Céline Sciamma is a French filmmaker known for her writing, directing, and (although often uncredited) costume design. The script for Water Lilies was her final at La Fémis, the première French film school, and she produced and directed it just a year after graduating. Her debut film was critically acclaimed at Cannes and the César Awards (2008), where she was nominated for Best Debut and her two lead stars were nominated for Most Promising Actress. In 2011 she wrote and directed Tomboy, and in 2014 she made Girlhood. Sciamma has said she views these as her sort of adolescent trilogy. In between her own filmmaking, she works regularly as a screenwriter.
...And if you haven't already seen it, do yourself a favor and watch this badass clip of Sciamma, Haenel, and the Portrait team walking out of the 45th César Awards as part of France's #MeToo Movement after convicted child rapist Roman Polanski shamefully won the award for Best Director:
Directed & written by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson
IMDB Synopsis: A family moves into a new neighborhood, and a 10-year-old named Laure deliberately presents as a boy named Mickäel to the neighborhood children.
To be honest, this bracket has taken me so long to write about because I was anxious about how heavy Tomboy would be for me. Mercifully, it's more Twelfth Night and less Boy's Don't Cry, but it's still a legitimately - albeit tenderly - heartbreaking film.
Fun fact about me! I get mis-gendered CONSTANTLY, and have been since I was a child. I identify as a queer (pansexual) and genderqueer person, but am comfortable with she/her pronouns. But it's hard to say which came first... my feelings of non-binary dysphoria or the fact that people have called me a boy my whole life? My mother broke her steadfast rule that the girls in our family had to wait until we were 13 to get our ears pierced, because she was so anxious to have people in public stop calling me "young man." As a youth, I thought it was funny, maybe even a little bit awesome. When strangers thought I was a boy, I could get away with cartwheeling in public and climbing tall trees. As soon as they found out I was actually the pastor's youngest daughter, my cheeks were pinched, my wrist was slapped, and I was chastised for my previously praised precociousness.
Ironically, as an adult, it really bums me out when people mis-gender me, and it's almost entirely because of the uncomfortable looks on their faces when they realize they're wrong. I am not a man, and there is almost never a reasonable need for you to attempt to identify my gender. If you can't tell, and it's not an appropriate situation to ask someone what their pronouns are, then use gender-neutral language. Just because I don't immediately present as feminine does not give you the right to essentially straight up ask me what's in my pants. It's simply none of your goddamn business; and perhaps you ought to take a moment and reconsider where those pre-conceived notions of gender presentation come from, and if they're rooted in cultural, religious, colonial, or racist fundamentalism (spoiler alert: they are!).
This movie was admittedly uncomfortable to watch, largely because of how much was left unspoken - I'm also just a really fucking anxious person, and it is agonizing for me to watch movies where the plot is centered on a deep dark secret (I'm a person of the "Mole!!!!! MOLE!!!!!!!!!" variety). The burdensome anticipation of Laure's secret inevitably being discovered left me reliving that prickly, sucker-punching shame - not because I ever pretended to be a boy and was afraid of being found out, but because I acted like a boy for most of my childhood and I was terrified of when that era would end (spoiler alert: it was puberty). I was painfully aware of the impending doom that was my unavoidable fate (menstruation, developing breasts) and I would check obsessively every day for signs of either (that scene in Now and Then when Christina Ricci makes a chest binder out of masking tape? Yeah, definitely tried that).
Laure (played so fucking vulnerably and truthfully by Zoé Héran) is blessed with a pre-pubescent, androgynous, "passing" figure, but that doesn't make her secret any less formidable. The pressure is palpable, something that Sciamma is an unparalleled expert at curating. Unlike the aching silence we saw from Reichardt, I think that's why Sciamma's films actually benefit from their lack of a score: the tension between desperately trying to enjoy what is and trying desperately not to think about what's to come almost creates an actual buzz, a hum - and it's not an altogether unpleasant one. It's a song all on it's own.
If I had one complaint, it's that no one ever asks Laure what she wants or how she feels. The film ends with Mom discovering that her eldest daughter has been posing as a boy all summer, then shoving her daughter in a dress (WOW did that bring back PTSD flashbacks of Christmas photos) and going around to her friends in the building to "come out." She stops her in the stairwell at a point and says, "I am not doing this to punish you or humiliate you. I just... don't know what else to do."
Part of me was really hoping that when Laure and her mom were confronted by another mother and she was called "Mikael" that the mom would just be like, "Ohhhh.... yes.... my son, Mikael...." and that would be Laure's whole transition/coming out moment and the whole family would be cool with it and that would be that. But the thing is, we never really do know if Laure identifies as a boy.
It's quite possible that she just enjoyed the freedoms of acting like one - she was great at soccer, and her girlfriend even says "the boys don't let me play because I'm a girl." When they find out Laure's secret, they say she's "disgusting" for having kissed another girl. This was obviously not a very LGBT progressive apartment complex. But maybe Laure doesn't identify as a boy at all, she just likes playing sports and kissing girls sometimes? If I'd had the option at that age to live as a boy, I don't think I would've taken it. I didn't really want to be a boy, I just didn't want to be treated the way I saw girls being treated. There's a world of difference there; and I think that's the world Laure lives in.
I was itching for someone, anyone to ask Laure how she felt, but this wasn't that kind of film, and I can appreciate it for that. Similar to Reichardt, this was a slice of life, two-week-max timeline, peering into the simple and extraordinary angst of being an "unusual" girl. Unlike Reichardt, I didn't reach for my phone once during this movie.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Directed & written by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
IMDB Synopsis: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
HOLY FUCKING TENSION AWARDS.
I cannot aptly express to you enough how sublimely mind-blowing it is to watch a 2+ hour long film, in a foreign language, with almost NO music, and extremely sparse (but extremely potent) dialogue, and be on the edge of your seat holding your breath the entire time.
This film ought to be CANONIZED for it's mastery of sexual tension and it's unique exploration of the female gaze. Because of the premise - a painter is commissioned to complete a portrait of a young woman without her knowing it, and she has one week to complete it - you find yourself voraciously consuming every detail of Haenel's face, compelled by the urgency to memorize her. But the foundation is not voyeuristic or sexual; it is only from the innocent place of attempting to capture her physical beauty that you begin to fall in love with it.
Besides having some of the most poetically drenched dialogue I've ever consumed (it would appear that the soul of wit is brevity after all), this film was also unbearably gorgeous to watch. Every frame was an effortlessly, perfectly lit painting, curated with agonizingly delicious textures and colors. This film checked every single box for me, even the more obscure ones:
- Visual storytelling: beautiful to watch (exceptional cinematography)
- Aesthetics: beautiful to look at (exceptional production design and costumes)
- Writing: beautiful to listen to (exceptional dialogue)
- The Bechdel Test: compelling, detailed, believable female characters
- Plot: a good story, or at least a sense of urgency and importance; do I give a shit about this?
- Whimsy: an element of folklore, fantasy, or parable
- Bonus: lesbians!
(TW: Abortion ...I would also like to mention that this film has - dare I say it? - the most exceptional, intense, compassionate, and endearing abortion scene ever constructed? Masterful. And frankly, something that only a woman could pull off.)
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” strips sex scenes of visual pleasure, and heavily attempts to underplay what would be conventionally attractive within the patriarchal social structure in these rather intimate moments. This is apparent in scenes where Marianne and Héloïse would kiss, and we would expect a sex scene to follow, but instead Sciamma cuts afterward to both of them lying in bed, passionately looking at one another.
And the winner is...
Tomboy will hold a special place in my heart for it's intimate and delicate portrayal of a character who doesn't get her fair share of screen time. But Portrait was, undeniably, an absolutely perfect film.