You know that a filmmaker has something right going on with them if they claim that Chantal Akerman is one of the most important filmmakers ever and that Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest novelists. Céline Sciamma, pronounced se-lin sya-ma – French screenwriter and filmmaker, is famously known to cast non-professional actors in her films (along with actor Adèle Haenel who has appeared in three of her five films). Her collaboration with cinematographer Crystel Fournier and other female cinematographers is also something to be noted. Sciamma’s films primarily explore the themes of gender identity and sexual orientation among girls and women in their childhood and young adulthood.
Her father is a software designer, and her brother a graphic designer. The latter is also a stand-up performer. She went to La Fémis, the première French film school, having been brought up in the suburbs on the outskirts of Paris. Sciamma was one of the women who walked out of the César Awards after Roman Polanski won the award for best directing along with Haenel in 2020. But her feminism is more active than that: she was the founding member of the group advocating and fighting for gender parity in film. She talks and hopes to talk more about the female gaze in her films.
I am not going to list Sciamma’s Cannes selections and accolades in her home ground. Going back to childhood, in a 2021 film that she made and wrote was released in Berlin on 3 March 2021. I am very excited to watch ‘Petite Maman’. Meanwhile, here is my ranking of all the films she has ever directed – feature and short.
5. WATER LILIES (2007)
In 2007, Sciamma made Water Lilies ‘Naissance des Pieuvres’ (this French title translates to “birth of octopuses”). This is her first feature as a director and writer. It is also her first collaboration with Fournier. The film is about adolescence. Haenel plays Floraine but the leads are Marie (Pauline Acquart) and Anne Louise Blachère. The three are 15-year-old girls in a suburb in Paris. Marie likes Floraine but Anne does, too. This invertedly makes Anne dislike Marie for not giving her enough attention.
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It is the most daring of Sciamma’s films, not because it deals with sexuality but because ‘Naissance des Pieuvres’ goes to places where other films do not. It does not birth octopuses either; it places the trio in equations that are uncomfortable. The film introduces a man for Floraine and puts her on her path of self-discovery. She has not had any sex despite other girls calling her names that indicate she has had sex with everybody.
It deals with a strong friendship that weakens with the introduction of a girl. Both friends like her and want to bed her; they find reasons to justify that they are right in maintaining their distance from each other. To imagine this film came out in 2007 is a tad difficult.
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Céline Sciamma manages adolescence efficiently: there are swimming pool locker rooms; sexual harassment by men who are older; bullying and gossip-mongering; nightclubs and dancing; shopping malls and shoplifting; home-alone houses and fingering; more dancing and, this time, kissing. In the hands, of a lesser director, this would have been a cliché coming-of-age film; and by no means, is this her worst film. I love all her films. I am only ranking them for the purpose of ranking.
Despite the multiplicity and maximality of themes here, the technique and tone are minimalist. Fournier and Sciamma observe their characters and let them live their early adolescence rather than chase after them or ask them to do the things they do. The result is not a masterpiece of lilies or octopuses, but definitely a debut that made us all watch out for these two women. Apparently, Sciamma worked on this script in the last year of her film school and her professor pushed her to make it. Thank the teacher!
4. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019)
First things first: Haenel is on fire! That is no spoiler; it’s on the poster, it’s in the trailer. Haenel’s face is revealed slowly. It takes over twenty minutes to introduce her, I think. Not her being set on fire, just her being revealed. And it’s worth the wait. Haenel plays Héloïse, whose mother wants a portrait of her to be painted by Marianne. Noémie Merlant is there even before the title appears. Céline Sciamma is best known to international spectators through this lesbian romance.
Merlant is a brilliant performer whose gifts also include a striking face that cuts through the screen. Her presence and performance are enough to fuel the film; Haenel is an add-on and how! The painter is not supposed to let Héloïse know that she is painting her because it is for a suitor from Milan. Héloïse thinks Marianne is a companion for her walks. But Héloïse runs during their first meet! There is a little game they play to show how much they have observed and understood each other. Although it is cute, at times, it does feel a wee bit orchestrated; it is nonetheless endlessly charming.
Marianne: When you’re embarrassed, you bite your lips.
Marianne: When you’re troubled, you breathe through your mouth.
Claire Mathon shot this film, and her camera work is stunning. She gets the faces, the paints, the beach, the landscapes, the cloth, the fire, the dresses, and anything else that I have missed out here absolutely right! Add to that the haunting soundtrack by Laubier and Simonini, ‘La Jeune Fille en Feu’ has a three-minute track going “Non possum fugere,” again seen in the trailer, enough to give you chills, as Haenel is eventually set ablaze by the campfire, the chanting stops. The lyrics, written by Simonini, translate to “I cannot fly” and a group of women from the village are chanting it more than singing it.
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Haenel is mysterious and daring, but cannot escape the circumstances of her class and situation. She has to come back to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by the end of the film. Marianne, too, is a painter, and the film begins by showing us that she is teaching painting. A student of hers finds a painting which makes her think back to Héloïse, which started with a boat trip where she nearly drowns but she is trying to save her painting accessories, not herself. She then makes her way to Héloïse, only to spend a few days and paint her. Non possum fugere!
Watch/Stream Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Amazon Prime
3. TOMBOY (2011)
Céline Sciamma wrote and made ‘Tomboy,’ with Fournier as her cinematographer. Zoé Héran plays Laure/Mickaël, a ten-year-old gender non-confirming child. ‘Tomboy’ deals with childhood and gender non-conformity.
They make friends with Lisa, a neighborhood girl, and Laure chooses to introduce themself as Mickaël. The film has many aspects, like Mickaël making a clay penis for his briefs while swimming; Mickaël’s mum scolding them for pretending to be a boy. As they come together, ‘Tomboy’ becomes a revelation and a confession; an identity conflict much before its time where industry and inferiority should have taken center stage.
Lisa kisses Mickaël, which was what had led to the mum scolding, but Lisa also makes up Mickaël’s face and tells them: You look good as a girl! Sciamma said that she made the film with several layers so that if a trans person or a heterosexual woman watches the film, they can both say, “that was my childhood.”
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Héran plays Laure/Mickaël poignantly, with nuance and depth. There is confusion in their relationship with Lisa. There is tension in their relationship with other children. It still manages to be a funny film, a tender one and also disturbing during some other sequences. But Sciamma is a filmmaker who is unafraid, and if this is the life of a ten-year-old, neither I nor she is going to give you a trigger warning.
Fournier and Céline Sciamma have shot the film giving the actors their freedom and space. The treatment is still minimalist, despite the risk of using that word too many times now. There are children; their mum and sister – the sister gives them a haircut when their mum says they should be more like a girl. That’s about it. Sparse and special, coming out ten years ago, ‘Tomboy’ should be taught in sex education classes across the world.
2. PAULINE (2010)
‘Pauline’ is a short film with a runtime under eight minutes, available on YouTube, and has perhaps one shot after the first forty seconds. It was a part of ‘5 films against homophobia’ and I have included it here because this listicle is about every film Sciamma made. The short came out in 2010 and was also a product of France’s ‘Ministry of Health and Sport.’
It is one take: a long one! Pauline is lying on the bed and narrating her tale throughout. Played by Anaïs Demoustier, Pauline is revealed to be talking to her girlfriend in the absolute end. This happens in a miss-it-if-you-don’t-catch-it scene, where Haenel is her girlfriend. Through the end credits, they cry and laugh.
So, that’s how it is shot. Initially, there are exactly four shots, one includes a cat, that introduces us to the setting of Pauline’s room and then the title card. Then it’s all Pauline’s bed, lying down, and narrating. I wish I knew more basic French to find out what the word for “cinematographer” was, but this is what I could write down by pausing the end credits:
Julien Poupard (Chef opérateur)
Magali Bragard (Photographe de plateau)
Julien Lacheray (Montage image)
Pauline starts by talking about her song of innocence: her little village where everyone knew everyone, her school where everyone played in the ground, and how she liked that very much. She loved her brother, was free and imagined this life to be how heaven would look like.
Things go haywire when she turns 15. She is a little confused, dates a guy, sleeps with him, confesses that she is still confused. She tells him that may have feelings for girls and one in particular; he encourages her. She feels better that he accepts her but later realizes that he only wants a threesome with them.
He outs her. Her parents disown her. An earlier incident where Pauline was playing a male character for a play involves an older man holding his crotch and asking her if she misses it. This is traumatic for Pauline as it is happening before her entire school, teachers, friends, and most importantly, her family sitting in the front row. They do nothing then but sit silently. She says she does not hate them for it. But liking a girl is enough to throw her out.
The rest of the story is little but involves some closure to Pauline’s tale and finding a roof overhead if not a home, a friend if not a partner – this bit is not clear. But in less than eight minutes, I was thoroughly impressed with how Sciamma had covered family, adolescence, sexuality, identity, intimacy, isolation, coming out, being outed, being displaced, humiliation, trauma, and given Pauline a song of experience even perhaps before she had turned 18.
Watch/Stream Pauline on YouTube
1. GIRLHOOD (2014)
‘Bande de filles’ was what first caught my attention with Céline Sciamma. I watched all her films then, and I found that she was somebody who knew what she was making. She was dealing with identity – personal and sexual; gender – roles, conformity, and fluidity; intimacy – personal, familial, siblings, friends, and any kind of relationship; isolation – from a relationship, the lack of it, abuse, neglect, harassment, personal distancing; class – working, suburb, European, white, Black, period aristocrat, period working class; age – childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.
The four girls in ‘Bande’: Vic, Lady, Adiatoh, and Fily book a hotel room. The adolescents try on new clothes they have just stolen and dance to Rihanna. They are otherwise poor but in that room, they are like “diamonds in the sky.” They shine bright that night; dance and laugh; pose and sing; like any group of adolescents. They forget themselves in the melody before they have to go back to their lives and troubles. This scene from writer-director Sciamma’s best film, in my opinion, surpasses everything written above and below because of that brief moment of happiness where I seemed to dance with them and started listening to Rihanna.
Although the French title roughly translates to ‘Group of Girls’, the producers came up with ‘Girlhood’. This was probably to draw some attention from ‘Boyhood,’ which came out in 2014, too. Set in the suburbs, Sciamma says in an interview, “you are the margin” in a coming-of-age film. The casting for ‘Bande de filles’ (2014) met 300 people on the street. Although it has a strong fresh face as the protagonist, Vic (Karidia Touré), who delivers a layered performance. The other girls are also trying out different thoughts, feelings, behaviors, roles, and masks. Vic’s story ties it all together and gives a continuing thread.
What is more, Para One has collaborated on all of Sciamma’s films for music, and on this one, too. Fournier has shot this film beautifully with appropriate lighting on the streets, in the hotel room (tinted blue), and in Vic’s suburb home. Sciamma has focused on the laughs, tears, disappointment, excitement, fights, and assault as they happen; and not to milk any kind of response from her spectators.
Vic, struggling with her studies, living with her abusive brother, is a 16-year-old African-French adolescent. She is asked to take up vocational school, where she meets Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Marietou Toure). They skip school and go to the city center. They steal and dance, and a lot more happens. Before Lady christens her Vic with a gold chain, Vic’s name is Marienne. The ending, though, is precious. Marienne, finally, knows what she wants to do, or knows what she does not want to do anymore. That will do!