Céline Sciamma’s Quest for a New, Feminist Grammar of Cinema
|Filmmakers, Sciamma says, learn “that conflict is the natural dynamic of the storyteller.” She wants to move beyond that.Photographs by Paul Rousteau for The New Yorker
For most of November, 2020, the director Céline Sciamma didn’t have any lamps in her apartment. They were all on the set of her fifth film, “Petite Maman.” Each day, she got ready before sunrise, leaving her Paris apartment in the dark. One morning when she was running late, she rushed into her room and hit something with her foot. It hurt, a lot, but she put on her shoes and hurried to the set, where she sat around for three hours, waiting for everyone else to be ready. Suddenly, she heard a familiar, uneven step behind her: that of her maternal grandmother, Marie-Paule Chiron, who walked with a limp and who had been dead for six years. Sciamma jumped from her chair, remembering too late her injured foot. Instinctively, she reached for the closest support: a silver-topped walking stick that had belonged to Marie-Paule.
The limping woman toward whom Sciamma was limping was, in fact, the actor Margot Abascal, playing a character based on Marie-Paule and wearing the same kind of corrective shoes that she had worn. Though the likeness was one Sciamma herself had gone to considerable trouble to produce, it struck her with unexpected force. She experienced a kind of intergenerational vertigo, a blurring of past and present, of fiction and reality: a slippage that runs like a thread through her life and work.
Sciamma’s first feature, “Water Lilies” (2007), about a teen girl’s unrequited love for the captain of a synchronized-swimming team, was filmed in the town outside Paris where Sciamma grew up, at the pool where she once watched synchronized swimming. Her next two films, “Tomboy” (2011) and “Girlhood” (2014), were also set in the Paris suburbs, and followed cinematically underrepresented adolescents—a gender-nonconforming tween, a Black girl living in a banlieue—as they navigated between social norms and their own desires. Forming a loose trilogy, these films cemented Sciamma’s reputation among critics. A new level of success came with the 2019 period romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the story of Héloïse, a young woman who doesn’t want to get married, and Marianne, an artist hired to paint her betrothal portrait. The relationship was partly inspired by Sciamma’s association with the actor Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse. They met while making “Water Lilies”—Haenel was the synchronized swimmer—and later became romantic partners. They separated before “Portrait” but remain close friends.
Not long after the French release of “Portrait,” Haenel gave an interview in which she described being sexually abused by the director of her first film, starting when she was twelve. The abuse continued for years and caused Haenel to give up acting entirely, until she was approached for “Water Lilies.” (The director, Christophe Ruggia, has denied the accusations.) It was the first time an actor of her stature had spoken out against sexual abuse in the French film industry. Days later, the photographer and former actress Valentine Monnier wrote an open letter in the newspaper Le Parisien stating that, at eighteen, she had been raped by Roman Polanski. (Polanski denies the charge.) At the 2020 César Awards ceremony, Polanski was named Best Director—ironically, many people felt, for a film about the Dreyfus Affair, involving the persecution of a falsely accused man. Haenel and Sciamma, in attendance because “Portrait” had received nine nominations, stood up and left the room.
The quiet radicalism of “Portrait,” which showed how easily a romantic film could dispense with many seemingly indispensable mainstays—conflict, a musical score, men—merged with a twenty-first-century political moment. Virginie Despentes, the novelist, filmmaker, and punk feminist icon, wrote an editorial applauding Haenel’s gesture, under the headline “We’re Getting Up and We’re Getting the Hell Out.” Protesters at French feminist marches began carrying signs proclaiming “We Are the Young Girls on Fire,” and calling for Despentes, Sciamma, and Haenel to assume various public offices. In 2020, “Portrait” became the most watched French film worldwide, with nearly a million and a half viewers. When the pandemic struck, midway through the U.S. and the U.K. release, Sciamma returned to Paris and began work on a new film, one she ended up shooting during lockdown, with a small crew and minimal sets.
“Petite Maman” opens in an elder-care home. Eight-year-old Nelly and her dazed-seeming mother, Marion, are emptying out a room formerly occupied by Nelly’s grandmother. Nelly is allowed to keep a souvenir: her grandmother’s silver-topped walking stick. Nelly and Marion then drive through the countryside to the grandmother’s house, which also has to be emptied. Mention is made of a hut that Marion built in the woods here as a child, and of a subsequent surgery. Nelly wants to be shown the site of the hut, but Marion is too busy. Walking alone in the woods, Nelly meets an eight-year-old girl named Marion, who asks for help building a hut. When it starts raining, the two girls run to child-Marion’s house: an exact replica of the one that Nelly’s mother is packing up. There, Nelly meets Marion’s mother, who limps down the hall to greet her—leaning on a silver-topped walking stick. Soon, Nelly learns, Marion is to have a surgery, so she won’t limp like her mother.
To design the interior of the house, Sciamma synthesized the home of her maternal grandmother, Marie-Paule, and that of her paternal grandmother, Carla Sciamma. Marie-Paule’s corridor magically led to Carla’s kitchen. In reality, the two grandmothers came from different worlds. When Marie-Paule was five, her father was killed in the Battle of Verdun. She was twenty-eight at the outbreak of the Second World War, during which her village was occupied by the Nazis and the nearby city of Nantes was destroyed by Allied bombs. Carla, meanwhile, had what Sciamma described as a “happy, solar” childhood in a newly built Cairo suburb called Heliopolis. (Sciamma’s paternal grandparents grew up in the Cairo area and are of Italian Jewish descent. They moved to France in the fifties.) She was the film-lover in the family, and lived long enough to stream the première of “Petite Maman,” at the Berlinale, last March. She died in May, a week before the release of the theatrical trailer—which includes a scene of Nelly telling Marion, “I lost my grandmother last week.”
“And now I lost my grandmother last week,” Sciamma told me on Zoom, lighting a meditative cigarette.
In late June, a few weeks after that conversation, we met at a café across from the Pompidou Center. Sciamma, who is forty-three, was seated at an outdoor table, wearing a layered outfit with numerous pockets. She took off her sunglasses, which had small, round tortoiseshell frames. It was confusing weather, sunny but somehow drizzling. We moved under an awning.
I had asked Sciamma to bring certain materials related to her childhood and her family history. She had brought everything I requested, including childhood photographs—even a studio portrait that showed her as a laughing toddler, with a giant head, wispy hair, and tiny pearl-like teeth. How unguarded she was, in her purple sweater.
“I don’t feel that kid is a stranger,” Sciamma said. “I feel close to that person. I’m still the same person.” It wasn’t hard for her to write about childhood, she said, because no part of that past felt irretrievable: “If you tell me, ‘O.K., think about a day in your life when you’re six,’ I can really think about a day in my life when I was six.” With a little focus, she could put her brother at the right height, “press play,” and remember what she ate for breakfast. (A brand of cereal called Country Store.)
On her laptop, we watched a grainy horror movie she had shot on a camcorder when she was fifteen: her younger sister, Isabelle, is driven crazy by a house and jumps off a balcony. An hour later, we were looking at a notebook in which Sciamma’s grandfather had recorded, among other things, the make and model of every car he had ever driven, the names of Snow White’s dwarves, and the roster of the soccer team at the stalag where he was imprisoned during the Second World War. It’s not every day, I realized, that someone shows you an overabundance of material that you’re actually interested in. Sciamma’s manner was also unusual, at once relaxed and engaged. There wasn’t anything she didn’t answer or offer to think about. At one point, an older couple at a nearby table was served a gigantic artichoke, and I asked Sciamma if it was normal for artichokes to be that size in France. “No, it’s huge,” she said, briefly glancing over before facing me again, ready for the next question about her grandmothers’ floor plans.
Sciamma told me about an interview that she had recorded the previous year with her grandmother Carla. Her first questions had been about going to the movies in Heliopolis. Carla had remembered everything: the price of admission, how many times a week she had attended, whether she saw double features. It had been at the cinema, Carla added, at around age ten, that she had first felt troublée.
“It’s like ‘troubled,’ but more erotically,” Sciamma explained. “We say it in French when you have an erotic emotion.”
Carla didn’t remember the title of the movie, but, from her description—a black-and-white film, starring Madeleine Renaud as a teacher—Sciamma easily tracked it down. It had been an international hit called “La Maternelle” (1933), a collaboration between Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein, a prolific filmmaker whose work is now largely forgotten.
It was revelatory, Sciamma explained, to learn that her own grandmother had first been “struck by female desire—by her own desire,” not just in a movie theatre but “in front of a film made by a woman.” Carla had been “a woman really connected to her own desire,” and there was no doubt in Sciamma’s mind that this early encounter at the cinema had been formative: “The female gaze saved that little girl.”
The “female gaze,” a term often invoked by and about Sciamma, is an analogue of the “male gaze,” popularized in the nineteen-seventies to describe the implied perspective of Hollywood movies—the way they encouraged a viewer to see women as desirable objects, often fragmented into legs, bosoms, and other nonautonomous morsels. For Sciamma, the female gaze operates on a cinematographic level, for example in the central sex scene in “Portrait.” Héloïse and Marianne are both in the frame, they seem unconcerned by their own nudity, the camera is stationary—not roving around their bodies—and there isn’t any editing. The goal is to share their intimacy—not to lurk around ogling it, or to collect varied perspectives on it.
Watching “La Maternelle,” I was struck by resonances with “Water Lilies.” Both films take the perspective of a young girl named Marie, who is painfully obsessed with a blond love object: in Epstein’s film, the teacher played by Renaud; in Sciamma’s, the swimmer played by Haenel. Each includes multiple shots of a Marie’s wounded expression when she sees her crush make out with a guy. Each shows a Marie jumping, fully clothed, into a body of water: the school swimming pool, for Sciamma; the Seine, for Epstein.
Sciamma hadn’t seen “La Maternelle” when she made “Water Lilies,” which originated in a real experience. When Sciamma was fourteen, she went to see her best friend perform in a synchronized-swimming show. The friend was in the beginners’ class, consisting mostly of small children. It was fine. Then the high-school team came out—the champions. Watching them, Sciamma said, she felt “totally . . . rapt? Wrapped? Ravished?” She drew an imaginary mantle around her shoulders.
She went home, feeling strange, troubled, troublée: “Why am I feeling so torn by synchronized swimming?” She thought it was because she had “missed her life.” Clearly, her true calling had been synchronized swimming. Now it was too late. You couldn’t start at fourteen—not if you wanted to be like those champions. After a few days contemplating the ruin of her life, Sciamma realized, “O.K., I’m gay.”
Years later, while researching her film, Sciamma was struck by how different synchronized swimming looks depending on whether you’re above or under the water: on the surface, a show with hair and makeup, dazzling smiles, and a pretense of effortlessness; underwater, legs churning furiously in order not to drown. Like the water lily—a delicate flower with a hidden mass of roots—it was a visual metaphor for what Sciamma called “the job of being a girl.”
Three days after we first met, Sciamma and I took the R.E.R. commuter train to her home town of Cergy-Pontoise, where she shot both “Water Lilies” and “Petite Maman.” “I was obsessed with this train,” she said, in a low, almost trancelike voice. She had taken it every day in 1999, her first year studying literature at Paris Nanterre University. Founded in the sixties, alongside a bidonville of North African immigrants, Nanterre was the starting point of the May, 1968, protests. As a student, Sciamma had joined an L.G.B.T.Q. action group, campaigned for same-sex civil unions, and made three trips a week to Le Pulp, the legendary lesbian club. The train didn’t run at night, so Sciamma would stay at the club, heading back to Cergy at six in the morning with what she called “that melancholical lie of mine.” (She wasn’t yet out to her family.) Le Pulp closed in 2007. “There’s no more lesbian clubs in Paris anymore,” Sciamma said.
With the passage of time, Sciamma has grown to increasingly identify with Cergy-Pontoise, which is one of five “new towns” built around Paris amid the postwar boom. “It was a field,” Sciamma said. “There was no town. And then a few years later there was a town,” a place with “no past and no trauma.”
We got off the train at the city’s administrative center, near a complex containing the city hall, a library, and a music conservatory. Cars were passing beneath us. Sciamma pointed out the underpass where her parents used to drop her off, so she could climb the stairs to her music lessons. The whole town had been built to be navigated on foot, by children. “It’s a utopian idea,” Sciamma said. “It’s very political.”
We came to one of the first buildings to be completed, in 1969: the Préfecture, a brutalist inverted pyramid. It produced a disorienting impression, at once fanciful and grim. Nearby stood what appeared to be, and in fact was, a statue of Don Quixote.
“How cool is that?” Sciamma enthused. “Like, that you would put Don Quixote in front of the administrative center?”
Before Cergy-Pontoise existed, Bernard Hirsch, the engineer in charge of the project, gazed out at what was then a chaotic patchwork of small farms and market gardens. Already, he dreamed that it would someday be a town with “a personality of its own, so that a lost parachutist landing there could say ‘I am in Pontoise,’ as he would say ‘I am in Paris’ when landing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.” He and his family moved there in 1966, with the idea of convincing “thousands of families” to follow suit, and of building the town around them. Hirsch had been greatly affected by a Jules Romains play called “Donogoo” (first staged in 1930), in which a geographer mistakenly places a nonexistent town called Donogoo on a map of Brazil, and another, unrelated man, for convoluted dramatic reasons, makes it a reality by advertising it to capitalists as a fully extant and underexploited gold-mining town. European entrepreneurs flock to “the depths of Brazil,” pestering the Indigenous people for directions and eventually founding a prosperous settlement. In his work, Hirsch embraced what he called “the Donogoo method: to create the city by making people believe it exists.”
Sciamma led me across a highway overpass and past some modernist glass structures to a series of white medium-rise buildings: a residential complex designed by her paternal grandfather, an urban planner. It was on his advice that her parents had joined the first wave of young families to move there.
Sciamma was born in 1978, when her mother was twenty-one. Her first memory, from age three, is of her sister’s birth. Their brother, Laurent, arrived four years later, and the children formed an indissoluble unit. They are still in daily contact. When Sciamma was ten, their father’s work—he specializes in artificial intelligence—took them for two years to Singapore, where she became fluent in English. Then they moved back to Cergy, into a house that hadn’t existed before they left.
“It was a great place to grow up. But it’s also a great set for fiction,” Sciamma says, of the town that had materialized around her. Éric Rohmer shot a film in Cergy-Pontoise in the eighties. The novelist Annie Ernaux, a longtime resident, wrote her most famous books there. Ernaux has described it as “a city where there is not, as in Rouen, Bordeaux, Annecy—the cities where I had lived—a ‘bourgeois heart,’ inscribed in the walls, in the streets, that ancient power of money and a social order, manifested in buildings.”
Ernaux is Sciamma’s mother’s favorite writer. Sciamma remembers, as a child, being given one of Ernaux’s novels, “A Frozen Woman,” about an ambitious young woman who gets married, has children, and gradually loses her enthusiasm for life. When Sciamma reread the novel last year, she was startled to realize what her mother might have been trying to tell her. Sciamma’s most vivid childhood memory of Ernaux is the time her mother pointed her out in a grocery store. There was a writer in their town, and she was a woman, and that meant such things were possible.
While Sciamma was writing “Portrait,” various legends of French film were speaking out against the #MeToo movement. Catherine Deneuve co-signed an open letter in Le Monde declaring that “the sex drive is by nature offensive and savage,” and that “a woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being the sexual object of a man.” Indeed, in a lot of movies, that’s what romance is—a woman enjoying being the object of a potentially offensive “drive”—and all you have to do to make it “feminist” is show her leading a professional team first. (A depressing message: you don’t have to question power structures—just put the disempowered person at the top of the hierarchy in another scene.) The signatories also defended men’s “freedom to annoy [importuner], essential to sexual freedom.” In its way, the letter tapped into a common anxiety: What happens to sex if we get rid of power differentials? What if nothing is ever sexy again? To put it differently: How do you amp up sexual tension without problematizing consent?
Sciamma offers a solution in “Portrait,” in the first kiss scene. Héloïse and Marianne, standing in a windswept grotto and wearing scarves over the lower halves of their faces, lock eyes, and each pulls down her scarf. As it turns out, mutual consent doesn’t preclude risk and mystery. Another person is always a risk and a mystery. What if Héloïse sees Marianne as a collaborator in the plot to marry her off? What if Marianne sees Héloïse as just another workplace hassle? What if they just don’t like each other enough, or aren’t available for the connection—for the work and the wrenching it will entail?
When I saw “Portrait,” it felt like an answer to questions I’d been thinking about for years. In 2016, when I was thirty-eight, I met my partner, who is a woman. It was my first nonheterosexual relationship, and it resulted in a series of changes to my views not just of gender but also of genre (a word that, in French, conveniently covers both). For the first time, I realized the extent to which my ideas about womanly comportment—about the visual and auditory effects you were supposed to produce when you were, say, having sex, or driving a car, or writing a novel—came from movies. Such behavior, which had felt appropriate and legible in the presence of a real or an imagined man, now felt fake and insane.
And, yet, if that wasn’t the way to act, what was? The sex in “Portrait” felt revelatory, because of how completely it departed from the tropes of movie sex—even lesbian movie sex, which often follows the same beats, with a lot of wincing and gasping, as if the women involved were voluntarily, even vigorously, causing themselves distress. In “Portrait,” Héloïse produces a small box containing a mysterious drug, and she and Marianne rub it into each other’s armpits, so they can make time last longer, and it feels like you can see time expanding, like their pupils, and their kiss lasts forever, and then they have to drink a lot of water. “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne. But plenty of lovers aren’t inventing anything. They’re replaying scenes from movies.
Perhaps the most destabilizing aspect of the #MeToo revelations was learning that the movies themselves—which I had taken to be reflections of universal aesthetic norms, maybe even of biological or “hardwired” realities—were largely the imaginative products of a small group of sex criminals. In subsequent years, I found myself questioning many things I’d thought were at the core of my identity—including my love of literature. Why hadn’t I thought more about politics? How had I based so much of my world view on “Anna Karenina,” a book about a woman who has to die because she’s in love with a guy who isn’t as smart as she is? I’d always thought of myself as a feminist, because I had never believed that men were better than women. Yet I had also thought it was part of the rich, ineluctable fabric of the human condition for women to ruin their lives over unsatisfactory men.
One morning in Paris, I had an appointment to meet Sciamma at the Fontaine des Innocents, a sixteenth-century fountain originally adorned with nymph-themed bas-reliefs by Jean Goujon. The most famous of these, now housed in the Louvre, shows a not totally consensual-looking encounter between a nymph and a Triton. I spent a moment on the fountain’s Wikipedia, taking it all in: the muscular back of the grabby Triton; the nymph’s hand raised in an ineffectual gesture toward protecting her breasts; the dissipated-looking putto holding back some kind of drapery—possibly the curtain of the Triton’s flowing hair—to expose the scene to the viewer.
When did the term “rape culture” start to feel to me like an accurate description of reality? Two years ago? Three? How would I have thought of the nymph and the Triton twenty-five years ago, when I first visited Paris, as a college student? I felt confident that, even at eighteen, I would have described the putto as “dissipated.” But would I have thought that the Triton was hot? Would I have thought that the situation was hot? Possibly, probably: less because it corresponded to anything I recognized in my own sexual desires than because it was recognizable as a subject of great art, and what I wanted most at the time was to figure out the rules for how to be an artist. Insofar as I didn’t particularly love the rules, and hadn’t chosen them, wasn’t that what made them rules? Art wasn’t doing whatever you wanted. Art was discipline, and discipline was a kind of bondage.
What Sciamma has discovered is a serious, disciplined way of doing what you want. The discipline comes from being strong enough to not do what you don’t want. The principle operates even on the level of process. Sciamma begins work on a screenplay by drawing up two lists: a “desired” list, of the images and the lines that made her want to make the movie in the first place, and a “needed” list, of the scenes necessary to advance the plot. She then merges the lists, mapping the desired elements onto the needed scenes. She used to make a point of shooting any leftover needed scenes. Now she just crosses them off. By following this procedure, she says, you can end up “in a position where you have two scenes you want, without the bridge you need.” Confronted by such chasms, in the absence of bridges, Sciamma has discovered new ways of cutting, new rhythms, and new narratives.
When we first spoke, last spring, all I wanted to know was how Sciamma had known—how she hadn’t fallen for the same bill of goods I had. It took me a while to work up the nerve, but eventually I blurted out everything: the change in my life, the sense of having been duped, my impatience to know how she had been so much smarter than me. How had she known that the idea of narrative we were using was limited by bogus power structures? How did she know that you could cross things off the needed list?
She looked right at me, with a gentle smile: “I didn’t.”
“You . . . didn’t?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m like you. It’s not been long since I realized how big the scam was.”
The other day, she said, she had been thinking over the question “How would I shoot a rape scene, if I had to?,” and had suddenly realized that she’d done it already, in “Water Lilies.” Anne, a supporting character, has a crush on a handsome jock. One night, he shows up at her door and almost immediately starts having sex with her. There is no kissing. In a later scene, the jock tells Anne he actually likes her, and tries to kiss her. She leans toward him and spits in his mouth.
Fifteen years ago, when “Water Lilies” was released, audiences made disgusted sounds at the spitting scene. The year before last, Adèle Haenel screened the film in a high school, and the scene elicited cheers. The world had changed—and Sciamma hadn’t been so ahead of the world. At the time she made “Water Lilies,” she would never have used the word “patriarchy.” She had thought of the sex scene as “sad,” but she hadn’t thought of it as rape. The feelings had been there, but the words had come later.
When asked which of her films looked the most different to her today, she replied without hesitation: “Girlhood.” “It is problematic today,” she said. “Which means it was already problematic at the time.”
Released in 2014, “Girlhood” was the first film of its scale in France with an almost exclusively Black cast. It follows Marieme, a shy teen-ager trapped between an abusive older brother and a school system set up for her to fail. Falling in with a group of rowdy, self-confident girls, she comes out of her shell, trying on a series of different identities—wearing a slinky dress and dancing to Rihanna, getting in a street fight and slashing off another girl’s bra, running away from home and dressing in men’s clothes, wearing a blond wig while delivering drugs.
Like all Sciamma’s films, “Girlhood” got overwhelmingly positive reviews in the mainstream press. But it sparked a different conversation among Black feminists and academics.
“Everybody was waiting for this movie,” Mame-Fatou Niang, a professor of French at Carnegie Mellon University, recently told me. “It was our Wakanda.” On opening night, Niang was grading papers in her office when she got a Skype call from her sister. She had just seen the film and said it was full of stereotypes: an absent father, a silent mother, an abusive brother. And the brother barely talked, so you never found out why he acted that way; apparently, you didn’t need an explanation, since he was Black and lived in a banlieue. Niang wasn’t thrilled to hear that Marieme became a drug runner.
If she can’t get it, nobody will get it, Niang thought at the time, of Sciamma. Immediately after the call, she found herself on social media—“All of Black France was on Facebook,” she recalled—recruiting subjects for a documentary project that she had been wanting to make for years, about Black French women. She had been postponing it until after she got tenure, but now she felt it couldn’t wait. There are seven subjects in her film, “Mariannes Noires” (2016)—they include a choreographer, a restaurateur, and the founder of the first salon in Paris specializing in Black hair—and each represents a different way of being, in one’s body and in the world. Niang’s intention was to present viewers with an array of Black French narratives—to “let them know that something else is out there.”
Talking about “Girlhood” now, Sciamma is categorically undefensive: “For me, it’s really simple. If people you consider political allies are telling you, ‘This is not helping the revolution. This is even slowing the revolution,’ then they’re right. That’s it.” She has often spoken of a sense of living in a larger world, with a larger future, than she had imagined for herself. (“It’s such a relief that we can change,” she said at one point.) In the past, she had thought of herself as a “reformist,” not a revolutionary. That was her background: “neurotic political optimism on one side, and strong pessimism on the other.” (The optimism was on the immigrant side.) I recognized both emotions from my own interior life: the optimism about the arc of history, and the pessimism about collective action.
“It’s how we were collaborating,” Sciamma told me. “My first three films are collaborating with cinema and patriarchy.”
Sciamma’s second film, “Tomboy,” contains a scene in which a male-identifying child is physically forced to wear a dress. It’s horrible to watch—it feels like torture. Sciamma said that it had also been horrible to shoot. She would never film a scene like that today. At the time, she thought she had to force herself, because she was still “playing by the book.” She was already “trying to disrupt the book,” but still within “the rules of ‘legitimate screenwriting.’ ”
“Tomboy” is about a ten-year-old child, Laure, who moves to a new neighborhood and assumes a new identity, Mickaël. The parents don’t know that Laure is Mickaël, and the neighborhood kids don’t know that Mickaël is Laure. According to “the book”—specifically, the chapter on dramatic irony—the only point of constructing a plot like that is to set up an explosive scene of revelation, where conflict is pushed to the highest point, in the most violent, the most dramatic, way.
Sciamma’s more recent films depart from these rules. In the first part of “Portrait,” Marianne is pretending to be Héloïse’s paid companion while painting her portrait in secret. Why would anyone in a movie paint a secret portrait if not for it to be discovered and freaked out over? Instead, Marianne simply shows Héloïse the painting. Héloïse says it’s terrible and offers to help her make a better one. In “Petite Maman,” the dramatic irony is that Nelly is the only one who knows that her new friend is also her mother. We’re waiting for Marion to find out the truth, too, to refuse to believe it, to make a scene. Instead, Nelly just tells her, and Marion accepts it without question, and the movie continues. Perhaps Sciamma is on to a secret that nobody else has guessed: you don’t actually have to shoot Chekhov’s gun.
Sciamma loves pockets. At one point, I saw her discover, with visible satisfaction, a pocket she hadn’t known about—the tenth—inside the front panel of one of the two layered jackets she was wearing. (It easily accommodated several unfolded pieces of fan mail she had just received, including a photograph of a Louisiana woman’s “Portrait”-themed hand tattoo.) A committed thrifter, Sciamma does most of her own costume design. “Portrait,” of course, involved specially made eighteenth-century dresses. Sciamma followed the process closely, vetoing embroidery and frills, and insisting on pockets: a point not just of personal preference but of historical accuracy. It was only at the turn of the nineteenth century, she said, that women’s pockets had disappeared. There were a lot of theories about why. Maybe it was just that pockets no longer fit under women’s skirts, which had become more form-fitting, either because nobody wanted to wear the full skirts that so many people had recently been guillotined in or because the Industrial Revolution had made it possible to weave lighter fabrics. Sciamma herself was inclined to blame the Napoleonic Code, which drastically reduced women’s rights, in accordance with Rousseau’s ideas about the inferiority of women. Was it a coincidence that women lost their pockets—one of the few places they had to keep private belongings—just as the Code assigned control of their property to their fathers and husbands? Whatever the cause, the gentler sex had started going around in Empire waistlines, clutching reticules. So often, when you zoomed in on the supposed “march of progress” what you saw was more like a war: a cycle of hard-won victories and backlashes.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, hundreds of women painters, many of whom were portraitists, worked professionally in France, a practice that became harder for women later in the nineteenth century. Sciamma had chosen to set “Portrait” in the earlier period because her goal was to tell the story of a “working artist” doing a job—not the story of an “exceptional destiny.” The exceptional destiny, Sciamma says, is always politically problematic. That’s why she never considered having Héloïse and Marianne run away and live happily ever after. Why should she show people overcoming constraints, through some combination of ingenuity and intense desire, when most people had failed to overcome those constraints, regardless of how ingenious they had been or how intense their desire?
Sciamma decided not to base Marianne on a real historical figure, she said, because she wanted to avoid “the bio-pic dynamic”: the one where the whole movie feels like a justification of a famous person’s being famous. Inventing a fictional artist, it turned out, was a huge hassle. “I was always wondering, How come is it in cinema that they don’t invent painters? It’s always, like, Turner, van Gogh. Now I know.” Together with an art sociologist and a contemporary painter, Sciamma had had to invent everything from scratch: the paintings, the artist’s process, her style.
The hardest part had been Marianne’s two portraits of Héloïse: the first painted in secret, the second with Héloïse’s collaboration. They had to look like they were by the same person, but the second had to be better, and the first couldn’t be obviously bad. Each painting took the actual painter, Hélène Delmaire, more than eighty hours. It was too expensive to film the whole process, so a separate painting had to be produced for each scene, arrested at a different stage. “To make two paintings, I have to have like twenty-four of them,” Sciamma explained.
One afternoon, I stopped by the offices of Sciamma’s production company, Lilies Film, in the third arrondissement, to look at the twenty-four paintings. We headed to a storage room, where Sciamma began taking canvases from a shelf. First were several variants of the initial portrait, the secret one. It shows Héloïse looking directly at the viewer, with an alert, encouraging expression. Seen in varying stages of completion—the finished portrait next to the unfinished precursors—the face, dwindling away like the Cheshire Cat’s, looked particularly agreeable and complaisant, as if accepting its own dismantlement.
The second portrait, made with Héloïse’s collaboration, shows her from an angle, her expression guarded. She looks less like someone poised attentively to listen to a long story and more like someone with a long story of her own. Delmaire later told me that, whereas the first portrait had been relatively straightforward—she thought of it as an “eighteenth-century-filtered dating-app pic”—the second had been a balancing act, a reflection of Marianne’s conflicting desires: to please Héloïse’s mother, to impress Héloïse, to express her truth, but also to hold something back from Héloïse’s intended husband. On some level, Delmaire said, Marianne “keeps the whole real Héloïse to herself.”
When Sciamma placed the portraits side by side, the difference was striking. It wasn’t just that the second Héloïse looked more self-possessed, more “empowered.” The painting was more interesting. You wanted to keep looking at it, to toggle between different interpretations of what was in her face—triumph, contempt, vigilance, amusement. In a way, the difference between the two paintings illustrates the male gaze versus the female gaze, though it also gestures toward the limitations of those terms: the male gaze has become so internalized as to be almost indistinguishable from “technique.” When Héloïse looks at the first portrait and says, “Is that how you see me?,” Marianne, discomfited, replies that it isn’t about her: “There are rules, conventions, ideas.”
Later that afternoon, Sciamma and I headed to the Luxembourg Museum to see an exhibition of women painters working between 1780 and 1830: around the same period as “Portrait.” At a self-portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Sciamma pointed out the painter’s excited, lively expression, her parted lips that showed her teeth. “Men always paint women with their mouths closed,” she said. Nearby hung Vigée Le Brun’s 1783 portrait of Marie-Antoinette, removed from the Salon because it showed the queen in a loose chemise. Sciamma pointed out that these billowy, gathered sleeves had found their way into one of the Héloïse paintings in the film.
“I’m less into this canon,” she said, when we came to a handful of canvases with Biblical and epic subjects. One showed a weeping, generic-featured young woman in a flimsy dress, being smiled at by an avuncular bronze bust. The wall text identified her as the “Muse of Poetry Mourning the Death of Voltaire.” “She is crying, ‘Now we just have Rousseau,’ ” Sciamma said.
She stopped in front of a self-portrait by Marie-Nicole Vestier. Vestier was holding a palette and brushes while raising the curtain of a bassinet; a baby looked out at her with eager, outstretched arms. In the background were a cabinet bursting with books and a keyboard with sheet music. The title was “The Author at Her Occupations.”
Sciamma took a photograph on her phone. “I needed this! I needed to see women who are like this, and not like this,” she said, demonstrating a sassy attitude and then a decorative one. For the rest of the day, she periodically consulted her phone and said, “The author at her occupations.”
In between making “Girlhood” and “Portrait,” Sciamma wrote a children’s screenplay. (It was for “My Life as a Zucchini,” a 2016 film directed by Claude Barras.) Sciamma thinks the new experience of writing specifically for children—of trying to create a “safe space for a kid viewer”—“unlocked” something in her work. It was while she was sitting at an awards ceremony for “Zucchini,” in 2017, that a weirdly compelling image came to her mind: two little girls are building a hut together in the woods, and they’re the same age, but one is the mother and the other is the daughter. It’s the central image of “Petite Maman,” and its influence can also be felt in “Portrait.” In both films, intimate relationships play out on a fantasy plane of total political equality. In “Portrait,” it’s a romance—and an artist-model relationship—with no imbalance in gender or status or age. In “Petite Maman,” a parent and a child meet as equals. (To play the pair, Sciamma cast twins.) Everything goes well, a departure from the formational myths of psychoanalysis, which Sciamma sees as based in “rivalry and competition.”
In one scene in “Petite Maman,” adult-Marion discovers, among her mother’s effects, some of her own old grade-school notebooks. The notebooks shown are Sciamma’s, from when she was six. We looked through them together that first day at the café. In one, there was an unfinished story about a lost white dog who wants a warm house with good friends to love him. The dog encounters a series of neighborhood characters and asks if they want a good white dog for Christmas. They all decline. Tasked with writing an ending, six-year-old Sciamma came up with one sentence: “A chicken offers him her nest, and he says yes.”
“That’s the ending I want to every story,” Sciamma told me. “I want this ending to my story. I want the chicken.”
In the chicken’s magnanimous gesture, Sciamma now sees a narrative move away from conflict, toward desire. The starting premise of the story is that the dog wants love and a home, and can’t have them. He has to bargain, portraying himself as a Christmas present rather than as an asylum seeker. Such are the precepts that Sciamma absorbed as a screenwriting major at La Fémis, the French national film school. “We are born and raised in cinema being taught that conflict is the natural dynamic of the storyteller, and that a good scene is in a way a good bargain between characters,” she has said. But she’s more interested in what happens if the dog doesn’t have to bargain, or importune, or otherwise get past the chicken’s defenses. What if the chicken is already amenable? What new shape can the story take?
Since the days of Greek drama, it has been widely accepted that narrative centers on the agon: the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Sciamma increasingly doesn’t care about antagonists. In “Portrait,” she made a decision “not to tell about the obstacles, the enemies, the traps, men.” (From the moment, early in the film, when a perfunctory oarsman dumps Marianne’s luggage on the beach and hurries back to his boat, we don’t set eyes on another man for more than ninety minutes.)
She’s also no longer interested in making the viewer suffer. “Water Lilies” was supposed to hurt, forcing you to inhabit the subjectivity of a teen girl for the whole running time. Sciamma had been “aiming at the stomach,” even with the sound design, learning to use the subwoofer to target the gut. The film’s French title, “Naissance des Pieuvres” (“Birth of Octopuses”), is a reference to a line from Proust that compares sexual jealousy to an octopus. She wanted you to feel the octopus in your stomach.
Sciamma thinks of the octopus differently now: not as jealousy, she says, but as desire. The problem was that, “as a teen-ager, the way I identified my desire was through jealousy.” I was reminded of René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. According to Girard, desire is based not on the actual properties of the object but, rather, on the idea that someone else wants it. It’s thus inseparable from rivalry and violence. At the mention of Girard, Sciamma’s face brightened; he had been an important theorist for her in graduate school. She still thought the theory described reality. But, whereas she used to think, That’s how it goes, and that’s what feelings are, she now saw the problem as culturally determined: part of the scam.
In canonical, historically male storytelling, Sciamma suggested, the character’s desire is itself a source of conflict: “ ‘I wanna be rich, but I’m in love with that girl.’ Or, ‘I have to be the Godfather, but I wish I could be an artist.’ There’s the official desire, and there’s the secret desire. There’s never just one desire.” For a long time, she said, she had looked at her life with “conflicted desire.” Had the subtext perhaps been “that big conflict in desire that is designed for us by society—every woman?” Part of her new freedom, she said, was, at forty-three, “knowing now this very clear thing in my life, that I won’t be a mother.”
Today, when she thinks about her work, she no longer has two warring thoughts: on the one hand, “Oh I love my job, I’m all about my job, I do my best, I’m so privileged,” and, on the other, “I’m tired, and I never go on holiday, what is my private life?”
“Now I’m, like, ‘No, this is my life! I make films because I like the life that I lead making films.’ It’s all career. It’s not, like, ‘Oh, I’m making films, so I don’t have a wife.’ I make films also to fall in love, because I’m gonna travel, I’m gonna meet people. It’s not like then it has a downside. That’s your life.”
What if the thing you’ve been weighing against “life” is itself life? What if it’s all one thing, and not a bunch of trade-offs? “I’m not saying that you have to love it all,” Sciamma said. “But, yes, you should love it all.”
Sciamma has little patience for people who claim that the current political climate is “bad for art.” “If we listen to them,” she said, “it would be, like, ‘O.K., so what do you want, Black women doing fiction around consent?’ Yes, it’s ‘I May Destroy You.’ It’s the best thing I’ve seen.” An avid television viewer, she can quote Hannah Gadsby from memory, and recount whole plotlines from “The Good Fight.” She regularly visits TikTok, admiring the standard of editing there. Since the early pandemic, she has also been reading obsessively—“for hours and hours, more than I was in college”—mostly works by and about lesser-known women artists from the past.
The new view afforded on the past is, for Sciamma, part of the present moment. On a recent Zoom call, she was waving around a giant French edition of Patricia Highsmith’s recently published diaries: now we had access to the experiences of a lesbian from the forties all the way to the nineties! The next minute, she was enthusing about Andrea Arnold’s new documentary, “Cow”: now we had access to the experiences of a cow! How lucky we are, Sciamma says, “to have always ahead of us some kind of new excitement, whether it’s a new girl in town or this old lady we didn’t hear about.”
Particularly significant for Sciamma has been the rediscovery, in the past decades, of numerous women pioneers of silent film, especially Alice Guy (Alice Guy-Blaché), who directed what has sometimes been referred to as the first narrative fiction film (“The Cabbage Fairy,” in 1896). Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Guy worked as the head of France’s Gaumont Studio, started her own studio, and made more than a thousand films. By 1927, nearly all the prints had been lost, and Guy’s own efforts to find them were unsuccessful in her lifetime. She was routinely omitted from film histories. Renewed scholarly efforts have led to the recovery of more than a hundred of her movies.
Sciamma and I watched one of them on YouTube, “The Consequences of Feminism” (1906). In a living room, a man is industriously ironing while another man sews; a woman saunters past them, casually puffing a cigarette. The characters’ air of self-satisfied normalcy makes the scene feel revolutionary: an insight into the absurdity of gender roles. The men don’t look resentful or like they consider themselves oppressed; they look self-important, fussy, convinced of the significance of their activity. The system is working.
The last scene takes place in a café, where women are drinking, smoking, and reading newspapers. Men have gathered outside, two of them pushing baby carriages. Male suffragists start trying to get into the café. They give impassioned speeches, some of them clutching babies. After several attempts, they succeed in driving the women out.
Sergei Eisenstein writes in his memoir about seeing this film at age eight, at a theatre in Riga. (He doesn’t mention the title, and scholars only recently made the connection.) He had been particularly struck by the last scene, with the women in the café and the husbands standing outside in what he remembered as “an endless line of baby carriages.” Children of his age weren’t supposed to see such images, which seems to have contributed to etching them into his mind. When the ladies were driven out of the café, Eisenstein recalls being “(almost) carried out of the cinema” as he grabbed futilely at chairs, unable to tear his eyes from the screen. “The Consequences of Feminism” stayed with Eisenstein all his life, like “La Maternelle” did with Sciamma’s grandmother. A drawing of what looks like the café scene, prominently featuring a baby carriage, appears in Eisenstein’s teen-age sketchbook. In “Battleship Potemkin,” he summed up the brutal quashing of a mutiny in the famous image of a baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps.
“Our culture is at the stage of memories. It’s not at the stage of history,” Sciamma told me, in an early conversation. The historical record is so incomplete that it has to be supplemented, even supplanted, by remembered stories. “You still have to tell the story. You can’t quote. Not yet.” She added, “That’s lesbian culture. Sorry.” Gesturing with a cigarette, she emphasized the second syllable in a French-sounding way that made it clear she wasn’t sorry. Then she quoted Sappho’s Fragment 147: “someone will remember us / I say / even in another time.”
“Someone,” she emphasized. “Not ‘this country,’ not ‘poetry,’ not ‘literature.’ Someone.”
The limitations of recorded history were impressed again on Sciamma when her team sent a list of questions about “Portrait” to a historian. “The guy had no answers about what card games you could play, or if you want to drug yourself, or if you want to abort,” she recalled. Instead, in response to a wig-related inquiry, he offered a lengthy commentary on filmmakers’ “deplorable mania” for showing eighteenth-century women going outside without hats. That was one thing the official channels of history were good for: “patronizing women about what they should wear, two hundred and fifty years later.” Two women alone on a windswept coast, savoring a moment of freedom that they knew wouldn’t be repeated—for whose benefit would they have worn hats? And who would have known if they hadn’t?
Earlier, Sciamma had been struck by a line from one of Annie Ernaux’s novels: “I do not believe there exists a ‘Workshop of the Backstreet Abortionist’ in any museum in the world.” Of all the reclining nudes and odalisques in the history of European painting, how many have ever been shown dealing with an uninvited pregnancy? “Portrait” includes a scene of Marianne painting an abortion. Pics or it didn’t happen: that’s why Sciamma is an artist. She’s producing the images we haven’t inherited.
“If you’re not transmitted, then you always have to invent,” she told me. “There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with that. There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with having to invent what it’s like to kiss a woman when I haven’t seen it. But you do. You invent it.” ♦
Published in the pr
int edition of the February 7, 2022, issue, with the headline “Now You See Me.”
Tags: Céline Sciamma
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