In Spotlight, we shine a light on upcoming, underappreciated or obscure filmmakers by taking a closer look at their filmography. This week, we explore the films of French director Céline Sciamma.
Céline Sciamma was not a name familiar to me until the release of Girlhood last year, and having now seen it, I’m embarrassed to have allowed this phenomenal talent elude me for so long. A graduate of the famed La Fémis film school in Paris, Sciamma made her directorial debut in 2007 at the tender age of 27, and has since been become a favourite within the festival circuit. Her three feature films so far have explored themes of sexuality, identity, gender and friendship, and have subsequently formed an informal coming-of-age trilogy.
Water Lilies follows the exploits of three 15-year-old girls in a synchronised swimming team. Our central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart), a shy, plainly-looking individual who becomes attracted to one of the star swimmers; the strikingly alluring Floriane (Adele Haenel). Over the course of the narrative, the pair develops an awkward friendship, which inevitably takes its toll on Marie’s chubby best friend Anne (Louise Blachère), who helplessly develops a crush of her own. This tender tale of teenage friendship provides an intimate portrait of female sexual awakening within the school environment. It also features an incredible star-making performance from Haenel as the beautiful seductress.
Sciamma followed Water Lilies with Tomboy in 2011. This intimate film focuses on a 10-year-old girl named Laure (Zoé Héran), who relocates to a new town, and, for unspecified reasons, introduces herself as a boy named Michaël to all the kids. The story complicates when her younger sister discovers and plays along with Laure’s deception, and it complicates even more when a local girl named Lisa (Jeanne Disson) becomes interested in the new kid on the block. Whether the ‘tomboy’ is just playing fantasy or genuinely questioning her gender identity is up for discussion, but nonetheless, the movie presents an intelligent, delicate approach to this sensitive topic.
Girlhood, Sciamma’s tale about a black teenager who joins an all-girl gang, is the director’s latest and most accomplished work to date. While her previous features can be considered to be low-scale dramas, this is a film that surges with scintillating energy from the very first frame. Newcomer Karidja Touré plays Marieme, and gives an absolutely captivating performance in the central role, displaying both fragility and perseverance. The film provides a fantastically well-observed portrayal of aimless youths living in the Paris suburbs, which is refreshingly absent of judgement or moralising. In my eyes, this is not just the best of the year, but one of the best of the decade.
Because Sciamma’s a woman, there’s a strange temptation to label her as one of the most exciting female filmmakers working today, but the truth is, it’s unnecessary to highlight her gender – she is plainly one of the most exciting filmmakers, male or female. Her work is fresh, bold and beautifully daring, and she also has a remarkable ability to spot young, undiscovered talent. There are few directors that intrigue me more than Sciamma, and I wait with great anticipation to see what’s coming next.