Book Excerpt: Portraits of Resistance: The Cinema of Céline Sciamma

Here at RogerEbert.com, we are pleased to excerpt Orla Smith's foreword from the new book Portraits of Resistance: The Cinema of Céline Sciamma, which is published by Seventh Row. For more information on the book, click here


Back in 2015, Céline Sciamma changed the way our Seventh Row team looks at filmmaking. Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney interviewed her about Girlhood (2014) at that year’s Sundance. Sciamma posited that “Cinema is the only art ever where you share somebody’s loneliness,” and that capturing loneliness is “about how you compose the frame [and also] about the sound. It’s a lot of details, like hearing someone breathe.” It was the first time a director had talked so eloquently to us about sound design, and we’ve asked every director we’ve interviewed since about sound. It was clear then — from the beauty and precision of her films and from her fascinating insights about process — that Seventh Row would write a detailed account of her filmmaking one day. Five years later, we have written this book, Portraits of resistance, the first full-length book to be dedicated to Sciamma’s work. That original Girlhood interview is featured in the book’s fifth chapter.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is not only Sciamma’s best film to date, it’s also her most acclaimed, her most high profile, and her most beloved by audiences. After earning raves at Cannes and winning the festival’s Best Screenplay prize, the film has been rapidly gaining fans. It has picked up awards and nominations with various critics groups, and even inspired a devoted fan base who call themselves #PortraitNation on Twitter. The popularity of Portrait speaks not only to its technical brilliance, but also to its political and social relevance: such an unapologetic and sensual portrayal of lesbian love is still vitally important and all too rare in 2019, plus the film speaks to how women artists and women’s stories have been buried in history. There’s even an abortion subplot, in this 1700s-set film (300 years on, and it’s shocking to see how much of the prejudices that plague the characters in Portrait are still present today). Portrait is Sciamma’s fourth film after her unofficial coming-of-age trilogy. It is her first film about adult characters, and it certainly feels her most adult and overtly intellectual work to date.

“My movies are portraits,” Sciamma told Seventh Row Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney when she interviewed Sciamma about Girlhood (2014). These portraits explore characters who resist convention and societal expectations. Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are beautiful films featuring heart-soaring moments of acceptance and self-expression for the characters. But they’re also honest films. Marie (Pauline Acquart) in Water Lilies becomes friends with the cool girl, but then gets screwed over by her; Laure (Zoé Héran) in Tomboy is accepted as a boy by the local kids, until their mother outs them as having been assigned female; Marieme (Karidja Touré) in Girlhood finds true friendship and loyalty with a girl gang, but she cannot escape the abusive men in her life; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) share a romantic utopia together for a while, but when Marianne finishes Héloïse’s wedding portrait, the two are separated forever. Sciamma makes films about outcasts finding moments of reprieve in an unforgiving world.

Sciamma’s films are about characters resisting convention, and Sciamma also resist filmmaking conventions. Water Lilies was written to resist the tropes of the American teen comedies Sciamma grew up watching. Tomboy resists defining its ambiguous protagonist’s gender. Girlhood resists the aesthetic trappings of social realism — it’s shot in cinemascope with a locked down camera and bold colours, rather than handheld and grey — in favour of a stylised beauty. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a period piece that resists the stuffiness we may expect from a period drama; it feels modern as it’s an original story that’s never been told before, highlighting women’s stories that have been lost in history. All in all, Sciamma is a filmmaker who defiantly resists the norm in all aspects of her work, and her films are all the more inspired and exciting for it.

In this four-part book, we illuminate why Sciamma’s films have touched and inspired so many, through essays and interviews that discuss her work — with a particular focus on her latest and best feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Key insights come from Sciamma herself, across the extensive time we spent interviewing her. We were particularly fascinated to learn how meticulous her direction is: she choreographs footsteps and breaths to an exact rhythm, orchestrating her camera and her actors like a conductor does her orchestra. Our interviews with her collaborators then provide insight into how they executed Sciamma’s vision. Sound designer Valérie Deloof explains how she captures Sciamma’s desired rhythms, and how she used the sounds of fire crackling and waves crashing against the shore as a kind of score, in a film devoid of musical score. Actresses Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant illuminate Sciamma’s highly technical approach to directing actors, and the way that their performances develop in stages throughout the chronology of the film.

To complement these interviews, two essays explore the varying ways in which Portrait investigates the gaze of its central lovers. Angelo Muredda writes about how the film is in conversation with patriarchal art history. Through her relationship with the free-spirited Héloïse, Marianne unlearns the male gaze, and her art develops into something more inspired and personal. I wrote a companion piece to this essay in which I dissect the film’s exploration of the gaze as it concerns the character of Héloïse. I used this as an excuse to write about how the artistic collaboration between Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel has developed between Water Lilies and Portrait. In both films, Haenel plays an object of desire who reveals herself to be so much more complex than she initially seems.

Essays about each of Sciamma’s films highlight the common DNA they share with Portrait and with each other, including the protagonists’ struggles to find stability and security in a world where they are marginalised. Alex Heeney writes about the temporary utopias the characters find in a world governed by patriarchy. Ben Flanagan, Lena Wilson, and Orla Smith expand on the effects of patriarchy and our protagonists’ search for freedom in their respective essays on Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. In Tomboy, nature is a safe space for Laure to express themself in a way they feel comfortable with, but the harsh concrete buildings that loom over the park where Laure plays are a place where Laure faces judgement and discrimination for their gender presentation. In Girlhood, Marieme is constantly searching for stability, but with every step she takes toward a sense of community or personal empowerment, she comes up against another roadblock, whether that be systemic inequality or patriarchal forces.

Sciamma’s films are full of musical or dance scenes. Portraits of resistance explores how her inherent rhythm and musicality is vital to how she choreographs her actors and her camera. “That's the heritage of my early cinephile days,” Sciamma explained to us. “I was introduced to cinema through Fred Astaire, and it stuck with me.” The scene in Girlhood when the girl gang dance to Rihanna’s Diamonds has become beloved for how it shows Marieme’s integration into the gang through movement: she starts off watching from the sidelines, but soon joins in with their joyous dancing. Even when there’s no music in Sciamma’s films, the way people move tells a story. Mute the sound on any of her films, and you’ll still be able to understand what’s going on through who shares the frame, how characters enter each others’ frames, whether or not characters are moving in sync, and how Sciamma shoots them crossing physical and cinematic boundaries.

Orla Smith, Executive Editor of Seventh Row

Find out more about the ebook at: sciammabook.com
Read an excerpt from the book here.
Read Seventh Row here. 

About Seventh Row: 

Seventh Row is an online Canadian Non-Profit publication that releases six highly-focused ebooks a year, each focusing on a film, director, or theme in cinema we’re passionate about. Through in-depth interviews and well-researched essays, we demystify the myriad technical choices behind films we love. Seventh Row is supported entirely by ebook sales and donations

Where to Find Seventh Row: 

Website: http://seventh-row.com
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