After Agnès: New French Cinema 2021

With a new Céline Sciamma fairytale on the horizon, Sarah Williams highlights ten femmes de cinéma with new works due out in 2021, and suggests films from their back catalogs to watch now.

List: Ten French women directors to watch in 2021.

Among many dramatic moments in cinema in 2020, there was the resignation of the entire César Academy board, following protests about the nomination of filmmaker and child rapist Roman Polanski (dubbed ‘Violanski’ by French feminists). Then there were the walkouts at the 45th César Awards ceremony itself, led by actress Adèle Haenel, after Polanski won there. Firm calls for change followed from Le Collectif 50/50, a movement that has urged parity on festival selection committees, after seeing how few female filmmakers were allowed into competition categories. (They have had some success, particularly with Cannes, where selection committees have moved towards more transparency and a better gender balance.)

Actress Adèle Haenel has a message for the 2020 César Awards, shortly before walking out of the ceremony.
Actress Adèle Haenel has a message for the 2020 César Awards, shortly before walking out of the ceremony.

This year’s Césars were tame, by comparison: actress Corinne Masiero stripped on stage, using her brief spotlight to focus on the pandemic and the crisis of shuttered cinemas across France. May they open as soon as it’s safe, because many of the filmmakers prominent in these social movements have new movies on the horizon. As the older generation retires, this newer group of progressive filmmakers is making waves on the festival scene, working from perspectives often denied or overlooked in mainstream cinema. French cinema is at a sort of crossroads, and the next Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Divines or BPM could be just around the bend.

Letterboxd members are well schooled in the power of Agnès, and Céline Sciamma has entered the worldwide critical sphere—and Letterboxd’s highest ranks—thanks to the success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (🖼️🔥 forever), but there are many more French storytellers worthy of your watchlists. Alongside Sciamma, here are nine more for your consideration.

Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman.
Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman.

Céline Sciamma

Coming soon: Petite maman
Watch now: Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood

Before her worldwide hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma helmed a trilogy of acclaimed coming-of-age stories, Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. Her fifth feature, Petite maman, both lives in the world of this trilogy, and radically differs from the trio.

Petite maman premiered at the 2021 Berlinale, where the North-American rights were snapped up by NEON, Sciamma’s partner on Portrait’s release. In the film, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight years old when her grandmother dies, and she goes with her parents to help empty the house. One morning, her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse) disappears, and she finds a young girl also named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) building a fort in the same place her mother had as a child. A non-traditional view of motherhood, Petite maman’s supposed twist is never meant to be a twist at all, as this Miyazaki-like fairytale never tries to hide where Nelly’s mother really is.

Unlike other time-travel films, Petite maman is not concerned with physics. It’s a gentle act of love that blurs generational lines, answering the question of what it would be like to see life through your parents’ eyes at your age.

What Sciamma does here is radical even for her, creating an entire film that lies in a safer place of childhood. Where in Water Lilies, Girlhood and, especially relevant, Tomboy, shot in the same forests of Cergy, she depicts the full violence that comes with adolescence, the two young girls here console each other, and don’t have a camera on them for the rougher events of their childhoods.

Sciamma’s earlier films about youth feel like personal catharsis, but also unflinchingly show coercion, a child being outed, and teenage gang violence. With Petite maman, the two young girls are allowed to live in the more innocent parts of their childhoods, and though they deal with grief, worries of abandonment, and one nervously awaits a major surgery, Sciamma now tells a weighty story without needing to show pain on screen.

The end result is a warm, nostalgic film that isn’t bound by time period or the specifics of setting. It’s a live-action Ghibli fairytale that, despite having Sciamma’s youngest leads, has matured from her earlier work. The plays acted out by the children sometimes parallel their own stories, and once, in a scene of a countess and maid, almost seem to be calling back to past films, in this case Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Many times, including at the film’s Berlinale Q&A, Sciamma has said she does not write characters, but stories and situations to enter. This feels more than true with this latest effort, a steady hand extended to an audience, promising us that it will be okay, some day.

Alice Diop’s We.
Alice Diop’s We.

Alice Diop

Coming soon: We (Nous)
Watch now: Towards Tenderness (Vers la tendresse)

Through the many shortcomings and scandals of France’s César Awards, a memorable win of recent years was Alice Diop’s 2017 award for best short film for Vers la tendresse (Towards Tenderness), a prize she dedicated to victims of police violence. The film is a 38-minute poetic exploration of how men view sex and romance in the French banlieues (suburbs). One line in the film summarizes Diop’s central thesis: “It’s just hard to talk about love. We don’t know what it is.” These young men struggle to conceptualize love from what they are taught, and their flaws are laid bare in the name of understanding the limitations of masculinity.

Though more abstract, Diop’s new film, We, which had its premiere in the 2021 Berlinale industry selection, comes from a similar desire for collective understanding. The train line of the RER B crosses Paris from north to south, and with it, so does an attempt to connect fragmented stories around the city. The film heavily recalls the Varda tradition that a documentary can be made just by walking and waiting. Using a series of suburban vignettes, Diop is able to piece together a wildlife conservatory of ordinary lives, looking at her own community and trying to capture the warmer side of society. She talks to a mechanic, a writer, and even her own father, in a sort of David Attenborough of human landscapes. We weaves through parts of the city with overwhelmingly Black and immigrant populations, building a nostalgic breed of documentary not focused on the gotcha! reveal.

Rebecca Zlotowski’s An Easy Girl (2019).
Rebecca Zlotowski’s An Easy Girl (2019).

Rebecca Zlotowski

Coming soon: Les enfants des autres
Watch now: An Easy Girl (Une fille facile)

Writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski has steadily released a film every three years since 2010. Her stories have centered on Jewish and North-African characters, and her television series Savages, based on a series of novels from Sabri Louatah, focuses on the attempted assassination of a fictional Arab President-elect in France. Very little has been spilled about Zlotowski’s newest film, Les enfants des autres, which began shooting in March. We know that Virginie Efira and Roschdy Zem are attached, and there were casting calls looking for children, and for extras for a scene set in a synagogue.

Though each of her four previous features have their strengths—and I’m even partial to Planetarium, an overzealous magical-realist film about American sisters with a supernatural gift, set in the Parisian film industry around the rise of anti-semitism—2019 Cannes selection An Easy Girl, readily accessible on Netflix, is a choice pick. Notable for its controversial casting of Zahia Dehar, who became infamous for relations with the French national football team while an underage sex worker, this choice proved to be a clever deception in a film about how women said to be easy with men are dismissed.

Dehar plays the older cousin to newcomer Mina Farid’s Naïma, a sixteen year old who longs for her cousin’s seemingly glamorous lifestyle. Naïma soon learns this life isn’t just fashion, but about learning to please wealthy men in order to get what she wants, while never having to give too much of herself away. While most of the director’s closest contemporaries are pioneers of a coherent movement of female gaze, Zlotowski chooses here to shoot through a decidedly male gaze, challenging her audiences’ perceptions of how they treat her characters before we come to understand them.

Also noteworthy is Zlotowski’s debut feature Dear Prudence, based around a diary she’d found in the street. Starring a very young Léa Seydoux as a seventeen-year-old girl who joins a motorcycle gang after the death of her mother, the film’s unique source material makes this Zlotowski’s most intimate film.

Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016).
Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016).

Julia Ducournau

Coming soon: Titane
Watch now: Raw (Grave)

Julia Ducournau’s cult-favorite, coming-of-age, cannibal gorefest Raw quickly made her a name to watch. When Garance Marillier’s Justine tastes meat for the first time at a veterinary-school hazing, it awakens a cannibalistic desire within her. Shot as one would an erotic realization, Raw is at its essence an uncontrollable thread of self discovery.

Already backed by NEON for US distribution, with a possible mid-2021 release date, Ducournau’s follow-up Titane looks to be a wild thriller, if somewhat more traditional than the teenage “monstrous feminine” body-horror of her early work. Much of the production has been kept under wraps, but we know Vincent Lindon stars alongside newcomer Agathe Rousselle. Lindon plays the father of a mysterious young man named Adrien LeGrand, who is found in an airport with a swollen face, claiming to be a boy who had disappeared ten years before. Ducournau is a filmmaker unafraid to shy away from the provocative, and Titane is all but guaranteed a major platform come premiere.

Catherine Corsini’s La Fracture (2021).
Catherine Corsini’s La Fracture (2021).

Catherine Corsini

Coming soon: The Divide (La fracture)
Watch now: Summertime (La belle saison), An Impossible Love (Un amour impossible)

Coming a generation before many of the other filmmakers here, Catherine Corsini is best known for her complex romantic dramas. Her most recent are the 1970s feminist-tinged Summertime (2015), starring Cécile de France and Izïa Higelin as a couple torn between rural farmlands and Paris, and An Impossible Love (2018), a novelistic chronicle of a couple (Niels Schneider and Virginie Efira) as their relationship sours from 1958 to the present day.

Summertime, which is currently available to rent or buy in the US, is Corsini’s first film to consciously depict a relationship between two women (though 2001’s Replay is ambiguous as to what is happening between Pascale Bussières and Emmanuelle Béart’s characters). The young lovers learn what freedoms they gain and lose between the pastoral countryside, and the feminist organizers they run with in Paris. It’s a fairly standard romantic arc, but illuminates a fiery counter-culture feminist era, and is a staunchly progressive film from a national cinema built so firmly upon a more traditional view of seduction.

La fracture, Corsini’s latest (and the third film produced by her life partner Elisabeth Perez) centers on yet another couple (Marina Foïs and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) who are on the verge of breaking up when a demonstration outside causes tensions to rise at the hospital they’re confined within. A relationship under strain alongside French protest culture? Extremely French subject matter indeed.

Claire Burger’s Real Love (2018).
Claire Burger’s Real Love (2018).

Claire Burger

Coming soon: Foreign Language (Langue étrangère)
Watch now: Real Love (C’est ça l’amour)

Most likely known for her Clouzot-tinged music video for Kompormat’s ‘De mon âme à ton âme’, starring Adèle Haenel, Claire Burger is a filmmaker heavily rooted in location. Her past films, including a graduation short and two features, have been set in the north-eastern town of Forbach, where she grew up, just fifteen minutes from the German border. This looks to be a thread that runs through her next film: Foreign Language is about a friendship between two girls who live on either side of the French-German border. BPM producer Marie-Ange Luciani is set to produce; a poster for BPM made a cameo in Burger’s last feature, Real Love.

A personal story, Real Love is one of non-traditional fatherhood and a family that does not rely on masculinity. When his wife leaves, Mario (Bouli Lanners) is left to raise his two teenage daughters in their small town, all while taking part in a community-theater production. Most of the film is told from the perspective of the younger daughter (Justine LaCroix), experiencing first love with a girl from school, who doesn’t seem to want anything serious.

Notably, after her debut and a lengthy series of short films, this was the first time Burger, who edits her own films, cast professional actors, in the case of Lanners and Antonia Buresi (as a theater director). Yet it is the performance of the actresses playing the sisters that most touched the hearts of Letterboxd fans—as Lyd writes, “Maybe it was the opera music or the fantastic performances by Justine Lacroix and Sarah Henochsberg as the daughters, but it just affirmed so many things about life choices and the tipsy-turvy nature of love as just, everything.”

Marie Amachoukeli’s Party Girl (2014).
Marie Amachoukeli’s Party Girl (2014).

Marie Amachoukeli

Coming soon: Rose Hill
Watch now: Party Girl

A rare non-Sciamma project backed by producer Bénédicte Couvreur, Marie Amachoukeli’s solo debut is much anticipated, after Party Girl, where she was one-third of a directing trio with Claire Burger and Samuel Theis (who is shooting a feature of his own titled Petite Nature). Outside the collaborations with Burger, which began in film school, Amachoukeli is screenwriting for a number of films including Franco Lolli’s The Defendant, and has collaborated with animator Vladimir Mavounia-Kouka on two shorts, The Cord Woman and I Want Pluto to Be a Planet Again. A synopsis has yet to be released for Rose Hill, but in an old interview with Brain magazine, Amachoukeli mentioned searching for backers for a lesbian spy comedy.

Party Girl is essentially docu-fiction, with actors cast as versions of themselves building an authentic troupe of real people. Though it’s a collaboration, Amachoukeli shines as a screenwriter, introducing the story of a bar hostess who still lives the partying, single life of a woman in her twenties, despite having reached sixty. She is thrown when a man asks her to marry him, and she must reconstruct her outlook on love. From such young filmmakers, Party Girl is a sensitive portrait of an imperfect, ageing woman, which feels so rare in a cinematic landscape that longs for a fountain of youth.

Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021).
Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021).

Audrey Diwan

Coming soon: Happening (L’evenement)
Watch now: Losing It (Mais vous êtes fous)

French memoirist Annie Ernaux works by reconstructing her life over and over as time passes. One of her more well-known books, L’évènement, retraces her experiences trying to get an abortion in 1963, during a time when the procedure was banned in France.

Audrey Diwan—whose 2019 debut film Losing It follows a pair of young parents (the always-charming Pio Marmaï and Céline Sallette) working through the father’s spiral into addiction and recovery—has a knack for solid performances. She’s able to write a relationship under strain with nuance, and Céline Sallette’s character shows strength as a mother choosing between protecting her children and repairing her relationship to their troubled but good-hearted father, whom she still loves dearly. This skill for writing family should pair well with Ernaux’s deeply personal prose.

Happening sweeps up a small army of promising young actors: Being 17 star Kacey Mottet Klein, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire and School’s Out supporting breakout Luana Bajrami, appear alongside lead actress Anamaria Vartolomei. Her character, Anne, is a bright student who risks everything once her pregnancy starts showing, so that she can finish her studies. Audrey Diwan’s film isn’t the only Ernaux adaptation currently, with Danielle Arbid’s Passion Simple having premiered at Venice in 2020.

Claire Simon’s I Want to Talk about Duras (2021).
Claire Simon’s I Want to Talk about Duras (2021).

Claire Simon

Coming soon: I Want to Talk About Duras
Watch now: Mimi

One of few figures to bridge cinema and literature equally, Marguerite Duras was a social commentator on her world; she grew up poor in French-colonized Vietnam, took on a staunch leftist perspective, and developed a singular tone in her observational assertions. Duras’s 1975 film India Song, based on her novel of the same name, was a landmark in feminist film. Through a hypnotic structure (“a viewing experience like no other, one that touches all of the senses,” writes Carter on Letterboxd), India Song delivers a strong criticism of class and colonialism through its story of Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), a French ambassador’s wife in 1930s Kolkata.

In I Want to Talk About Duras, writer-director Claire Simon (best known for her documentaries on the seemingly mundane) adapts a transcript of conversations between Duras (Emmanuelle Devos) and her much younger partner Yann Andréa Steiner (Swann Arlaud), in which the pair break down the codes of love and literature. These conversations were published in a book named after Steiner, who met Duras when he approached her after a screening of India Song.

The highlight of Simon’s previous work is Mimi, in which she settles down in the countryside with an old friend, and tells her life story over 105 minutes. Recently programmed as part of Metrograph’s Tell Me: Women Filmmakers series, it’s clear the film was selected for its authenticity. However, many Letterboxd members may heavily benefit from seeing The Graduation, her 2016 documentary about the famous Parisian film school La Fémis, and its difficult selection process. Most of the other filmmakers in this list passed through its gates, and Claire Simon’s Wiseman-lite documentary sheds light on the challenges these young people take upon themselves for a chance at a world-renowned filmmaking education.

Amandine Gay’s Speak Up (2017).
Amandine Gay’s Speak Up (2017).

Amandine Gay

Coming soon: A Story of One’s Own (Une histoire à soi)
Watch now: Speak Up (Ouvrir la voix)

Amandine Gay has much to say about access to film school—and opportunities in the film industry—for those outside the mainstream. Initially on the radar for her Afro-feminist activism, Gay arrived on the cinema scene with Speak Up, a narrative reclamation focusing on the diaspora in France and Belgium.

Talking to Francophone Black women who may not be considered formal scholars, allowing her subjects to speak as experts on their own experiences, Gay disproves the idea that France is a race-blind society. She shoots mainly in regal close-ups and using natural light, allowing her subjects the clarity to speak for themselves, unfiltered. (And to put to bed the misconception that Black performers are harder to light, one of many important angles discussed in an excellent interview with Letterboxd member Justine Smith.)

Using family photos and home videos from subjects, Gay’s engaging documentary work is a mouthpiece to spark conversation. Her next documentary, Une histoire à soi, centers on transnational adoption and will likely take a similarly conversational approach in exploring a unique cultural divide; putting the microphone in front of those who can provide a first-person point of view. Though not officially backed yet, she’s also—for years!—teased a Black lesbian sommelier film on podcasts and in interviews. That’s a story that I hope won’t need much more maturing before we see it. A votre santé.

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