Céline Sciamma's Obsessions

Céline Sciamma's Obsessions

One of the most unpredictable, impressive filmmakers of our lifetime, Céline Sciamma is one of our firm favourites. Returning with her tiny masterpiece Petite Maman, the unparalleled filmmaker sits down with Contributing Editor Ella Kemp to discuss her child actors, her obsessions, and our relationship with her movies.

Céline Sciamma’s strength as an artist – her sensitivity as a writer, elegance as a designer – is obvious from the first few frames of all of her films, but it takes a minute to realise just how generous she is. Giving, selfless, careful about the stories she tells and always anticipating just how it will feel to the people she’s telling them to. Nobody owes you anything in art, or in life, yet Sciamma always gives you the world. 

The result is a filmography overflowing with precisely-engineered tenderness in ways that can be breathtaking and even a little frightening at times, in just how closely they speak to fears and desires so many might consider too small, too unimportant to honour in such a space. If you feel it, she believes in it. In Sciamma’s world, girls and women who want to be looked at deserve to be seen. Children are the ones who teach adults how to play, how to live. 

This focus is potent in Petite Maman, a quiet, special picture that holds a spellbinding amount of wisdom. It’s about mothers and daughters, little girls and unspoken grief, decaying leaves and ageing bodies, and the warm, gentle things that keep us alive and holding on to one another. It could only be made by Céline Sciamma. It was a privilege and an honour to have sat down with her in person to learn all about it. 

There has been a lot of talk about how wonderful Petite Maman is, in the context of it being a “small” film. Do you consciously think about the scope of the emotion you’re working with?

I kind of like the fact that the film is small. But is it small because it’s short? Because it’s not expensive? Because it’s dealing with kids? Why is it small? Because it’s not modest. It’s candid, but it’s not modest. It has the will to have an impact. But I like the fact that some films can be undercover. If you think it’s small, maybe you’ll be more welcoming of the film. 

But what exactly do we mean by small? I designed the film to be short because I wanted kids to be able to sit through it. I designed it to be short because I wanted the impact to last. It’s an hour and 10 minutes but for me it’s a 24-hour experience that includes your night. Petite Maman is also born out of the confidence I was handed by cinephiles and movie lovers all over the world. It’s confident that movies can change people’s lives – and that’s not a small thing. 

I also want this ride to be more democratic. Some people couldn’t take Portrait’s ride and that’s okay, I wanted to expand. So this felt like expanding actually: let’s bring kids and families into the room. And in this case, the room is also the home. When you watch the film at home you can watch it with your mother. The film is also designed to be watched on different screens. You can’t rely on adults to take kids to the cinema.

Gabrielle and Joséphine Sanz are unbelievable as Nelly and Marion. One of the things I love about the script is that you take everything and everyone so seriously – in the same way as Portrait, even though the scale is so different. What do you do on set with your actors in tangible, practical terms, to make people trust you and allow them to give you what you need?

It’s about re-sharing ideas. I’m not looking for performances, or characters having emotions. You’re not asking a kid to act like they’re in a studio. There’s an ethic on the set when you’re working with kids but it’s the ethic you should always have. 

Once you share your desires and goals, you put a lot of people in charge and you don’t get lost because everyone has the compass. With those two kids, you’re always keeping the brain of the film in mind and finding local solutions. It’s building the language of the film together. It’s about them learning cinema and me learning their presence. After 10 days, the grammar is there. It’s an amazing feeling when they just know what to say. 

Working with kids makes me feel like I’m really doing cinema. It’s a cinema that cares. They care so much. A kid asking you a question is the biggest pressure in the world. 

You’ve called Petite Maman your love letter to Studio Ghibli. What particularly resonates with you in terms of the way Hayao Miyazaki writes young women? 

I love the fact that he is making radical, experimental cinema, which is women-centred, and everyone loves it. That’s so rare! And nobody is saying, “This is cinema for kids.” I was also inspired by Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in my life. 

At first I thought Petite Maman should be an anime, because then you’re sure kids will see it. But then it’s a film about the present, and the body, so I didn’t go for it. But I kept Miyazaki as a compass, and when I had trouble deciding how to look at something, like the house for instance, I wondered whether I should shoot it differently each time but then thought that Miyazaki would shoot it the same, and nature would change around it. 

When you’re writing for kids you can write the most experimental, radical fiction because they don’t have the cultural background, they don’t have any expectation of what cinema should be. It can be very emotional, it’s such a great thing for cinema. When I think about other directors when I make films, it’s really to be as brave as they are. It’s not about looking for solutions, it’s being inspired by their courage. 

There’s a line in Petite Maman that’s really stayed with me, when Nelly is talking to her dad and she says he hasn’t told her much about his childhood. He’s told her about small things, but not the things that scare him. In your films, do you feel like you’re telling your audience about things that scare you? Is that something you’d even want to do? 

For me, it’s not like I live my life and I make films – I make films to live my life. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. 

Do you feel like there’s something holding you back from giving us more of yourself? 

Yes, definitely. Petite Maman is definitely my most personal film – it’s resurrecting my own grandmother and it was shot in my hometown, and I looked a lot like that kid, and played all the same games as them when I was a kid. And I love to give all of that away, but it kind of doesn’t matter. It gives sentimental value to the image, and of course it’s there and you can feel it, but for me, the only thing I’m obsessed about is your relationship with the film. 

We always talked about this with the actors, how we want people to feel. So I’m not obsessed about putting too much detail about the characters or my own personal feelings, because it’s not important. 

I find that so wonderful, because your films have changed the lives of so many people. A lot of filmmakers say they make art for a sense of catharsis, and it’s a bonus if somebody else gets something out of it too. 

When I shot the character of the grandmother, I felt that for the first time, the experience of telling your story and having a dialogue with your personal ghosts. It’s amazing, but it’s still not as amazing as creating something with a stranger in mind – but I do understand now why people do it. But it’s a lot! I could lose my compass.

Because I am from Girls on Tops, I have to finish by asking you which women currently give you hope for the future of the film industry. 

Every woman. I couldn’t take out a name. Making a list would involve taking out a name, and we’re not doing that. We want the list to expand. 

Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and editor based in London. She is the Contributing Editor for READ ME and the Film Editor for the Quietus. She writes for NME, Empire, Letterboxd and more. Her favourite word is “verklempt” because it’s what she often is.

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