Céline, my Queen, you once said Wonder Woman changed your life & if I may pay your emotionally apt self this compliment in reverse., you've changed my life.
Prior to embarking on my quarantine induced MUBI challenge I expected to love a few films, hate a number more & fill a handful of my much needed cinematic holes. For the most part that's been accurate. What I didn't foresee was finding true love for a new Director. Still love is what it is as I'm now obsessed with Céline Sciamma.
Before I deep dive into this visionary's prowess, I will state I haven't seen her entire filmography just yet & at the time of writing this article I've been:
- mesmerised by the sheer beauty of 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire',
- heartbroken by adolescent navigation in 'Tomboy', &
- captivated by sexual awakening in 'Water Lillies'.
I've also made my favourite film discovery of late in learning Sciamma was a Screenwriter on my animated favourite 'My Life as a Courgette'. With her deft penmanship, it now makes so much more sense how the film captures the gravity of parental death & alienation for a child.
Of course I've only got 'Girlhood' (+ her two shorts films) left & am naturally rather excited to take this journey fast. BFI Player here I come tonight. 😉
Let's crack off with Sciamma's arguably most famous film to date, 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'.
The story itself is one of love.
Love is a seminal thread in Sciamma's work. Whether it be romantic, familial or platonic– it's her foundational storytelling component & one she's very skilled at crafting a narrative around.
In this firey film the focus is on the budding relationship between former convent girl, Héloïse & Parisian painter, Marianne. Set in the eighteenth century on the remote shore's of Brittany, 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is a good old fashioned gothic romance with coastal walks, a drafty mansion & Marianne coming onto the property after being comissioned to paint Héloïse's Wedding portrait.
Héloïse is currently betrothed to a wealthy Italian man whom she has no desire to marry or share any passion for in general. But given his Courtier status he's deemed a socially viable mate & proceeds to linger in the background as Héloïse & Marianne shoot each other painfully passionate glares.
All the while the connection between the two grows as they share art, poignant stories & embrace their female solidary over ambient filled candlelight. This is a sexy, slow building affair & in Sciamma's hands is respectfully explicit.
At Cannes Film Festival Sciamma described her intentions behind the film as👇👇:
The beating heart is the fact I wanted to produce a love story, a film which talks about a love story and step by step depicts what it's like to fall in love; and also shows the scope of a love story - the film was built around these two ideas, these two pillars, so to speak, without opting for one or other of the pillars in particular. And also I wanted to talk about women artists, women painters, in general. So, if you like, it's that which constitutes the three beating hearts of the film. – (emphasis added)
I think we can all agree- she definitely achieved this as 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is an intoxicating look at slow burning female desire.I suggest you watch it immediately & the only comment I have left to make is when seeking out a sexy companion you should demand they look at you the way Héloïse & Marianne look at each other. It's truly ravishing!
'When you look at me, who do I look at?'
Next up is my personal favourite 'Tomboy' (2011).
This film broke my heart & then rebuilt it with a big old emotional hug.
Tomboy tells the tale of 10 year old tomboy, Laure/Mikhaël who's struggling with binary gender expectations in a normative world.
Laure/Mikhaël's family have moved to a new town during the summer school holidays & with a heavily pregnant mother it falls largely to them to entertain younger sister, Jeanne. This responsibility becomes slightly trickier when Laure/Mikhaël starts habouring a new identity, Mikhaël, formed after failing to correct the assumption made by local cool girl Lisa.
Mikhaël is crushing on Lisa & jumps at the chance to establish a 'normal' hetero relationship & play with the swarms of locals boys as a boy. So the hot summer days play out & Mikhaël proceeds to run around kicking soccer balls while brandishing a bare chest to the world at large. Mikhaël is one of the boys now & as friendships grow & identities are forged this seemingly small fib metastasises into an all consuming internal showdown.
Why Sciamma's filmmaking is so powerful is she manages to capture the ambiguity felt in black & white life.
Growing up is hard enough & being in a marginalised, non normative sect is never going to forge an easy life, here Sciamma chooses to personify the transgender journey & familial role played without judgment.
She instead uses a quiet, kind narrative to show you can make a choice but with it you must understand that being different comes with a cost.
In an interview with Vogue in 2011 Céline gave the following commentary on the idea of innocence:
"I think that childhood is innocent, but not in the way we usually believe. I think it’s a very sensual age, where emotions and feelings are so strong just for the simple fact that we are living them for the first time. There is a sort of taboo around childhood, it’s like all of us have gone through the same things but we never talk about it. Children don’t need categories like homosexuality, they simply experience things without ever feeling guilty. I think the film speaks to everyone, gay or straight, because at that age we have all dressed up and allowed ourselves to be somebody else. [emphasis added]
'Tomboy' is an extremely touching exploration of childhood discovery & remains my favourite of her works. Watch it today & bask in the devastating brilliance of innate sibling acceptance that exists with such earnestness before social preconceptions come into play!
Teen angst is muddying the tranquil waters of 'Water Lillies'.
'Water Lillies' is Sciamma's feature debut.
Even more impressively though she wrote it during her final year at film school & made it before even releasing a short!
It's in the something of a film in itself ilk to think one year post graduating Sciamma:
- floated the film,
- secured financing,
- radically rewrote it,
- went on to have it made despite having no name in the, often considered, archaic film world, &
- have it nominated for a wealth of awards including 3 prestigious César Awards alongside a myriad of other nominations.
'Water Lillies' is an observational coming of age story.
It's filmed entirely from Marie's voyueristic perspective as she watches, studies & listens in on others to then personify them. The story focuses on her growing attraction to synchronised swimming captain Floriane. Floriane is blonde, vivacious & a natural boy magnet. The shy, small & awkward Marie needs to be around her. She doesn't know why or even what these feelings mean but she signs up for the synchroised swimming team to get desperately closer to Floriane.
Surpisingly, the two develop a friendship & within it Sciamma thematically explores this rarely touched upon idea of wholehearted teenage obsession being a sign of sexual attraction or just wanting to be them. Despite the serious emotional subject matter 'Water Lillies' features enough humerous moments to inject a bit of lightheartedness when it all gets too heavy.
Synchronised swimming is used to metaphorically capture a fraught teenage girls need to appear effortlessly beautiful, perfectly coaxed & compliant to the world at all times.
Yet under the surface she's viciously striving to be better, willing to destroy her competitors & feeling like she's one step away from having it all fall apart.
Sciamma's prowess to defy stereotypes is present here. We empathasise with Marie but realise she's flawed thanks to her cruel discard of former loyal, yet uncool friend Anne, which reveals a coldness to her that's not often attached to an endearing protagonist. While even socially thriving Floriane grapples with an inherent sadness despite her high status popularity.
Sciamma favours a gritty, awkward exploration of 'first love' rather then defaulting to generic dreamscape awakenings.
She goes as far as presenting losing one's virginity as unpleasant & difficult & maintains the confusing nature & often traumatic struggles of adolescence right up until the final credits.
When asked about the intention to display love & developing sexuality on screen, Sciamma replied:
"I wanted the movie to give no answer to what Marie is going to become. I have my own answer about who Marie is and who she becomes later, but anyone can interpret it how they want, as just a contextual experience, or the beginning of a longer journey. The same “Coming Out” story has been told over and over again, and I didn’t want this movie to be that. I think this movie is the prelude to that, in that it ends where all those other movies begin. She realizes, ‘Hey, I am in love with a girl. What am I going to do?’ She has to confront her definition of love and morality, and how to present it all to society. But that is not the initial step I wanted to show. I wanted to illustrate the first stirring, where it is still an overwhelming, consuming, exciting and scary feeling that is completely internal and private."
Watching 'Water Lillies' reminded me of the raw, misunderstood feelings of my teenage years. Too often these scary emotions are disregarded as dramatic but they are character carving & heartedly felt. It's hard to believe this excellent feature was her debut & just goes to show the wealth of talent Sciamma has at her disposal.
So this 👉 'My Life as a Courgette (2016)'- inclusion is a tad cheeky given Claude Barras actually directed it, but he wrote it with Céline, so it counts.
This is one of those movies I encourage everyone to see.
I would love to see it featured on primary school curricular's as it comprehends the finality of life from a child's perspective, while showing you can learn to trust the world again.
We meet nine-year-old, Icare (nicknamed Courgette) when his alcoholic mother dies. Courgette witnessed her death & blames himself for it with his recited mantra: “I think I killed my mum” being heard loud & clear. He's scared, alone & found clutching his two prize possessions:
- his mum's favourite beer can, &
- a kite depicting his father as a superhero (we understand he's a bit of a Lothario & not around these days) .
Without any parent to care for him, Courgette is taken to live at the local Children’s Home by the worlds loveliest Policeman, Raymond. Together they form a beautiful friendship.
Grief is universally difficult & when you’re a child it can be especially tough.
In 'My Life as a Courgette' Claude Barras does an exceptional job of conveying loss alongside the prospect of finding hope in unexpected places.
During her 2017 with Demetrios Matheou of theartsdesk Sciamma gave the following commentary:
It’s about synthesising emotions, avoiding contrasts. For instance, if you take a strong narrative in animation, like The Lion King, there are these very sad scenes – with that film around the death of the father – and then scenes with kind, funny animals. We didn’t work that way, a light scene and a heavy scene. Our narrative is about telling all the emotions at the same time.
The goal of the film was to take children very seriously as characters, in the writing, and to take children very seriously as an audience, believing in their intelligence.
Not only does 'My Life as a Courgette' take children seriously, it respects their emotions & recognises the gravity such experiences have on one's future life trajectory. Ultimately though it is a film about hope, friendships & new beginnings & a MUST WATCH for any film lover.
So what do I make of all this ....
Her works inspire me to be more, whether this be in perspective, empathy or silent support, I wish to impart in my own life an innate emotional compass of Sciamma's kind. She resonates deep within my soul & what greater gift could any filmmaker offer the world?
After watching the large part of her filmography I'm enamoured with her exceptional thematic consideration of sexual identity, comment on gender politics & depiction of childhood grief, but it's more than that. I'm admiring of her kindness.
To often do people consider 'kindness' a thinly veiled insult, but I believe it to be the greatest compliment. Shouldn't we all aspire to be kinder? Isn't this the heart of being a true & good human being? Here I say she is 'kind' with a golden gleam as the support Sciamma affords those going through difficult times is gutteral, hard hitting & at it's core generous. There's none of this superficial sympathy thrown loosely around but rather a deep understanding of pain conveyed through a judgment free lens. I'm in awe of her & cannot wait to see her next steps.
For now though you may have guessed it... I'm popping on 'Girlhood'.
Until next time film lovers.