detailed in would often capture the rhythm of the scene down to tiny details. Sciamma can be seen in this clip talking about the difference between five steps and six and how that affects the mood of the story.

Good scripts allow for a more thorough pre-production process which, in turn, allows for more precise planning. Precise planning makes for safer filming. Few scripts are as tight as Sciamma’s is here, but we must take the time to make our scripts as polished as we can before we enter pre-production.

It is her beautifully crafted screenplay that allowed Sciamma to plan her shoot so painstakingly. The script is a major reason why she could wrap production in just 38 days. The hidden value of a good script is just how much safer it can make a production. 

Fresh Perspectives: 2022 Considerations

If we were to shoot “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” today, there are a few scenes that we would want to highlight during pre-production and offer ways to make them safer.  

  • The Framing Device: The movie opens with a scene in an art class and returns to it near the end of the film. These scenes have, for this movie, a large cast. At a minimum, we would want to ensure that the ventilation system in this space gets upgraded. We would alternatively suggest that the creative team think about staging these scenes in an open air studio to maximize air flow.
  • The Museum Scene: This is the most crowded scene in the whole movie. While the crowd certainly adds tension and production value, we might suggest making it a less well attended event to allow for better spacing and less contact between actors.  
  • The Final Scene: No spoilers here, but this final scene is a close second for most crowded scene the movie. With a slightly tighter framing at the opening, we could eliminate the need for so many background actors. This would make the scene dramatically safer.

Final Thoughts

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” began with a spectacular screenplay that was detailed and precise. This, by itself, created a safer production. By filming in locations that offered full control, keeping the cast size small, and wrapping production in just 38 days, the creative team managed to maximize safety.

When translated into English, the lyrics to the haunting song in the unforgettable bonfire scene are “I cannot escape. I cannot fly.” But the final lines translate to “We will rise.” These words capture to dichotomy of despair and hope that the women in this story face. They also perfectly capture the feeling of living through this seemingly never-ending pandemic. When we look at the present, we might feel trapped. When we look to the future, we can see escape. Here’s to the future. Join us later this season for more Through the Covid Lens. Until then, have a Happy Valentine’s Day and stay safe everyone.  

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.