Céline Sciamma: ‘Imagine waiting all your life to feel seen’

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Céline Sciamma needs a ­cigarette. “She’s just popping out for a quick fag break,” her publicist says apologetically when I arrive at the Mayfair hotel to meet the French director. As if on cue, ­Sciamma strides across the lobby and out into the street, a weary, faintly hunted expression on her face. Dressed in a bomber jacket and jeans, her head bowed under her baseball cap, it’s clear that a day of peacocking in front of the press is far from her dream scenario.

But when she finally slips into the seat opposite me, she is warm, engaged and amusingly direct. “Come on,” she groans impatiently when she feels I am not grasping her point quickly enough.

Sciamma’s profile has skyrocketed recently. The 43-year-old is established as a talented auteur, but 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire brought a new level of recognition, winning the award for best screenplay at Cannes thanks to its scorching depiction of a love affair between two women in 18th-century Brittany. Released in the wake of #MeToo, and starring her ex-partner, the French actor Adèle Haenel, who has spoken out about being sexually harassed as a child actor, it became a symbol of female rebellion as well as a hit.

“The whole vocabulary around fire, a young woman on fire, is now part of the language of the struggle,” Sciamma tells me, speaking in rapid, poetic English with a French accent.

Her new film, Petite Maman, is also an intimate, tender look at a fleeting but pivotal encounter between two women – though this time the characters are mother and daughter. While played as a realist family drama, it is really a bewitching, time-travelling fairy tale – think Tom’s Midnight Garden, but more chic – in which lonely eight-year-old Nelly meets a child version of her mother in the woods.

Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz as Nelly and Marion in Petite Maman (Photo: MUBI)

After her grandmother dies, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) accompanies her parents on a trip to clear out the family home. Soon, Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), leaves, unable to handle the grief – and Nelly must amuse herself, playing in some woodland nearby. There she meets a girl who looks exactly like her and who, suspiciously, is also called Marion (she is played by Gabrielle Sanz, twin sister of Joséphine).

They go back to Marion’s house, which – again suspiciously – strongly resembles Nelly’s grandmother’s home, and spend the next day or so making hot chocolate, devising imaginary games and building a tree house. Eventually, Nelly tells Marion a secret. “I’m your daughter,” she whispers.

Petite Maman is a sublime depiction of a close but complicated mother-daughter bond. One adorable early scene shows Nelly feeding Marion crisps from the backseat of the car, her tiny hand periodically appearing in shot wielding a Wotsit-like offering. Yet Sciamma looks hesitant when I ask about her own mother, repeatedly steering the conversation back to the film’s “intergenerational trio”. Has she watched the film with her mother? “No.” Will she? “No. I’m not talking about that. I’m sorry.”

Just as Portrait of a Lady on Fire offered a new perspective on lost love, suggesting it isn’t necessarily a tragedy, Petite Maman was Sciamma’s attempt to push back against drama-filled depictions of relationships. “I’m trying to depart from this idea that in cinema relationships are all about conflict and negotiation. You’re writing a script and people ask: ‘Where is the conflict?’ Well, maybe there’s no conflict,” says Sciamma.

The feminist utopia of Portrait of a Lady on Fire had barely any male characters. By contrast, Nellie’s dad is a constant, relatively positive presence in Petite Maman. “He listens to her,” Sciamma says. “Even if he’s full of incompetence. It’s not hard to be a good dad,” she adds with a sly smile.

Sciamma on the set of Petite Maman (Photo: Claire Mathon)

The film poses an irresistible fantasy. If you were the same age as your parents, would you be their friends? But, Sciamma argues, the story also mirrors a wider phenomenon. “It’s about meeting your mother politically,” she says. “That’s what we are all doing because it’s 2021. There’s a cultural shift in feminism, in perspective.”

Sciamma is known for films that explore life from lesser-seen perspectives, whether focusing on a group of black teenagers from a poor Parisian suburb, as she did in 2014’s Girlhood, or charting the story of a gender non-conforming 10-year-old, as in 2011’s Tomboy. She has long challenged sexism in cinema, both through her films, which foreground women, and as an activist: she is a founding member of the 5050×2020 movement, which campaigns for gender parity in the industry.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire picked up nine nominations at last year’s Césars (the French Oscars), though in the end it won in only the best cinematography category. On the same night, the best director gong was awarded to the convicted child rapist Roman Polanski (the director fled from the US to France in 1978 after pleading guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl). Sciamma and Haenel walked out of the ceremony in disgust.

What went through Sciamma’s mind at that moment? “Oh, I don’t have to explain that,” she says, then adds: “You think about the people that are not in the room. There has to be two stories. There are a lot of people who are being hurt by what’s happening right now. And if you get up, they exist.”

Sciamma grew up in the middle-class Parisian suburb of Cergy-Pontoise. She studied literature and worked briefly in marketing before going to film school, writing her first film, 2007’s Water Lilies, which charted the sexual awakenings of three teenage synchronised swimmers, while she was still there. Like Water Lilies, Petite Maman was shot in Sciamma’s hometown. “The film might be my most personal because it’s based on the spaces of my own childhood,” she says. “This is the wood where I used to do very lousy tree houses, whereas now we have a professional team.”

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Photo: Curzon)

Nelly’s grandmother’s home is based on a blend of the houses of Sciamma’s own grandmothers. Her maternal grandmother in particular was a big inspiration for the project – so much so that her clothes and walking stick became part of the film’s costumes. “It’s the first time that I was actually working with a ghost, and experimenting with bringing someone to life with cinema,” she says. “I totally understand why people want to tell a personal story, it’s really powerful.”

Her other grandmother died while she was finishing the film. Editing the trailer in the aftermath of her death was an eerie experience. “I heard the kid say: ‘My grandmother passed away last week’. And I thought: wow, it’s true. You can’t even predict how personal it’s going to be sometimes.”

Sciamma started writing Petite Maman a week before France went into lockdown, realising how urgent the story was when she returned to the script a couple of months later. “The first scene was this goodbye to a woman in a nursing home, I thought: this personal image is now a collective image.”

Looking to the future, she says, she wants to work more internationally. “My next project isn’t French,” she says matter-of-factly. Why? “I love experimenting. I guess it’s part of the experiment,” she shrugs.

What’s important to her is making films that viewers who aren’t usually represented in cinema can see themselves in. Post Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma has been inundated with letters from fans, including an American called Nancy, who wrote that she’d got a tattoo inspired by the film on her hand – aged 80. “Imagine waiting all your life to feel seen,” Sciamma murmurs sadly.

Then she brightens: “That gives me a lot of energy. The idea that I had a cultural impact. It’s amazing.”

‘Petite Maman’ is in cinemas from 19 November

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