By Bianca Garner
The wonderful Céline Sciamma will be celebrating her birthday on the 12th November and if you’re familiar with our site then you know that we are HUGE fans of her work. For this piece, we want to discuss her career and celebrate her filmography and how she’s taking on the French film industry and its sexism. She may have only directed four feature films and one short, but Sciamma has already established herself as one of the icons of female filmmaker history. Her unique perspective and story-telling have helped to create engaging conversations with critics and cinephiles alike.
There are many reasons why we love Sciamma. Firstly, she’s a proud feminist and was a founding member of the French branch of the 5050 by 2020 movement, a group of French film industry professionals advocating for gender parity in film by the year 2020. In 2018, she co-organized and participated in the women’s protest against inequality at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival alongside many notable women in film including Agnès Varda, Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett and Léa Seydoux. And at the 45th César Awards Sciamma and the “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” team joined lead actress Adèle Haenel in walking out after Roman Polanski won the award for Best Director.
“I mean, putting women in the center of a movie and not talking about men, that’s already political, right? And you know, political doesn’t mean that it sends this message or that is has a statement. It’s also political in its aesthetic project.”
Sciamma is also a lesbian. In 2014, Adèle Haenel publicly acknowledged that she was in a relationship with Sciamma in her acceptance speech for her César award. The two had met on the set of the 2007 film “Water Lilies” and started dating sometime after. The couple parted ways, amicably, sometime before the 2018 filming of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, which Haenel starred in.
As a child, Sciamma was an avid reader and became interested in film as a teenager. She has cited David Lynch as a influence, along with the works of the novelist Virginia Woolf who she believes is “the greatest novelist”. She’s also a huge fan of the filmmaker Chantal Akerman who she declares as “one of the most important filmmakers”. Sciamma wrote her first original script for “Water Lilies” as part of her final evaluation at La Fémis, the première French film school. Xavier Beauvois, who was chairman of the evaluation panel, persuaded her to make the film. A year after finishing school, she began shooting the film in her hometown.
“Water Lilies” tracks the sexual awakenings of three 15-year-old female friends in a middle class suburb of Paris over the course of a single summer. Finding privacy in the solitude of the swimming pool locker room, Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adèle Haenel) begin their path of sexual discovery.
The film was selected for screening in the section Un certain regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and won both the 2007 Prix de la jeunesse at Cabourg Film Festival and the 2007 Louis Delluc Prize for Best First Film. “Water Lilies” secured three nominations for the 2008 César Awards; Sciamma was nominated for the 2008 César Award for Best Debut, and actresses Adèle Haenel and Louise Blachère were both nominated for the 2008 César Award for Most Promising Actress.
“People keep telling me, “You don’t like boys!” And I’m saying, “Wow, no, it’s just that you’re not used to them being objectified in movies, but women are so often objectified in movies and we don’t care.”
Sciamma’s next feature film was “Tomboy” which was released in 2011. This remarkable film was written in three weeks, the casting process took just three weeks, and the film was shot in 20 days. The story follows a 10-year-old gender non-conforming child, Laure (played by the wonderful Zoé Héran), who moves to a new neighborhood during the summer holiday and experiments with their gender presentation, adopting the name Mikaël.
Sciamma stated in an interview that she made the film layered, “so that a transexual person can say ‘that was my childhood’ and so that a heterosexual woman can also say it.” She also added the “movie is ambiguous about Mickaël’s feelings for Lisa. It plays with the confusion.”
“I think all movies are political. The ones that are not political intentionally are the worst, and have the worst politics, I think.“
Her next follow-up film was the 2014 film “Girlhood” which focuses on the life of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a teenage girl who lives in a rough neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris. The film discusses and challenges conceptions of race, gender and class. Sciamma stated that her intention was to capture the stories of black teenagers, characters she claims are generally underdeveloped in French films. In her own words, “I had a strong sense of having lived on the outskirts – even if I am middle-class white girl. I didn’t feel I was making the film about black women but with black women – it’s not the same. I’m not saying, ‘I’m going to tell you what it’s like being black in France today’; I just want to give a face to the French youth I’m looking at.”
Again, Sciamma’s work was well received by critics. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, film critic Mick LaSalle wrote, “Girlhood is about as grim as movies get, but it’s showing something real, and Sciamma has a feel for this period of life, the camaraderie, the jokes, the kinds of conflicts, the panic and the hope. Each time Sciamma makes a movie, it’s as if she’s saying, not stridently, but plainly, ‘Here’s something real people are going through that you’ve never thought about.’ That’s a moral use of film, all the more effective in that Sciamma makes Girlhood entertaining.” The film also received four nominations at the 40th César Awards, including Best Director for Céline Sciamma and Most Promising Actress for Karidja Touré.
It wasn’t until 2018 that Sciamma began work on her fourth feature film. In the gap between “Girlhood” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” she continued to work as a screenwriter for other directors. She was sought after by André Téchiné, whose work Sciamma admired as a youth, to co-write the screenplay for his 2016 film “Being 17”. She was also the screenwriter for the Oscar-nominated animated feature “My Life as a Zucchini.”
Set in France in the late 18th century, Portrait tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and it won the Queer Palm at Cannes, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the award. Sciamma also won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes. Again, Sciamma’s work was well received with film critic Mark Kermode giving the film five stars and writing in his review that the film was “an intellectually erotic study of power and passion.”
ITOL writer, Jenni Holtz stated in their review “Every single element of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — from the costumes to the impeccable acting — is executed with care, making every shot a crucial piece of the story. Though their love is central to the plot, Marianne and Héloise are fully fleshed-out characters individually; each with rich backstory and motivation for their actions.” And, we’re happy to announce that our wonderful Twitter followers voted for Portrait to be the next film we will discuss on our podcast.
In September 2020, it was announced Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Rust and Bone) would direct and produce “Paris, 13th District”, from a screenplay he wrote alongside Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, with principal photography commencing that same month. Sciamma has just started shooting her next film, “Petite maman,” in Paris. Although little is known about the film’s plot, news sources have stated that the film will deal with childhood and will star two eight-year-old kids. We are eagerly awaiting both films and we hope Sciamma continues to have a successful career.
Joyeux anniversaire Céline Sciamma!