Movies can’t help but reflect current culture, but some filmmakers stand out for portraying themes that nail the zeitgeist. Since her 2007 debut Water Lilies, a lesbian coming of age drama, French writer director Celine Sciamma, has carved a distinctive place in contemporary cinema. Water Lilies played Cannes and picked up three Cesar awards, and her 2011 follow-up film Tomboy, written and shot in nine weeks, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was shown in French schools as part of an educational program.
Completing the coming of age trilogy was Girlhood (2014), selected for Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. Girlhood focuses on a very contemporary character rarely, if ever, seen as the main protagonist, a teenage black girl. Marieme and her friends reflect current social themes as they text, take selfies and exchange viral videos.
For a debut film, Water Lilies hit the ground running. Stylish, confident filmmaking with wonderful cinematography by Crystel Fournier (who brought her intimate and sensual touch to the whole trilogy), the film confronts us with young female eroticism and unrequited desire. From body hair inspections to pretty/ugly politics, Water Lilies offered an undeniable female perspective that had never been seen before in quite the same way.
The power of Sciamma’s work is her extraordinary aesthetic and emotional story telling, coupled with great technical skill. Sciamma has said that fashion and style form an important part of characterisation which is why, though uncredited, she works as the costume designer on her films. She is also in demand as a screenplay writer, notably Andre Techine’s Being 17 (2016) and the multi award winning animation My Life as a Courgette (2016) for Swiss director Claude Barras.
Apart from skill in the craft, a clear vision of who you are and what you stand for inevitably adds power to a film maker’s voice and Sciamma, who has also been a film academic, is in no doubt about who she is and what concerns her.
As a lesbian and feminist, she directed her first short film Pauline in 2009 as part of a government anti-homophobia campaign. She was one of the first to sign up for the French branch of the 5050 by 2020 movement, a group of French film industry professionals advocating for gender parity in cinema by the year 2020. In 2018, she was one of the organisers and participants, along with Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay and Agnes Varda, in women’s protests against inequality at the Cannes Film Festival. She has a strong, clear voice, and is outspoken about misogyny and cinema.
“The critics’ world is very male-dominated and sometimes we can definitely feel the sexism in our reviews.”
Of Girlhood she said, “I wanted to stick with the rules of the emancipation novel (and tell the story of) a young girl who wants to live her life and be free, who wants to avoid the destiny set for her.”
A similar theme drives the character of Heloise, the ‘lady on fire’ herself in the film that seems to have been screened and reviewed just about everywhere this year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma told Screen Daily she was obsessed with making Portrait a love story about equality. “There was no gender domination because it was two women. But there’s also no intellectual domination. (I am) offering a new experiment, a new experience to the audience. If there is equality, there is not all the usual conflicts. We are putting the audience in a new, active position, changing the dynamics of power”.
The film premiered In Competition at Cannes where it won the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay Award. Sciamma’s crew reflected her take on gender equity with a female producer, DP, costume designer and editor, and of course the overwhelmingly female cast.
Set in 18th century France, the central love story is between portrait painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and bride to be Heloise (Adele Heanel). On the surface, the setting is in sharp contrast to Sciamma’s previous films based firmly in modern culture, yet the themes of women’s expression, desire and freedom are up to the minute contemporary.
The period drama, as illustrated by everything from Austen to Downton Abbey and Colette, is a great device for stripping away the modern layer of assumed equality to reveal themes that many women still experience, that their bodies aren’t their own, and society is built on patriarchal values where women are essentially property.
In Portrait we hear that one young woman most likely killed herself as the only way out of an arranged marriage. The family negotiated with the eligible bridegroom so that the dead girl’s sister would fill the gap. A portrait is to be painted for him of this sister, Heloise. In a characteristic female act of defence, Heloise uses the only means she can – passive resistance against the portrait being completed. There is an emotional scene where Heloise defends herself to her more liberated lover Marianne for submitting to the marriage. “Don’t condemn me,” she says, “what choice do I have?” These rigid underlying realities make for terrific dramatic tension as well as highlighting issues of feminist debate in the most searing ways.
Bringing in a third character who is disenfranchised by class as well as gender, the young servant Sophie, played with wonderful naturalism by Luanda Bajrami, is an excellent sub plot as she attempts to deal with an unwanted pregnancy that she must hide from her employer.
Portrait follows tropes of female-centred art by being an interior, personal domestic story, but Sciamma illustrates stakes at their highest, life and death, and the reach into social context is unmistakeable. Then there is the clear reference to ‘the gaze’, a common theme in feminist debate where women are the objects of male regard, classification and ascribed roles. Sciamma makes a lot of the fact that the two women are looking at each other, and there’s an exchange of miniature portraits that offers another layer – women reflecting each other to the exclusion of men.
The absence of men throughout is notable, though they pervade the narrative by the power they wield. They appear briefly at the beginning and end where Marianne is the lone female in groups of men, reflecting her status and what she has to negotiate as a singular professional female.
“There are no men in the film and that pisses off the men,” Sciamma told Wenlei Ma of news.com. “They’re really not happy with the fact they’re not on the screen. We’re showing them what has been happening to us for 100 years of cinema.”
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in cinemas now.