French screenwriter and film director Céline Sciamma explores the fluidity of gender and sexuality through the female gaze, primarily centered around young French women as they discover and experiment with their girlhood and the way society perceives them.
As a young queer woman who has familial ties to French culture, Sciamma’s works have always struck a chord within me. With that said, I believe my perspective to be a fitting one as I rank and critique Céline Sciamma’s five feature-length films that have spanned her over-15-year-long career.
I promise none of them are bad, so please check every one of these films out if you haven’t already!
#5: Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres) (2007)
Water Lilies is Sciamma’s directorial debut. This 85-minute feature follows a young girl, Marie (played by Pauline Acquart) living in the suburbs of France who wants to join her local pool’s synchronized swimming team. As the story goes on, however, the viewer must ask themselves: does Marie’s continued interest stem from the love of the sport itself or her increasing attraction to the “bad girl” of the team, Floriane (played by renowned actress Adèle Haenel)? Simmering with desire and swimming (pun intended) with angst, this coming-of-age film explores the uncertain, delicate nature of teenage love, feelings very relatable to a young queer audience.
When I first watched this film a couple of years ago, I was among this youthful audience and was all-too-aware of this film’s iconic reputation, especially within French LGBTQ+ cinema. With these high expectations in mind, while I enjoyed watching the two leads flirt and yearn after one another, I didn’t find much satisfaction in this film’s ending and thought the cinematography to be simplistic and, frankly, amateurish (a logical product of this being Sciamma’s debut). To this day, I find this film the most forgettable of Sciamma’s filmography (a hot take, I know) and, therefore, had no choice but to place it in the #5 spot of this list.
#4: Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)
Girlhood follows Marieme (played by Karidja Touré), a teenage girl who, after years of being oppressed by her family and school, joins an all-girl gang in her neighborhood and changes her name, her lifestyle and her scholarly pursuits in an effort to be accepted by the trio of girls and finally find a path to freedom. As the film progresses and Marieme becomes closer and closer to her new friends, the viewer sees the young girl come out of her shell and discover who she truly is in a society that deems her as lesser-than.
I found Girlhood to be raw in its depictions of how poverty can have a detrimental impact on French youth, while also balancing a gentle, delicate tone as Marieme explores her sexuality and her self-worth. While the cinematography – grayish tones overlaid atop the streets of Paris – was nothing to rave home about, the Rihanna scene (you know the one!) filled me with such pure JOY and NOSTALGIA for the sheer freedom of adolescence that I truly, in good conscience, couldn’t give this less than 4 stars, cementing it as a solid take on the French coming-of-age under Sciamma’s belt of bildungsromans.
#3: Tomboy (2011)
Tomboy follows 10-year-old Laure (played by Zoé Héran), a gender-nonconforming child whose family moves to a new neighborhood during the summer holidays. In the absence of school’s strict social cliques, Laure is given an opportunity to reinvent themselves as a boy, Mickaël, in the eyes of the rest of the neighborhood’s children. As the 80-minute feature progresses and Laure/Mickaël falls further and further into their young double life, themes of gender norms, sibling dynamics and friendship are explored all the while our main character’s secrets gradually start to bubble to the surface. For a film that hinges on such a simple misunderstanding, this story packs a punch that rivals even that of Girlhood. The viewer is made to feel trapped within a box, just like our young protagonist, even in as vast and nature-filled of an environment as Mickaël’s new home.
I loved the MC’s tender relationship with their little sister, Jeanne, as well as this film’s bold-faced depiction of the harm that gender norms can have on young children. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest on-screen depictions I’ve seen so far of being a trans/non-binary child and, while I disliked this film’s ending (as it is very much a return to the status-quo for our young protag), I appreciate what this film has to say (whether it meant to or not) about the social construction of gender as a whole. Protect trans youth and, yeah, go watch this film!
#2: Petite Maman (2021)
Petite Maman is the most recent (and shortest!) of Sciamma’s films. This 70-minute feature follows Nelly (played by Joséphine Sanz), an eight-year-old French girl whose beloved grandmother has just passed away. In the aftermath of her death, Nelly and her parents visit Nelly’s mother’s childhood home where Nelly takes a liking to the dense forestry that surrounds the secluded house. When Nelly’s mother suddenly disappears, Nelly meets a girl her own age who lives in an oddly similar home tucked away within those very same woods. I’ll refrain from discussing any more of the plot here as it’s best to go into this heartwarming coming-of-age film as blind as possible.
While the runtime is short and the story is simple (and, at times, predictable) the message is just too sweet to not earn this film the title of “quiet masterpiece.” Tender in its tone and gentle with its themes of mother-daughter relations and fear of growing up/letting go of childhood, this film is what I can only describe as the live-action embodiment of a Studio Ghibli movie (if that movie were French and directed by Céline Sciamma, of course!) This film proves that Sciamma still has it and makes me way too excited for her future projects.
#1: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire being in the #1 spot should come to no surprise to anyone reading. To this day, this is Sciamma’s only period piece – taking place on an isolated island in Brittany in 1770 – in addition to being her most popular, beloved (and longest) film. It follows a female painter, Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant), who is tasked with painting a wedding portrait of a young woman, Héloïse (played by mother-effing Adèle Haenel). Marianne must paint Héloïse’s portrait without her knowing, leading to weeks being spent in which Marianne quietly (and sensually) observes her subject.
This film is the sapphic French story and the absolute beauty of this feature – from the hypnotic depiction of fire to the vivid color-grading to the freaking SOUND DESIGN – in conjunction with the two leads’ magnifying performances as well as the gut-wrenching last five minutes of this film caused me to give it nothing less than five stars (or flames on Letterboxd). While this is without-a-doubt the quintessential “nothing happens, but the vibes…” film, I reveled in the quiet tension that builds between these two young women that all leads to a momentous, iconic closing scene. Did I mention there are no men? Just go watch this, please, and become the Céline Sciamma stan you were always meant to become.
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