In the current cinema landscape, there is arguably no director making movies like French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Despite only directing four films to date, with screenwriting credits on a handful of other projects, Sciamma’s oeuvre has been met with critical acclaim both domestically and overseas – and rightly so. As an out lesbian, her films delve into depictions of gender fluidity and sexual identity through young female characters. There is a simplicity to her style, utilising the emotive power of the image, which makes Sciamma’s stories so absorbing to watch.
Her debut feature, Water Lilies, could be regarded as a warm-up. Written at film school, the film is set amongst the suburbs of Paris during a humid summer: it follows three teenage girls and their individual sexual awakenings. The timid Marie is attracted to the synchronised swimming team captain, popular girl Floriane, while Marie’s best friend Anne has growing feelings towards local darling François. Each of these stories intertwine as the characters face up to their adolescence: Floriane regards her looks as a curse, bringing unwanted sexual attention, whereas Anne is seen as an outcast because of her appearance. Although it doesn’t have the intense emotion of her later work, Water Lilies is a bold, honest first feature.
Tomboy, her next film, heightened Sciamma’s global profile. Centred around a 10-year-old settling into a new neighbourhood, the gender non-conforming Laure adopts the name Mickäel and presents as a boy. It is through the innocent lens of childhood, where children flow between genders before reaching puberty, that leads to an astonishing, powerful meditation on gender identity. Zoé Héran is extraordinary as Laure/Mickäel. Her performance allows the audience to interpret the character in whatever way they desire. To quote Roger Ebert’s review, ‘[i]f you think you’re looking at a boy, you see one. If a girl, then that’s what you see.’
Sciamma’s next two high-profile projects would differ significantly. Her third feature, Girlhood, follows a young black girl, Marieme, as she grows up in the banlieues of Paris. An electrifying coming-of-age narrative, full of joy, vibrancy and hope, Sciamma used non-professional actors (a casting method also used on Water Lilies and Tomboy) to convey the authentic stories of black teenagers, a demographic that has traditionally been ignored in French cinema. The director also had a significant role in stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette, winning the César Award for Best Adaptation for her part in writing the film’s script. The film achieved universal acclaim and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in 2017.
This brings us to the present day and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which has been Sciamma’s biggest success so far. Set at the end of the 18th century, the film tracks the romance between portrait artist Marianne and her subject, young noblewoman Héloïse. The filmmaker explores the female gaze through this budding affair, in what proves to be one of the purest lesbian romances in cinematic history. Portrait is Sciamma’s masterpiece, certainly her best film, and will undoubtedly serve as a case study in film classes for many future generations. Thanks to MUBI, the success of Portrait has meant Sciamma’s earlier work has received a much wider audience. As Pride month continues, it is about time one of cinema’s LGBT+ underdogs gets the recognition and fanbase she deserves.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), directed by Céline Sciamma, was distributed in the UK by Artificial Eye, certificate 15. Watch the trailer below: