Updated: Nov 21, 2021
This year Cornwall Film Festival is bringing award-winning films from all around the world to local audiences. The festival’s line-up includes Céline Sciamma’s latest feature, Petite Maman (2021). Praised by audiences and critics alike, the film tells a moving story about memory and friendship.
Before watching Petite Maman, I revisited Céline Sciamma’s filmography, from shorts to Cannes winners. Her body of work is regarded among the best in queer cinema. The majority of her films tackle sexuality and gender identity issues through the perspective of children and adolescents. Her first three features act as a coming-of-age trilogy, mapping the lives of queer characters at different stages of their life.
I realized I had only watched two of Sciamma’s films while the remaining films were to be fresh first watches. I decided to watch her films chronologically to observe the development of her directorial approach over time. What I concluded at five in the morning after the credits rolled on Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is that Sciamma’s talent as a director is undeniable. She is particularly skillful in directing child actors which is evident in the resonant performances delivered by actors as young as 12.
Stylistically, her visual language especially when depicting desire and longing is consistently intimate, tender, and empathetic. Her camera lingers but never leers. Her frequent focus on hands touching and eyes meeting emphasizes the interminable longing to connect, a feeling that is inherently queer.
After finishing my Sciammarathon, I found it quite challenging to rank her different films. While thematically joined by ideas of growth and sexual liberation, each film presented a unique story that is difficult to compare to the others. Nevertheless, I’ve made it to the other side and the following are my personal rankings of Sciamma’s films.
#5 Girlhood (2014)
Drenched in beautiful hues of blue, Girlhood stands out as one of Sciamma’s most visually engaging films. Following Vic (Karidja Touré) while she struggles to fit in and figure out her future as a woman, the film captures the experience of youth and its confused restlessness. I found Sciamma’s close-ups on different body parts and long stretches of skin the most striking and soothing aspect of the film.
#4 Water Lilies (2007)
Sciamma’s feature debut was nominated for the Camera d’Or and Un Certain Regard awards at Cannes Film Festival. The film showcases Sciamma’s talent in tenderly navigating queer desire with breakthrough performances from young actors. Portraying young love through a queer lens proves to be Sciamma’s forte as she effortlessly moves the audiences with simple yet poignant words like “I want it to be you.”
#3 Pauline (2010)
It’s telling when a seven-minute static shot speaks louder than an entire feature film. Sciamma’s short film, Pauline, manages to pack so much emotion in a single take. Pauline (Anaïs Demoustier) opens up to the audience about her painful experience as a child battling her “weird feelings.” Her monologue paints an all-too-familiar picture of queerness denied, repressed, and eventually accepted and freed.
#2 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
And then she stormed Cannes! Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire earned Cannes’ Queer Palm and Best Screenplay Award. Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in arguably career-best performances, the film marks Sciamma’s first venture into period filmmaking. After exploring young queer identity in her previous films, she presents its counterpart in Marianne and Héloïse - two adult women constantly challenging each other’s understanding and acceptance of love.
#1 Tomboy (2014)
Despite Portrait’s wild success on a global scale, Sciamma’s earlier Tomboy is quite unlike all her other films and so it snatches the top spot as my favorite Sciamma film. Laure/Mikӓel (beautifully played by a captivating 12-year-old Zoé Héran) embodies a distinct voice in queer cinema - a child determined to forge their own gender identity in the face of intolerant parents and unsympathetic friends. I personally appreciated Sciamma’s gentleness in representing and validating Laure/Mikӓel’s feelings throughout the film.
Sciamma collaborates with child actors once more in Petite Maman. The award-winning film will screen on 19 November at Cornwall Film Festival. Book your tickets now!