There were two movie-going experiences that completely changed my relationship to cinema. The first was discovering Jane Campion and in her work the notion of a female gaze. The second was watching Céline Sciamma’s debut Water Lilies (2007) and realizing that the female gaze doesn’t have to be straight.
With her next two films – Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) – Sciamma continued pushing the formal and representational boundaries of cinema. Her latest, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is an 18th century lesbian romance and meditation on creation that is epic in its intimacy. Watching this film reminded me of my teenage discovery of Water Lilies – the feeling that I was experiencing something new, something made for a person like me, by people like me.
In anticipation of its official release this Friday I was lucky enough to sit down with Céline and talk to her about adolescence, the work of lesbian gaze, and crafting queer sex scenes.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Drew Gregory: It’s so nice to meet you, because, well, Water Lilies was maybe the first lesbian movie I ever saw.
Céline Sciamma: Yeah?
Drew: Definitely the first one made by a queer woman and it was very impactful for me.
Céline: When did you see it?
Drew: I was pretty young. 14 or 15?
Céline: Wow I love that.
Drew: Yeah it blew my mind. I’d love to start there before moving onto Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m curious about your personal experience of queer adolescence, since it’s such a big part of your previous films.
Céline: Well my teenagehood took place before the internet, so basically I was very curious and frustrated and had to find out about lesbian culture starting from scratch. I was living in a new town like 30 kilometers from Paris – which seems close but wasn’t – and craving stories I could relate to. So I read Virginia Woolf and then just went to the cinema a lot, relying on culture from elsewhere. For instance, I remember when Go Fish came out. Go Fish was the first lesbian film that I saw.
Drew: How old were you?
Céline: I was 16 or 17. And it was discovering that kind of indie ’90s US film and this lesbian culture. Having both kicks.
Drew: Did seeing that sort of independent lesbian movie make you feel like you could make your own? I know you came to film a bit later, but was that an inspiration in anyway?
Céline: Well, I don’t know. Retrospectively there are all these steps that make you feel more legitimate just in life, in public space, and so it’s part of the whole process of belonging. But at the time I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker. I was just really craving this experience as a viewer. That was the most important thing.
Drew: Do you feel like a lot of the work you make is still with that goal in mind? You want to make the films you’re not seeing elsewhere?
Céline: Oh yeah. I’m always trying to look for missing storytelling, missing images, whether it’s in a contemporary setting or a historical piece. But the good thing about that is when you’re trying to bring to life what’s been missing from your life you’re also making new art, telling new stories. That’s why thinking about representation and deconstructing fiction is also a cool dynamic for creation.
Drew: So then skipping forward three films later, you worked with Adèle Haenel again.
Drew: Autostraddle is a lesbian website so we’re not strangers to working with exes.
Drew: How has that working relationship changed over time now that you know her as a person separate from the work?
Céline: Well, working together again wasn’t about having a new conversation, but just sharing our conversation with other people. Because we constantly talk about cinema, politics, everything, and we were just going to do that with more people starting with Noémie Merlant and the crew and then, I mean, the world. It’s just a very fluid way to share the conversation we’ve been having on a wider scale. And has it changed our relationship? This relationship keeps changing and growing and it’s also a kind of steady bond.
Drew: That to me feels very queer. We allow that in a way I think a lot of straight people don’t.
Céline: Yes. And that’s also what I wanted to do with Portrait. Because you know there’s this lesbian frustration about fiction – that I know very well – that we are sacrificed on screen. Our stories always end tragically either with somebody dying or somebody being straight.
Drew: Same thing, sure.
Céline: It’s impossible love in the most painful ways! It has to be painful. And this is propaganda. Fiction has an impact on our lives. So the fact that it’s represented in a very painful way is a way to make us feel bad about ourselves. And also just to maintain power over the narrative.
It was already the case on Water Lilies where lesbians were saying we want a happy ending we want a happy ending. But what is a happy ending in a lesbian love story? Eternal possession? We want a frozen image of two people getting married? We have to tell our own narratives regarding how we lead our lives and how we love. Talking about the different power dynamics in a lesbian relationship is the first thing. Then building a love dialogue without expected conflict, departing from love as conflict, love as a bargain. Saying that love is fulfilling! Love can be emancipating. And it’s also about friendship. Relying on that kind of eternity. I feel this is all something we have to put out there because it’s the politics of love. And I think our approach is very dangerous to those in power which is why it’s never shown.
Drew: Speaking of a different way of approaching these narratives I’d love to talk about the sex in the movie. Because there is sex even if there’s been some talk on the internet that there isn’t. Taking the drug in their armpit or the spitting of the water or even when Marianne is describing Héloïse’s ear – those moments feel more erotic and more in line with queer sex than most queer women sex scenes we usually see. I’d love to hear about how you decided to show sex and eroticism.
Céline: There’s definitely a sex scene! And it’s also a reflection on a sex scene. The film is being very playful in that it’s portraying something and also aware that it’s portraying something. It’s very Russian doll. We’re in the workshop of a painter watching a painter watching, an endless mirroring situation. And so for the sex scene, it should be about ideas. Cinema is all about ideas, but I feel like there are no ideas behind sex scenes. Here I didn’t want the performance. It’s almost always a performance, but this armpit thing is true. That’s true penetration, you know?
Sex scenes should embody how joyful, fun, and inventive sex really is. And it’s a process for me. I can’t wait to see how I’ll think about and craft sexuality in my next film. It depends on the story, but it’s also a really personal journey and a deconstruction. I’m on that path so I’m curious what’s coming next.
Drew: There are a lot of media narratives around queer movies where people say, “This is just a love story. It isn’t a queer love story.” But there’s something about Portrait that feels like it’s seeking a way of viewing that’s very lesbian or queer or woman – these words have limits, but you know what I mean.
Céline: Yeah yeah.
Drew: So I’m curious how much you think about your work as a project of queer cinema. Or does it just come naturally out of your own queerness? Because even the cinematography, the sound design, everything formally feels very new to me. Is that a result of you consciously thinking about how to portray this type of story?
Céline: Well, it’s like female gaze. You have to deconstruct it. It’s a job. It’s work. It doesn’t happen to you because you’re a woman. And lesbian gaze isn’t going to happen to you because you’re a lesbian. Even if you look at lesbian representation made by lesbians — like for instance let’s talk about The L Word – the original. There was a lot of male gaze going on in the sex scenes. So it’s really about putting thought into this, being excited and curious about where you can go. And you have to be brave, because cinema is very codified and writing a story that is not based on conflict or writing sex scenes that are not based on male domination you can sometimes feel you’re not writing cinema.
So it’s about taking this bold step and saying I’m going to make a film with strong tension that isn’t going to be built along a power dynamic we’re used to. And maybe to some people this won’t feel like cinema and maybe even to myself I’ll question if the emotional journey is intense enough. But I know how to write conflict. It comes really easily. You have to put a lot more work into this other approach.
I think politics are part of the initial spark and desire to make film and then you find it back in the end. But it’s also the politics of your sets. What kind of power dynamic do you have with your collaborators? Power dynamics are everywhere, and I’m trying to make films that are manifestos. It’s always micro and macro, a constant reflection. But also I don’t give myself targets. There’s a philosophy to it but then you have to find the right idea for cinema. And surely if you challenge yourself with trying to create new narratives, new images, challenge yourself politically, then you will have creative ideas. It’s why it’s so important that we get to work on this.
Drew: What is your set dynamic like? I feel like there’s been a lot of conversation lately – maybe more in American cinema and Hollywood – about set dynamics and creating safe sets. How do you approach your various collaborators? I know there are a lot of women on your sets.
Céline: Well, my sets have always been female driven, because it’s just the best atmosphere for me. (laughs)
Drew: I understand that! More specifically, what’s the energy on your sets? I mean, is there a lot of laughter or is it very focused? Do you move quickly or do you do a lot of takes?
Céline: I make a lot of jokes. I like it to be lighthearted and fun. I’m not doing many takes – like four or five. But also I write the mise en scène. If I don’t already see the film – what the shots are going to be – it means the writing process isn’t done. So I have strong ideas and I put up a lot of constraints. Like I’ll tell the actors you’re going to take five steps to get that kiss and it’s not going to be six. Because it’s very musical. It’s really about the rhythm.
Drew: Maybe this would be giving away future projects, but are there things that you feel are still lacking in the landscape of lesbian cinema? Or is there something you’ve seen recently that made you feel like oh we’re in this together, we’re moving towards something?
Céline: Well, there aren’t enough lesbian directors. But TV is doing a good job. I mean, Work in Progress–
Céline: It’s really important and I imagine growing up as a teenager today and I feel such a relief. I’m really enthusiastic. When I watch Sex Education I just think about how different my life would’ve been if I’d had that show as a teenager. It’s a strong thing, you know? And I’m glad I get to be a contemporary of this and be a part of this. But there are still very few of us who get to make our films, so I hope lesbian cinema has a whole future.
Drew: It hasn’t been that long since Water Lilies, but so much has changed. There had obviously been a lot of lesbian cinema beforehand but there wasn’t enough on my radar as a young cinephile that I’d seen anything else. So I think you also played a part in these changes we’ve seen and continue do so and I’m just very grateful. Thank you!
Céline: Oh thank you!
Drew: Well, thanks so much for talking to me. This was such a pleasure.
Céline: I was glad to. I follow Autostraddle! It’s smart, it’s fun. I like the whole culture that you’re building. It’s really cool. There’s a strong identity to the way you’re having the conversation.
[And that was when I died in the lobby of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills]
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens today in select cinemas and officially this Friday.