"Portrait of a Lady on Fire marks a clear departure from this coming-of-age trajectory, but does not stop exploring the complexities of femininity"Twitter/Neon

A French writer-director renowned for her stylised, contemplative coming-of-age films, Céline Sciamma, has recently created a more overtly cinematic period piece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which will hit cinema screens in the UK today. 

"Sciamma, like nobody else, depicts a female experience and interiority which is too rarely present in films"

Sciamma’s films may have grown in scale and budget since her feature debut, Water Lilies, but they maintain a quiet reverence towards formative life encounters, and an absolute refusal of creative compromise. “Water Lilies was about the beginning of teenage-hood; Tomboy, the end of childhood, and (Girlhood), the end of teenage-hood,” Sciamma said in an interview for Sight & Sound. Portrait of a Lady on Fire marks a clear departure from this coming-of-age trajectory, but does not stop exploring the complexities of being a woman. Sciamma, like nobody else, depicts a female experience and interiority which is too rarely present in films, allowing young women to transgress stereotypes and be as ‘strange’ and ‘unconventional’ as they wish. Now that she’s in cinemas  once more with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s worth looking back on her earlier films and exploring how they relate to each other.

"Synchronised swimming becomes a symbol of the lives of adolescent girls - deceptively pretty above the surface, chaotic and frantic beneath"Twitter/criterion channel

Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, 2007) was written while Sciamma was studying at La Fémis. It’s a coming-of-age story about fifteen-year-old Marie (Pauline Acquart), and the self-discovery and pain she goes through because of her attraction to the captain of the local synchronised swimming team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Filmed in Sciamma’s hometown, which doesn’t immediately come across as a ‘French’ setting, it feels like a spin on the typical American teen movie, except in this version the characters’ journeys are unconventional. Synchronised swimming (a female-only sport) becomes a symbol of the lives of adolescent girls - deceptively pretty above the surface, chaotic and frantic beneath. Despite many intimate scenes the camera’s gaze never feels invasive, and watching teenagers discover their sexuality is made less uncomfortable by an evident respect and gentleness on the part of Sciamma. The ending of the film is bittersweet but tentatively empowering - Floriane is left dancing on her own in a crowded room, while Marie and her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère) float hand in hand in the swimming pool, having abandoned the party and its insincerity.

"Tomboy (2011), depicts the complexities of gender identity at an early age"twitter/criterion channel

Sciamma’s next feature, Tomboy (2011), depicts the complexities of gender identity at an early age. Having just moved house, 10-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) decides to present herself as a boy, Mikaël, to the neighbourhood children. Once the secret is revealed we witness the cruelty of the group, who hold heteronormative, transphobic attitudes without understanding why. Both Water Lilies and Tomboy take place during heavy, sultry summer days in suburbia, when the freedom of empty streets and the lack of structure in their lives provides young people with endless possibility, and the desire and agency to do whatever they like. The presence of adults is rare, and usually appears a mediating or destructive force - one that is always in some way controlling.

"All of Siamma’s early films show the obsessive desire to be an accepted part of a group; to derive strength and bravery from belonging to a community"twitter/Jonathan Wakeham

Sciamma shows the beauty of the bond between siblings in Tomboy, and she explores this further in her vibrant third feature, Girlhood (Bande de filles, 2014). She is interested in the connotations of ‘sorority’, and often uses this word as an overarching term for the meeting of sisterhood and friendship. All of Sciamma’s early films show the obsessive desire to be an accepted part of a group; to derive strength and bravery from belonging to a community. Her characters are often positioned in odd trios, but their relationships transgress the overused love triangle trope, showing the nuances of the bonds between protagonists without falling into heteronormative conventions.

"Using the language of silence, subtle expressions, small touches and glances, Sciamma manages to portray all-consuming emotions"twitter/neon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019) is perhaps the first time that Sciamma has truly told a love story. It centres around Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist, and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a noblewoman who she must paint in secret so that the painting can be sent to her future husband for his approval. On an isolated island in 18th century Brittany, with a notable absence of patriarchal figures, they fall in love.

"The sense of confusion and ambiguity, that is constantly present in Sciamma's earlier films, is resolved in Portrait"

Adèle Haenel, who played Floriane in Water Lilies, returns over a decade later as Héloïse. Perhaps this is why so many parallels can be drawn between the two films. Or perhaps it is because of the recurring element of water; the contrast between the constraining, artificial swimming pool and the enormity of the wild ocean surrounding the island. There is a moment of almost identical dialogue - “Venez ici. Venez. Rapprochez-vous,” (“Come here. Come. Come closer.”) Héloïse says to Marianne across the room, echoing Floriane’s words to Marie. Sciamma likes to play with space, and the power that comes with deliberately expanding or reducing the distance between characters. The sense of confusion and ambiguity, that is constantly present in her earlier films, is resolved in Portrait. “You don’t understand me,” Héloïse says to Marianne. “I understand you,” she replies. The subtext is overwhelming - it is an admission.

"Sciamma is conscious of the importance of the gaze - who is being watched, who is watching, whether they are defiant to it, or whether they welcome it"twitter/neon

All of Sciamma’s films fix an intense, concentrated gaze on their protagonists, but the shots carry none of the objectification that usually comes with such intimate observation. Using the language of silence, subtle expressions, small touches and glances, she manages to portray all-consuming emotions. She is conscious of the importance of the gaze - who is being watched, who is watching, whether they are defiant to it, or whether they welcome it.

"There is a lot of anger simmering below the surface of Sciamma’s films. Anger at being closeted, and anger at those who have made that necessary"

Although the character of Héloïse was written specifically for Adèle Haenel, Sciamma has often talked about her desire to abandon the word ‘muse’ and instead refer to collaborators or co-creators, because to her that is what the actors should be - she values a ‘horizontal way of working’. We see this in the narrative of Portrait too - technically Marianne is the artist and Héloïse is the subject, but Sciamma plays with this, having Héloïse standing by the canvas, mixing paint, placing the mirror against her own body for Marianne’s self-portrait. Through this, women are liberated from the lack of agency that comes with being an artist’s ‘muse’, and thereby being subjected to their gaze.

There is a lot of anger simmering below the surface of Sciamma’s films. Anger at being closeted, misunderstood or oppressed, and anger at those who have made that necessary. She was one of the organisers behind the Cannes protest of 2018, which aimed to draw attention to the lack of recognition of female directors. Now, she is backing 5050 by 2020, a campaign for gender equality in the industry.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Marriage Story is a heartbreaking tale of separation

“There’s too much authority in what has been made before,” she said in her interview for Sight & Sound. It is clear that, in her work and her politics, Sciamma is fighting for the greater good of cinema. Particularly during LGBT+ History Month, it is worth celebrating a filmmaker who is so tirelessly dedicated to celebrating and sharing her reality - a reality in which many will be able to recognise themselves.

Sponsored links

Partner links