This interview appears in the book Architetture del desiderio. Il cinema di Céline Sciamma. The first study devoted to the French filmmaker, it features essays by authors Federica Fabbiani and Chiara Zanini (who are also the editors), along with Daniela Brogi, Elisa Cuter, Ilaria Feole, and Silvia Nugara. The afterword was written by Ilaria A. De Pascalis. Published in 2021, the book is for sale at the Electa Bookshop on the Lido or else online on the publisher Asterisco’s website, and through many other online ticket outlets.
Good morning, Céline, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. You wrote your first film, Water Lilies, while still a student at La Fémis, where you received a degree in screenwriting. You already had a degree in French literature under your belt. You’ve always said that directing films was not your initial aim, until the filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, on the commission when you graduated, suggested you direct the film as well. It isn’t common to make one’s directorial debut with a feature film, and yet, soon after graduating and after a few meetings with the producers you crossed paths with, Les Productions Balthazar, you made Water Lilies with them. How was the transition from screenwriting to directing?
Actually, I couldn’t say that I really felt like a filmmaker yet, or had really understood how to connect the directing with the writing. I didn’t get a literary sort of thrill from writing, and I could never have written novels, for example. Writing a script means thinking about how to direct it. It’s that simple, but back then I didn’t understand how I myself fit into the process. It was other people who told me that my writing already contained elements of directing, form and structure, so I could go it alone. When I realized that as well, it became the clearest thing in my life.
You once said, “I spent my whole life loving films that sometimes hated me back: identifying with Superman, for example.” Who are the female and male filmmakers who contributed to your own growth, and with whom you feel an affinity with, in your career and as the woman you are today?
There are two ways to answer that question. There’s the chronological truth, which regards the directors whom we meet in our formative years as cinephiles and who change us. And there’s Noémie Lvovlsky, the first woman filmmaker I identified with. There’s David Lynch, who I feel has explored the theme of what being a woman means, and I was very taken with that; plus the French director Patricia Mazuy. And yet I think it’s more interesting for me to comment on the present: that is, everything I’ve learned about the history and the culture of women filmmakers whom I had never heard of in the early days, and which allows me to make connections to the works I discover today. This is why I’d rather reference the work of filmmakers whose films I hadn’t seen yet, such as Alice Guy, Mabel Normand, Chantal Akerman, Yannick Bellon, Germaine Dulac, and Marie Epstein. I find that more interesting than telling you whether or not and to what degree Steven Spielberg was important to me. There are things that may not have been passed on to us yet we have have somehow acquired, in one way or another.
So one could almost say these are retroactive influences on the part of the women filmmakers you mentioned?
Actually, I don’t call them influences; I prefer to consider them common ground. I enjoy making lists of the things I didn’t know but that already had something in common with me. I have been influenced by cinema and that sort of language. Cinema in the sense of life, and I wanted to live it. I depart from the mainstream view of influence, perhaps because I’m a woman.
Your trilogy focuses on female adolescence, which is fairly unusual in itself, considering that ‘coming-of-age’ films are mainly about adolescent boys and their natural desire to explore, bond with other males, and struggle to succeed in the world. How does that narrative change when the main characters are female?
I certainly don’t believe that it has to change just because the characters are women. And I don’t even believe that is the way the question should be framed, if one is attempting to achieve a truly new idea of representation. Normally, if you’re writing a screenplay and you ask, “What if the character was a woman?”, there’s no real shift at all. It remains a side issue. If you choose to show a violent woman cop or a war-hungry woman president of country, or a female pacifist, there’s going to be no real difference, in my opinion. No real change, just because the same structures are at work. The issue isn’t the gender of the characters; it’s the desire to tamper with the structures. That goes for any kind of structure: the cinematic conventions as expressed in narrative forms, the patriarchy, everything. If there’s no female character challenging the patriarchal structure, no difference is made and nothing will change. When there is a female character, things change only if there’s a different attitude towards her: if we subscribe to her subjectivity; if we understand the situations she must face. Adding a single woman character is not going to start a revolution – no such luck. The cultural realm and the fictional realm are not safe places for women. We are still in that same patriarchal system that we need to hack: the one in which women could never save themselves. Which is why I said that for my whole life I loved films that hated me. Those films were full of violence towards women, and most importantly, they never enabled me to relate to the subjectivity and experience of the characters. Which is in itself truly a form of violence.
So how does this ‘tampering with’ the system come about, then?
In order to overthrow the patriarchal structure, one way of doing it is to place the female character in a condition of oppression, but the situation she is in needs to be shared. It’s not about building utopias; it’s about sharing the same point of view. If you are going to put the female character in the situation of being a victim, someone who has been molested or attacked, you absolutely must be on her side. And this is the direction that narrative films are going in, often gaining a political dimension, by virtue of which they may have a social impact as well. Take the streaming platforms’ catalogues, for example: they are clearly a way to seduce certain niche audiences and therefore have an economic rationale, among others. But that’s the dream factory for you: always trying, at its best, to wed art and profit. I believe it is right, then, that this – which is an industry, lest we forget, and will remain one – should prompt artists to go the extra mile and commit themselves politically, so they will be worthy of audiences who are often much better informed than the artists themselves are.
Your films show children and teenagers who are not active on social media. Or are they? What is your vantage point on an age that is famously misunderstood?
I use Twitter and Instagram all the time and am a ‘tourist’ on Tik Tok. I consider social media an additional tool for finding information, laughing, learning, and above all understanding others. But I don’t use them to bone up on youth, as if it were an age that needs to be understood. It isn’t. It’s an age we’ve all gone through and that we understand perfectly. It comes down to a choice: respect youth, or despise it. And for thirty years now, in France, at least, youth has been deprecated: despised by parents, by the left – given that my generation grew up in a leftist France, or at least, a France that says it is leftist. I’m a social media user because I’m an enthusiast.
Do you think that a teenager who watches your films will understand themself better? Was this one of your aims behind the variety of themes that abound in the trilogy, such as the awakening of sexual desire, the uncertainty over gender identity, and belonging to a community – not always easy – for example?
Of course. There’s always a design to all my films, and I address the spectators, male and female, directly. I always bear in mind the person I want to reach, and each film has its own specific program. Water Lilies is directed at adolescent girls on their own. Tomboy speaks to both children and adults, who harbor within the children they once were, and from this perspective I consider the film a success, because this is exactly what happened. My idea is to always try to understand whom I want to address when the audience sits down in the darkened movie theater. And that theater wasn’t supposed to have just white people in the audience, for Girlhood; it had to have several generations of women there for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and I do hope there will be children and adults in equal numbers for the next film [Petite maman, N.d.T].
You have said that cinema is the only art that is able to truly show the solitude of the characters: female characters, in your case. Exposing all their vulnerability, more often than not. And film does this, not by means of a psychological analysis, but through the exhibition of human bodies, and the way they conform to or else rebel to the discipline imposed by the patriarchal society or the male gaze. In all your films, a state bordering on a real union with another – either an individual other or a collective one – is achieved, yet it never lasts. Does a person need to go it alone to survive, then?
Yes, that is the way I see it. I never would have said so in my early days, but I do think it refers more to life experiences than to cinema; I believe we are always responsible for our own lives, and as such the connection with solitude is inevitable. Being responsible means examining one’s soul, challenging oneself, carrying on an ongoing dialogue with oneself, and with that solitude as a point of departure, setting a goal with and for others. I also feel that everything we hear about living as a couple as the better option, forming small, closed units, is all very reassuring, true, but the fact is it runs counter to the idea of community. In my view, it’s the collectives that afford the most genuine, useful, profound, and even more sincere bonds, compared with those formed in a romance or within families. Which is why characters end up on their own in my films. Solitude or abandonment have nothing to do with it. I always wonder, what exactly is this union that they always sell us as the only true path to growth and happiness? In my films, the ending isn’t even about happiness or unhappiness; what really interests me is pinpointing a process of development that leads to a transformation. Which brings us back to the crucial idea of individual responsibility, which plays such an important role in personal transformation. If you look around, it’s not hard to see that behind a process that gets blocked is often a person’s refusal to transform themselves or acknowledge their own mistakes, or the person is afraid of even having the desire to change.
The soundtrack, even in just the sounds the bodies or objects make, is a part of a film that you put a lot of care into. How is it conceived and where does it fit into the various stages of the film, from concept to filming to editing?
Music is something I’m already thinking about while writing the film, whether or not I then decide to use it. For Water Lilies, even if it was my very time time around, I knew that I would need a geniune soundtrack. A final, epic piece of music, plus an original song, which led to there being very different songs with no real connection between them. For Tomboy, on the contrary, I only wanted one song, and that was also original, composed for the film itself. For Girlhood, I chose hits by Rihanna, the wildly famous singer; her songs perfectly conveyed the idea of something growing. And there was no soundtrack for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, just one original song made for the film, and available to me even before filming started. In fact, I have never bought the rights to the music in my films, except in the case of Rihanna and any classical music. In any event, each film is different in that respect. For my next film, for example, I’ve already spoken with a composer about what I’m looking for, but the composer will then have total freedom of action. After reading the screenplay, they have two or three months to compose the music. If I have the original pieces by the time we start filming, great. If not, I just do without. It’s not a big problem.
The abortion scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire got a lot of people talking, since it is possibly the one that most compels us to think about women’s self-determination, rather than about other aspects of the film. And it’s placed in a story that is itself sure to become a feminist classic. The women in the starring roles make up a microcosm that is self-sufficient, thus creating a kind of utopia. Was this was you were aiming at on your first draft? Or is it there because you, too, felt the lack of a treatment of abortion on film that was judgment-free?
Yes, I did want to have an abortion scene in the film, and I needed it essentially to demonstrate two things: one, that an abortion can be shown on film, something that is extremely rare in cinema; and two, that it doesn’t have to be an isolated episode but can be integrated completely into the narrative dynamic of the film. That scene was a necessary step for me.
Your extraordinary treatment of the gaze and the “female gaze” in Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire means that the film dialogues directly with the visual arts in general. For example, with the work of feminist artists from the 1970s, we feel. Do you agree? If so, could you tell us something about the references from that period that most interested you?
Yes, I agree. And in this case as well, the references to women artists hold for me today, in the present. I don’t like the idea of life being a series of aesthetic shocks that turn you into what you are now. Those are sensations, and should be welcomed as such. To be brief, I may as well list them all. Louise Bourgeois, all the women artists of her time and what followed; the impressionists, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot. All the ages come to mind. Judith Leister. Francesca Goodman, for photography. What I really do is go from one woman artist to the next, trying to learn from them all. In Portrait there was this very idea of representing all the arts: painting, drawing, embroidery, music, singing. Just dance was missing. And we see these women practicing all these different arts, and literature, poetry, and philosophy.
How do you work on the cinematography with the DoP Claire Mathon? How much do you team up with the rest of the crew on your films?My modus operandi is very participatory with everyone working on my films, and I fully respect the personal skills of each one of them. I don’t think of it as a solitary endeavor, with them bringing me the things I ask for. It’s a highly collaborative process, in which we all contribute, in an ensemble effort. With Claire Mathon, as well, we start with the concept and start talking very early about our desires for the project; we create and sort of fan desire for the project itself so that something stirs inside her even before she reads the script. Then we read, discuss, try this and that, divide the film into shots and sequences. In the end, the dialogue is more philosophical than technical. As for Portrait, we thought hard about what a historical film is. Today we’re working in a different way, for example, and it’s the lighting we’re concentrating on for the new film. The way we work changes depending on what we are seeking to really do through the film, but a lot of it hinges on the dialogue we manage to create together. I do trust her completely; to tell the truth, even if I didn’t say a word, I think she’d understand anyway. What’s really wonderful is having this exchange and ‘nourishing’ each other through this kind of dialogue.
Your films are also in a constant creative conversation with the oeuvre of Agnès Varda. How would you describe her legacy?
First of all, her own life. To me her legacy is entirely how utterly contemporary she was. She was always ahead of her time; she was the one who filmed the Black Panthers, who talked about abortion. Ever in the avantgarde, a truly great contemporary artist. That’s her legacy, in my book: knowing where to look. Politicizing her gaze. Making her life so big, so beautiful. That’s the example she is to me. The joy of being contemporary. I try to live like that myself all the time.
And how would you say your films fit into the bigger picture of French cinema? We heard about the protest against the highest echelons of the Césars Academy [in February 2020, the entire board resigned], the creation of the Collectif 50/50, which you co-founded, and the criticism you received from Michel Ciment. Could you tell us more about that, so that Italian audiences can better understand the climate in which you make your films?
Well, I don’t think the cultural climate is very different from what it is in Italy, but without a doubt, the French film industry is different from Italy’s. That said, our two countries are not so far removed; actually, France and Italy are countries that I tend to think have a lot in common, at least as far as a film’s reception is concerned, for one. I realize that even just from the journalists’ questions: as a rule, a country’s priorities are instantly clear from the kinds of questions that get asked. One advantage of touring around the world is that in a short time you get a feel for the different political cultures behind the critics, and France and Italy are fairly similar in this respect. Portrait enabled me to get a much better understanding of this, and not just from a filmmaking or industry point of view.
Could you update us on the work of the Collectif?
We’re going into our third year, with an entirely new board of directors. Neither I nor the other co-founders are on the board, so there are new dynamics and new faces running it, which makes me very happy. A part from the many things that we need and for which there’s still a lot to be done, it became clear over the past year that we needed a governing body that carries some weight during political negotiations so that changes will be made and the goals we have set out will be reached. This is a very useful tool, and one that I believe is still necessary today.
What do you feel about the ‘Images of Diversity’ Funds from the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC)? In Italy we have nothing of the kind to support immigrant or second-generation filmmakers, and it seems to us that France is very active on this front.
France is very active because cinema is important, and France produces an enormous number of films. And it’s fantastic to work towards giving part of the films the chance to experiment, propose new ideas, and launch new male and female filmmakers. One wonders, however, if all this is enough. All these funds have been around for a long time now, and there’s not all this progress to show for it, as to who gets a voice in France. Yet it is still true that there is, at least, policy devoted to this problem, and the politicians are committed to turning the situation around. We do need to get to the point of asking them to make even bigger changes. That said, the French system is absolutely unique in this respect and I defend it and greatly appreciate it. What it does needs to be multiplied, supported and promoted on the European level as well.
And what do you think about the heightened attention to films directed by women, after the march in which you took part, along with Agnès Varda, Cate Blanchett, and many others at Cannes? Its general director’s commitment has been taken as an example, and the Torino Film Festival, to name the most recent case, has decided to have an all-women jury. Are these just marketing strategies, or do you sense a real demand for change?
Certainly, all this creates new opportunities. And you can’t consider it a mere marketing operation, since a jury really chooses an award and the composition of such a jury may mean that different kinds of works are honored. Which is absolutely necessary, yet even in this case, it just may not be enough. And it shows you exactly where we are now. We reach parity because we make people sign documents that commit them to maintaining that goal. Which is fantastic, true, but it’s just the beginning. A point of departure. Nevertheless, I am optimistic: women have talent.
Could you say something now about the films you wrote but were directed by others?
Some of those films got made and others didn’t. Of the ones that actually came out, there’s My Life as a Courgette, which was a wonderful opportunity for me, mostly for the chance to write with children in mind. I fell in love with animated films but only as an adult, and the film was an exciting experience for me. And also a big hit. Then there’s my collaboration with André Techiné on Being 17, and in that case, a teenage dream of mine came true. Techiné is a director whose films I watched when I was younger; I loved him and studied him, so finding myself at a desk working elbow to elbow was tantamount to a rite of passage.
And what’s your take on the debate over the so-called ‘TERF’s (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and artists like the writer J.K. Rowling who leverage their own fame and artistry to spread hate speech? Judith Butler also addressed the term ‘TERF’ the other day, did you hear that?
After Judith Butler, there’s nothing left to be said. I can only thank her for speaking up, in truth. While I feel there’s too much attention going to what J.K. Rowling says and does, and I find it all out of proportion. It gives weight and value to an idea that is not really shared, not so widespread, in my view. It’s appalling.