‘There’s no men in it and it p***es them off’
"There are no men in the film and that pisses off the men," French filmmaker Celine Sciamma says without a hint of malice or resentment, but maybe a touch of amusement.
"They're really not happy with the fact they're not on the screen. We're showing them what has been happening to us for 100 years of cinema."
Sciamma's film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, blew away the Cannes Film Festival in May, picking up two awards at the prestigious event before going on to wow audiences around the world.
The movie opens in Australia on Boxing Day, a passionate, urgent story of two women - painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and her reluctant subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel) - falling in love in 18th France on an isolated island estate.
It's masterful filmmaking from a director with an extraordinary eye for imagery and with an extraordinary perspective on a story that's not often told or shown.
And yes, there are no men in the film. Well, not no men, but certainly none of any significance. There's the boatload full of men that rows Marianne to the island in the film's opening moments and some men among the crowd at a concert in the closing scenes, but they don't have names or any relevance to the story - like many women in movies over the years.
Sciamma, talking to news.com.au over the phone, makes no apologies for the lack of testosterone on screen. Why would she? Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn't their story.
But, that kind of overtly feminist position, even a radical one, tends to attract criticism from the kind of men whose sense of masculinity is easily wounded and threatened.
Before Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma made three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood - all three are coming-of-age stories focused on female experiences or gender fluidity.
So the pissed off men isn't anything new to her.
Sciamma doesn't have any direct messages for those offended men, choosing instead to let her film do the talking.
"I'm already addressing them in (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)," she says. "I've spent my life making films, and they've hated me. That says a lot about them.
"They should have that information about themselves, it's always good to learn new things about yourself."
Sciamma has been working on the screenplay for Portrait of a Lady on Fire since before Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a total creep, alongside many, many other men, taking advantage of their privilege and position within long-established power structures that favour those born of a certain sex.
But even though its genesis was before the MeToo era, Sciamma says her film was "nourished by this feeling of 'it's now, it has to be now'". And it does feel contemporary, despite its setting 200-plus years ago.
Sciamma says she was "totally obsessed" with the idea that "it be set in the past but be contemporary" and not a period piece.
"I always thought the film would be contemporary because we are also relying on a story that hasn't been told from that perspective," she said.
"This is like a new imagery of love, and I think it's a new imagery regarding representation, but you know people can connect to that and know they're being seen.
"The film is about the power dynamic of the gaze and I want people to feel seen, like the movie is looking at them and their stories."
Sciamma's burning film about queer love could only be made because she could ensure the independence and integrity of the production. Sciamma says she's extremely secretive about her work, and only ever shows her script to her team and no one else until the movie is finished and ready to be seen.
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She also credits France's public funding system for filmmakers.
"There was a way to make it without compromises, without the economic pressure. That's how your film gets into trouble," Sciamma says. "We have a strong public system so scripts with quality can be chosen, it's not just about the market. Otherwise, you can't be radical."
Sciamma says she uses the word radical to describe her film not only to be challenging. She argues radicalism can be "a form of generosity, it can be warm".
That warmth is extended to what she hopes audiences will gain from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, even the men.
"I hope it reflects on themselves," she says. "I always wish for the audience to feel less lonely when they leave the room. To have the film as a companion, as a shelter for themselves.
"Especially when it's a love story, you have people's hearts in your hands. The film really tries to show very carefully what it's like to fall in love, to give sensations. I want the audience to feel their body."
Now, how can anyone argue with that?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in select cinemas on Boxing Day.