Movie Makers from the Margins: Celine Sciamma

Written by Erin Fenner

French filmmaker, Celine Sciamma, brings you uncomfortably close to the lives of adolescents.

She does this intentionally, but not in a voyeuristic way that so often comes along with any Hollywood film. Instead, her proximity to her characters creates a level of intense intimacy. Even when her characters are dealing with issues like sexuality, her work doesn’t feel sexy, but nerve-wracking, like being a teenager does.

In her first feature-length film, Water Lilies¸ we follow the experiences of three girls who are on a synchronized swimming team together. We see their stories through their eyes only – rarely even glimpsing a character who is older than 18.

The girls are all trying to understand how sex and desire fit into their lives. Marie (Pauline Acquart), who we follow most closely, longs for Floriane (Adele Haenel). Anne (Louise Blachere) longs for Francois (Warren Jacquin). Floriane seems fixated more on the functioning of her own desire and how it can connect her to many people, rather than any one individual.

Louise Blachere, Pauline Acquart and Adele Haenel in Water Lilies
We see them clumsily sort out their first interactions with their own desire and the desire of others. While Floriane flirts with Marie, she is not monogamous in her affection. And this functions as a regular torture for Marie, who spends much of her time helping Floriane meet with boys. Francois walks in on Anne while she is completely naked, and this moment catalyzes Anne’s burgeoning infatuation with Francois.

In her second film, Tomboy, we meet Laure (Zoe Heran) who expresses hirself as a boy. While the film doesn’t explore whether Laure identifies as a boy, it does sift through the complications that come with assigned gender. It also touches on how we make assumptions about a person’s identity and how antagonistic adults, in particular, can be toward androgyny.  

The American approach to stories about youth usually looks as though they’ve been filmed through a gauzy lens. American audiences are bombarded by nostalgia for fat-cheeked childhood. And, lessons of discovery and coming-of-age are typically shown through the perspective of the privileged. Sciamma does fall into the trap of focusing solely on white stories, and while it’s a relief to see stories that aren’t just focused on cis-males, it would be better to explore issues of race as well.

She does try to address these identities as authentically as possible. Sciamma comments on this and says casting is important to her.
“I chose them to be very age appropriate to the story, because I wanted that innocence and fear and inexperience and passion to come through. I didn’t think a 20-year-old playing 15 would give that same performance,” Sciamma said in a 2008 interview with Go Magazine.

And because her actors are the age of the characters, the pathos is stronger and the emotional arc is more realistic. We can connect to the sexual experiences of the girls without sexualizing them.

In the same interview, Sciamma talked about being outed as gay by the American press.

“I am a lesbian director, but I’m also a woman director, and a French director. If you add them all, it’s okay, but separating one out is not honest. In France there is less of a question of whether you are a lesbian or not. It’s other places that it is such a big deal,” she said.

She talked about the issue of being a woman and a director in another interview with Canape in 2008.
“The secrets of the girls I think is the secrets of women in general. That’s why I made the movie, because I think cinema has really been celebrating women but it’s always men doing the talking and it’s always in the man’s point of view. I think the secrets of women is that they have no secrets. They can be cruel. They can be ugly. They can be beautiful. They can be awkward. Cinema is always enhancing the mysteries of women. What I wanted to tell is what is behind the mysteries.”

And in not trying to enhance anything about the experiences of girls and women, Sciamma provides a refreshing narrative about coming of age.