Le Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu, known in English-speaking countries as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is equally igniting screens across the world, winning the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. Céline Sciamma’s elemental lesbian love story tells the tale of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) her reluctant muse on the cusp of an arranged marriage in 18th century France. The love between the pair sparks amidst the lonely cliffs of Brittany, but blossoms into flame under the sheltering roof of Héloïse’s ancestral château, in a woman-only oasis before the heiress is sent to Milan to marry a man she not only doesn’t love, but doesn’t know.
Amidst the crashing water, crackling fire and breathless passion is the stone castle. Set along the Breton coast, the home is actually just about an hour from Paris, in lush Seine-et-Marne—and best of all, the Château de La Chapelle Gauthier will soon be open to visitors. (Some spoilers ahead)
"Thanks to Céline Sciamma, we were able to transport our castle to the seaside," quipped Maryline Alguacil-Preslier, deputy mayor of La Chapelle-Gauthier in charge of culture, “Last August, we were contacted by an agent who was looking for a 17th or 18th century castle, not too flashy or too far from Paris for this film.”
The moody Breton seaside adds a gothic layer of nostalgia to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. However, the aura of the Château de La Chapelle Gauthier lends a similar vibe to the tale, which takes elements from Orpheus and Eurydice and replaces the underworld for this handsome estate. Filming principly took place in the grand hall, library, workshop, and grand staircase, mostly in the West Wing of the 17th century castle, according to Alguacil-Preslier
In the film the château seems mostly devoid of furnishings, enhancing the intimacy between the all-female cast as well as allowing the spartan beauty of the blond bricks to shine. The castle acts as the perfect frame for the last few days of Héloïse’s freedom, echoing the homosocial freedom of the convent school she just left as she begins a whole new instruction, falling in love with her portraitist.
Despite the obvious beauty of the castle matching the same bittersweet elements of the story, director Sciamma did note some challenges to filming in the Château de La Chapelle Gauthier:
“There was the interior work, for which we have mobilized a lot of light. The castle was not an easy place to illuminate. There was a first floor with a moat, so we had an incredible structure with a lot of projectors, necessitating a very very great deal of precision. With this idea, what we captured is less in pictorial references than inventing them. Inventing our image.”
The château in brick and mortar
The mayor’s office, which rests in the East Wing of the château, promises that the castle will soon be open to visitors. Alguacil-Preslier notes that the workshop and the grand kitchen have retained some of the set pieces of the film, which will be of special interest to cinephiles, not to mention LGBT travelers, interested in taking the guided tours.
Since 2019, the Château de La Chapelle has participated in the Nuits des Châteaux, an event in which 100 castles throughout France welcome visitors through their doors for attractions and shows under the stars. The château plans to participate again in the fall of 2020.
If you’d like to help this beautiful setting from the Portrait of a Lady on Fire meantime, the castle is accepting donations through the Mission Stéphane Bern, associated with Fondation du Patrimoine. The representatives are hoping to raise 51,890€ to restore various elements of the structure, including the beloved Tour Carrée (Square Tower).