The Quiet Power of Céline Sciamma’s Films

Love is unsure. Love is questioning. Love is rebellion, and love is patient. We run off of these cliffs with adrenaline rushing, hearts pumping, as we wonder how we feel. We mustn’t war with how we feel. We must let it all tumble out because love is messy, love is real. We see stories as old as time repeated and reworked into a web of interpretations and rewrites, but the bones are the same. It is all so rarely real within these fictions, often so derived they are no longer human. Céline Sciamma‘s films have a particular truth to them, one focused on telling personal stories. Her films are made to be connected with, and she says they are meant to be what she wishes she had to look up to when she was younger. It’s not surprising that the following she has gained is often women- not because her films are inherently feminine, but because she wants her films to be recognized by personal experiences. This is an approach often scorned by those who think they can choose who is an auteur, despite her one-woman writing and directing show being the exact definition of auteurism.

An open lesbian herself, Sciamma often focuses on the nuances of female sexuality. She strives to tell women’s stories that aren’t in media. An early focus on young women discovering their sexuality, homosexuality in particular, is a perfect example. At a NYFF Q&A for her most recent film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma said, “there is a shortage of films about grown women falling in love”, and then quipped “I’ve made four of them”. Even her coming of age stories have an adult understanding of the characters. She does not infantilize them, even when they are as young as 11, letting the young girls on her earlier films figure their lives out themselves, with little interaction from adults. This independence is a recurring theme, with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her first film led by adult women, instead showing this independence by not having male characters. It’s not that these parts of her worlds don’t exist, they are instead a background presence, a looming force instead of something to connect with.

Each film has its own thesis to it, something of a mission statement for what part of girlhood she wants to show. After her coming-of-age trilogy, Sciamma says she’s done making films about teenagers. She often draws from her own life when writing her scripts, and is most successful when doing so. Her first and fourth films, both collaborations with Adèle Haenel, are bookends of one love, one life. This life begins with the discovery, and ends with the acceptance, and carries on into the night outside the theater.

It’s all about self discovery. Water Lilies, whose original French title translates to “Birth of the Octopus,” comes from a script written as a graduation project. Centered on three fifteen year old girls, the world of these children is shown without adult interference. We follow Marie (Pauline Acquart) as she fixates upon Floriane (the first of a series of collaborations with Adèle Haenel) in the locker rooms between synchronized swimming competitions. Grown-ups are only seen in passing or heard from the peripherals, letting the intersection between these girls’ lives take center stage. Marie’s friend, Anne (Louise Blachère) is a third term of this equation, another kind of longing in this world of messy feelings.

Floriane is a primitive object of desire, one who is herself complicated. She toys with Marie, pretending she is leading her on for power, because maybe that will help her convince herself she isn’t the same way. She flings herself towards people, but only sticks if she thinks it’ll help. Floriane hides behind this mask of perfection, the guise of being desired by all, but aloof to most. The only desire she fully returns is from Marie, but this doesn’t fit her image, so she pushes her away again in the end, because despite her confident face she puts forward, she too is scared of her own lesbianism.

Water Lilies is shot in my hometown, it’s about the rise of a lesbian desire with a girl looking better than me, the cinema version of myself,” Sciamma says on the subject of films made from personal experience. It’s quietly devastating, especially if you relate, to see the two girls want the same thing but struggle to express how they feel. The quote that sums it all up may well be “imagine the number of people with ceilings in their eyes.”  These ceilings are different for everyone, but it’s about the universality of it all. It’s not just about two girls lying on their backs in a pool, looking up and dreaming. It’s about dreaming about not being alone, dreaming that the girl you like feels the same way, and that the world won’t fight you. These ceilings stop us from all looking up at the same sky, we instead see the structure exclusive to our own lives instead of the same sky as everyone else like us. It’s about making the tiny specific experiences universal, about finding companionship in the loneliness.

It’s about perception. Tomboy is another film Sciamma has described as somewhat semi- autobiographical, and it’s an intimate look at the life of young children. Laure has moved to a new suburb with their family, and by androgynous appearance is mistaken for a boy. Known as Laure to family, and Mickaël to the neighborhood kids, they enter the social world of the other children under a new identity. Lead actress Zoé Héran is fantastic in her role, and most of her friends in the film are her real life friends brought on set. It’s touches like these that make the realism of Sciamma’s early work so special. It’s all about the power dynamics between children, and that hierarchy of ‘boys are better’ talk that is heard from young kids, and how that can affect a child who may be struggling to understand gender.

It is purposefully vague as to what the youth is experiencing. Young enough that Laure (named after Sciamma’s brother, Laurent) doesn’t know how to define who they are, and Sciamma doesn’t define this either. In a 2011 interview with Pop Matters,  she said “It’s just that at that time everything is open, so you can play with identity. When you are older, you have to choose. They make you choose. At that time of life, everybody can play with identity. It’s more open. So that’s why I like it, because it’s common to a lot of people.” She went on to say, “I really like to work on empathy and identification, and so I want everybody to connect and say, ‘This is the childhood of today, but this could be my childhood as well.”‘ It’s a kind of rare authenticity yet again; not everyone immediately figures out who they are and has a word for it, and often a young child’s perception of themself will change. It broadens the relatability of the film. More can say “ow! This was me!” and no one experience will be any more right than the other. The parents are not ignorant that their child is moving through the world as a boy; they only know their child is a tomboy, and the rest of the secret is kept away from them. Star Zoé Héran is opinionated when the film is strictly defined as that of a transgender boy, tweeting that people “have trouble understanding that this film is not about a little boy trapped in the body of a girl but a tomboy girl?” Perhaps the question of what it means is answered where Héran’s character’s girlfriend accepts that she is with a girl, but the road to get there, filled with the messiness of young identity, is still present.

Tomboy is unique, as it is the only one of her films without a French title. This is no accident; in French, the closest synonym for tomboy is “garçon manqué,” or “failed boy.” The cultural context of the phrase in France is often more derogatory, and by avoiding that translation, she makes the film more welcoming, almost a safe space. Its young protagonists, and relevant social themes, have led to the film being used in primary and secondary schools for educational purposes, but this hasn’t been without pushback. Conservative parents groups rose back against the film, protesting it for promoting the “gay agenda” to their children. Perhaps it is exactly as planned, as Sciamma says she secretly dreamed it would become a family movie, even if her production team didn’t plan on it. She says she had received calls from parents who say the film had helped them to better understand their own children and gender identity; yet another instance of her films making a tangible impact.

Of course, at a point in promotion of the film, Sciamma does define what the story is about a bit more firmly. In the aforementioned Pop Matters interview, she refers to Laure’s story as “a little girl pretending to be a little boy” (this is also why we primarily use this name for the character, as this is what she uses when discussing the film as recently as February of 2020). Even if the film is not made to depict a transgender child, but a young girl struggling with gender expectations, it is important not to ignore the connection many trans viewers have to the film. When our young protagonist is made to wear a dress, they look out of place and uncomfortable, forced to conform to the stereotypes of assigned gender. It’s an intimate and personal film for many, so discounting a reading by marginalized voices who relate to the film on a personal level, even if it is not the original intention, does it a disservice.

It’s all about belonging. Girlhood is both a high and a low in her career, combining stunning production and rich, lush colors with a storyline some have called misguided. The story of a group of young black girls learning about friendship, boys, and how they relate to their world from the Paris banlieues is much more stylized than her previous near-neorealism. It uses bright reds and blues, a saturated, over-indulgent look that is both eye-catching and almost over-romanticising at times. Some have praised the film for how it lets black girls simply exist without their race being the entire focus of the story, while others have criticized it as part of a “trauma porn” genre of white French filmmakers only focusing on black people in poverty or other trying scenarios.

Quite unlike the minimalism of Sciamma’s previous films, Girlhood has soaring moments in its dive into female friendship. The emotional crux of the film is where Marieme (incredibly talented newcomer Karidja Touré) and her newfound group of friends dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a dark room together. The girls are bathed in blue light, and glow as the ecstasy of togetherness spreads over their faces. There is pure light in that sequence, light and life, enough to convince Rihanna herself to let Sciamma use the track after previous difficulties getting the rights. The film has many triumphant, euphoria-filled moments like this, times where the world is put aside so the young women onscreen can simply exist together, balancing the pain present in Marieme’s home life.

We certainly should not be discounting the views of French black women on how they are represented in Girlhood. Writer Kelechi Urama says it is “not groundbreaking because it adheres to a preexisting narrative that is only interested in urban black girls as victims.” Many have said that the film retreads the same narratives of how young black girls are viewed (two more great explanations can be found from Aude Konan here and here), yet again from an inauthentic point of view. “Remember that time we went to Disneyland?” Marieme asks, reminiscing about a scene viewers never see. “I stopped and watched you,” she tells them. “You were happy. You were beautiful.” It’s a shame Sciamma chose not to make that film instead.” Urama later says. Perhaps the film should’ve gone this route, one that would challenge the stereotypes present, and no longer reinforce this exploitation of trauma. When asked if she is curious to explore other lives, Sciamma says “Girlhood, that’s it.” She considers the film a sort of experiment, one in telling a story that was not hers that didn’t go as planned.

Sciamma’s career took a detour for a few years in preparation for her magnum opus. She wrote screenplays for other filmmakers, focusing on many of the same themes as before, but with male protagonists for the first time. Animated film My Life as a Zucchini was nominated for an Oscar in 2018, leading to Sciamma receiving an invite to join the Academy. The claymation film follows a young abused boy who goes by the name “Zucchini,” who accidentally kills his mother and goes off to live in an orphanage. There he meets a cast of characters, children that all have their own tragic backstories, but learn to heal and bond together. She also worked on André Téchiné’s Being 17, another same-sex romance coming of age film, but this time with young boys. It’s notable that these collaborations focus on male adolescence unlike her directing work, perhaps a window into how many more men have these stories told.

It is within this time that she took a new direction, one into her most labor-intensive, and luckily most acclaimed, crown jewel. Portrait of a Lady on Fire took far longer to write, and with reason. In a BFI Screenwriter’s Series Lecture, Sciamma said, in regards to the heart-shattering ending, “This was the first thing. And also I gave up on this film, I thought about it for two years and I gave up at some point, completely gave up, called my producer and said I’m not doing this, it’s too bad but I think it’s better. And it’s because of that scene, that last scene that I thought I had to do that scene. I have to do it, I just have to find a way to make it work.” This determination led to a slow-burn romantic epic with immense fragility, one that throws its soul into the love between the two leads.

It’s all about balance. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sort of capstone to Sciamma’s career. A dawn of a new era. It is a romantic epic on a sweeping scale, yet it is still gently intimate and personal. Following a young painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who must paint a wedding portrait of the stubborn, headstrong Héloïse in secret, it is a tale as old as time, yet born anew by viewpoint. The two women may fit the role of artist and muse created by a misogynistic male-led society, but they view one another as equals. There is a scene where Marianne asks Héloïse to look at her, and the two swap roles as they study the features and movements of the other. The pair become Orpheus and Eurydice, a ghostly bride disappearing in a dark corridor when the piano player is asked to turn around.

The sparse music is not a first for Sciamma, but here it becomes an event. Two motifs play to signify the arc between our characters; Vivaldi’s Allegro Summer 3, first cautiously alone on a single instrument, and later with the full orchestra on show, and an original composition in Latin, sung by a bonfire. This bonfire chant roughly translates to “It isn’t possible for me to escape.” Perhaps this fleeing is the run from fate, that run Héloïse goes on when first set free with Marianne, and the later run of Marianne’s down the beach where she must break the news of shortening time to her lover she fears may be dead. Or perhaps this fleeing is what Marianne wishes for the two of them, a fate together that will never happen because it simply cannot. The two lovers may not be together because society will shun them, or maybe the simple pressure would cause quarrel. We do not know what precisely would become of these lovers, because we are not meant to; there is no fate for them because the story ends when the screen cuts to black. They are simply two women who met at the right place, right time, and were the right thing for each other at that moment. Their love was allowed to flourish however briefly, and was given its own love theme to hear, but they do not exist in time, and Sciamma insists on this.

What is love without loss, or a subject without brush strokes to immortalize? It’s a universality within yet another film drawn from personal experience, specifically meant to show lesbian desire. We all feel for the weeping lover at a show, sitting back to hear the sounds of a past not quite forgotten. We all feel for the lonesome lover in a crowded gallery, who only has eyes for the love of her life as she searches to see if she has been forgotten. Memory is a strange thing, one that keeps us up late at night, one that leaves ghosts behind. The ghostly figure in a wedding dress marched off to be sold to the highest bidder, the number in the corner of the page, the painting rendered from painstaking detail without reference; it is what love will tear us apart to do, and it is the scars it leaves upon our memory.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, every breath holds power. An inhale may be a confession, a kiss, or signal a change of heart. Until the final breath, these are what steer the ship of the film. At this final breath, we see tears, we see a smile, and we know something more should be coming. Will she cry out with a start, or yell to her lover? We never know, as this is where it ends; us, alone in a dark room, thinking about those past two hours. We are left expecting something, yet are handed ourselves. Sure, there’s a plot between the breaths. We have the conflict of the mother, but no men are able to speak or be seen despite the looming presence that soon falls away. It is almost a simulation of matriarchal society, one where the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), is able to exist on the same plane as the daughter of a wealthy countess and her lover. It’s notably the least dialogue out of any of Sciamma’s films, and the one with the least leftover; every scene shot is used in the film. Nothing is wasted, except perhaps our sanities.

These collaborations with Adèle Haenel may be the synthesis of her career. The two also collaborated on a short film in 2010, entitled Pauline, as part of an activism campaign of five short films dealing with homophobia. The two entered into a romantic relationship that lasted for years, which was made public when Haenel declared her love on live TV while accepting a best supporting actress César for Suzanne. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was written as their relationship ended, and perhaps it is somewhat informed by it. The film is a love letter to equality, one that recontextualizes their artist/muse relationship to be perceived as one of equal footing. Perhaps it is an apology of sorts, one that pushes the misogyny of the world to the background, something they never got to do. Sciamma and Haenel made massive progress together in the French industry, opening up conversation on hidden abuse within the film world, and working behind the scenes to protect women from what was happening, as well as collaboratively increasing lesbian visibility. Their characters fight more quietly, but they are still defying the art world they move through, and they too have an ending based on mutual understanding.  The first four films form an elemental quadrilogy of sorts. Water Lilies is obviously water, Tomboy is air, Girlhood is earth, and, per the title, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is fire. They show different aspects of women’s lives, different outlooks on what is important as if they were alchemical substances. Sciamma confirmed this at a Q&A with film journalist Valerie Complex at the Angelika Film Centering NYC, also saying she doesn’t know where she’s going after this series (a full video can be found here). She had already grown so much through her films, and it’s hard to imagine anything topping this most recent offering. If this isn’t the ceiling, and there is still more, perhaps a third feature length project with Haenel, then it’s hard to not see any future project as the most promising future in film. With Adèle Haenel growing from her unsure, complicated character in Water Lilies as her first adult role, to her controlled, quietly defiant performance as Héloïse, there is so much room for beauty in a third intersection between these two talented women.

Essays Retrospective

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