One of the most unforgettable scenes in Portrait of a Lady on Fire arrives at the very beginning of the film, when Noémie Merlant’s 18th-century portrait painter hitches up her skirts and plunges from a boat into the icy sea to retrieve her box of canvases. For many actors the prospect of swimming in the cold waters of Brittany might repel, but not so for Merlant. “I’m a Breton, so I love cold water,” she says. “It was the first day of shooting, and you could say that, like the film, it was a dive into the unknown.”
In terms of Merlant’s career, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019, made a hefty splash. Overnight, Merlant went from being relatively unknown to one of France’s most in-demand young actresses.
Merlant’s latest role is as Nora in French director Jacques Audiard’s rapturous black-and-white dramedy Paris, 13th District. The screenplay, which explores the interlocking lives of several lovelorn millennials, was written by Audiard, Léa Mysius, and Céline Sciamma, who also wrote and directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Nora arrives in Paris from the provinces to pick up her studies again after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend. Merlant, who moved to Paris from Nantes at the age of 17, to model and then study acting at the Cours Florent drama school, found herself identifying with the part on several levels. Like Nora, “I [too] felt like a bit of a hick,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t cultivated enough because I didn’t know a lot about fashion or theater and films.”
In the film Nora abandons her studies and becomes a real-estate agent. As it were, both of Merlant’s parents worked as real-estate agents. “It was a coincidence,” Merlant says. “But I did tell Jacques [Audiard] during rehearsals, and I did actually rework some of the dialogue in those scenes with my mother, which was amusing.”
Merlant, now 33, is no stranger to screenwriting or directing. Her feature-filmmaking debut, Mi Iubita, Mon Amour, was well reviewed when it premiered at Cannes last year, and she is now finishing off the screenplay for her second film, Les Femmes au Balcon, which will be set in Marseilles.
More recently, Merlant had the opportunity to act in English for the first time alongside one of her heroes, Cate Blanchett. The upcoming film, premiering this fall, is American director Todd Field’s long-awaited comeback, Tár, in which Blanchett plays a world-renowned composer and conductor.
Merlant tries not to think too much about the turn her career has taken since Portrait of a Lady on Fire came along. “I prefer to take things step-by-step,” she says. “I’m lucky because I made it, but at the beginning I thought that I never would.”
Paris, 13th District hits theaters on April 15
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books