‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ director Céline Sciamma builds poignant, thematic body of work

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Céline Sciamma was born in a region of France called Pontoise, Val-d’Oise in 1978 and attended La Fémis, the leading film school in France. An avid reader, she became interested in film in her teenage years. Sciamma always knew that she was gay, and so learning about her sexuality and interests was harder in an age before the internet. So, her source of information was the library and film. When she was at La Fémis, she wrote her first script, Water Lilies, as part of final evaluation. The chairman of the evaluation panel, Xavier Beauvoir, who is also considered her mentor, urged her to make the film, which she did the following year in her hometown. 

Sciamma’s debut film Water Lilies (2007) tells the story of three girls around the age of 15, realizing their sexuality and pressures of virginity. The film was selected to play at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival in the section of Un Certain Regard and received three nominations for the 2008 César Awards: Sciamma was nominated for Best Debut, and Adèle Haenel and Louise Blachère were nominated for Most Promising Actress. Water Lilies has had positive reviews, and according to Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus, it’s a “provocative coming-of-age story that captures the anxieties of the early teen years.” 

In 2010, Sciamma co-wrote the film Ivory Tower, a story of an unhealthy rivalry over chess and a woman between two chess-playing brothers, Hershell and Thadeus. Sciamma’s next film was Tomboy (2011). She directed and wrote the screenplay of this film, that is about a family moving into a new neighborhood, where a 10-year-old named Laure presents themself as a boy called Mikhael to the neighborhood children on purpose. It received a lot of positive reviews, commenting on the question of Laure’s sexuality and gender identity. It’s a feel-good movie that paints the picture of a beautiful world and a loving family. The film had worldwide box office success and won many awards on the festival circuit. 

GIRLHOOD

Sciamma directed and wrote Girlhood (2014), a film about a girl joining a gang, how she changes who she is and how she gains confidence. Throughout the film, she begins to question whether this new life truly makes her happy. “This should be very grim stuff,” FF2 Media Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner writes in her review, “but Sciamma fills the screen instead with gorgeous images of young women at the peak of their beauty.” It received positive reviews overall, saying that it has purpose, and connects the viewers with lives that we can sympathize with. It is a film that audience members can easily understand without having to do any hard analysis (that’s not to say that it is not a provocative piece, just that there aren’t any hidden messages). 

In 2016, Céline Sciamma wrote the screenplay to Being 17. When a bully’s mother is sick, the son of a doctor and a soldier has to learn to live with the boy who terrorized him. This film focuses on the teens learning about their sexuality. It has received several positive reviews, and won the Golden Swan Award for Best Male Revelation at the Cabourg Romantic Film Festival, and has been nominated for many other awards.  

In 2016, Sciamma also wrote the screenplay to My Life as a Zucchini, which is based on a novel by Gilles Paris. This is a feel-good film about a recently orphaned boy finding a life where he is loved by friends and carers-givers. He is sent to a foster home where he meets several children in similar situations as he is, and they collectively learn the meaning of love and trust. It is comforting to see that these children who have already gone through a lot of hardship and pain in their young lives have people backing them up and supporting them. As FF2 Media’s Huttner says, it is a “Perfectly-told tale of a French boy who is sent to a group home after his mother dies” and “Animated with dazzling style.” Sciamma does a wonderful job of turning the heavy subject of abandonment into something heartwarming. This animation achieved a 99 percent Fresh from Rotten Tomatoes and has gained a lot of praise, winning 23 awards, including the Dublin International Film Festival’s Dublin Film Critics Special Jury Prize, and Lumiere Awards, France for Best Screenplay. It also received a BAFTA nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, an Academy Awards Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, and the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Animated. 

MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Céline Sciamma’s most recent movie is the critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Set in 18th century Brittany, France, a young painter, Marianne, is commissioned to paint Héloïse’s wedding portrait without her noticing or modelling. In order to do so, Marianne must pay attention to every detail of Héloïse’s face and body. They form a close bond in Héloïse’s last few days of freedom before reluctantly getting married. The film is very intimate, paying close attention to detail, just like the painter has to, which makes every subtle movement significant. Funnily enough, despite the rest of the world becoming infatuated with their relationship, in France, Sciamma says that “they don’t find the film hot”. Portrait of a Lady on Fire had significant success at the box office and won 43 awards and 125 nominations.

Aside from directing and writing, Sciamma is also an activist. She is a feminist, and was a founding member of the French branch of the “5050 by 2020” movement. This movement consists of French film professionals advocating gender parity in the film industry by 2020. She uses her movies to highlight the female gaze. At the premiere of her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her and lead actress Adèle Haenel wore 50/50 badges in support of the movement. In 2020, Sciamma and many others joined Haenel in a walk out of the 45th César Awards when a convicted child rapist Roman Polanski won Best Director. 

Despite changes in Sciamma’s budget and the scale of her works since her debut film Water Lilies, she has always maintained working around the same theme of desire, sexuality, and life encounters – especially with women. 

© Sophia Jin (5/6/20) FF2 Media

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Featured photo: Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel on the set of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Credit: Claire Mathon )

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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