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Tiny Wonder: Céline Sciamma’s empathetic bonds
Céline Sciamma on processing grief through Petite Maman, feeling seen by Turning Red and David Lynch, and the line that wasn’t supposed to be in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
This interview contains plot spoilers for Petite Maman.
Sometimes a film comes along that feels like it was made specifically for you, for this exact moment in your life. That was the sensation I had when I first experienced Petite Maman, the latest from Portrait of a Lady on Fire writer-director Céline Sciamma. The film follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who after the passing of her grandmother, heads with her parents to her mother’s childhood home to clean out their belongings. Exploring the house and the nearby woods her mother used to make treehouses in, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s sister), a girl her own age who she strikes up a fast, close bond with.
A story of grief, empathy and discovering how the people closest to us are so much more than what our perception of them sees, I first saw Petite Maman at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, about two months after my grandmother, Margaret, passed away following a long, difficult bout with dementia. Attending her funeral virtually due to the pandemic, I witnessed friends and family members eulogizing her with these beautiful stories of a woman containing dimensions I never knew existed. Margaret, or Peggy as her friends called her, became a fuller person to me than I ever conceptualized, and I began to question not only my relationship with my grandmother, but also my relationships with my parents—both still alive, yet strangers to me in so many ways.
Petite Maman came to me at a time when I absolutely needed it, without even knowing this tool for mourning was out there. It was a movie so clearly made for me, despite Sciamma of course knowing nothing of me or my story. That’s the funny thing about art as personal as what Céline Sciamma makes. As Mike Mills told me last year, filmmaking is its own kind of therapy, and that holds true for both the artists and the audience. When you’re making work so personal, the passion and the heart of the piece translate in universal ways where people can see themselves in these films.
Sciamma has made a habit of this across her filmography. Of her debut feature, Water Lilies, Lindsay says: “It’s so real and so relatable and I loved it so much.” Her follow-up, Tomboy, hit an incredibly personal place for me, as a non-binary person watching its gender-nonconforming main character come of age while struggling with the perception of the world around them. I wasn’t alone in connecting with this character. “Tomboy embodies the discomfort of gender through the eyes of a child so realistically and intimately. It provides the comfort that comes for being accepted for the person you know in your heart you are but it also provides the anxiety and the fear that comes from no one understanding the you that you know you’re meant to be,” describes claira curtis in their beautiful review of the film.
My films are secrets at first. I tend to keep them secrets, but also they’re gifts really. A gift is always a secret, at least for a moment.—⁠Céline Sciamma
Maëve says it all for what Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood means for her: “Seeing people that look like my friends, like me, on the big screen, as heroines… Seeing friendship, love and most importantly youth through the faces of black girls… That’s something I’ll never forget.” And, of course, we and many, many Letterboxd members have spilled our hearts out over the last few years on all of the swoon-worthy ways that Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of our most obsessively rewatched films, touched us to our very core.
That personal impact, that ability to sink into viewers and make them feel truly seen, is a quality seemingly innate for Céline Sciamma, and she taps into it yet again with Petite Maman. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her for a conversation about how her work creates such an intimate experience for her audience, and what the process of filmmaking means for her.
I wanted to start by thanking you for this film. I first saw it last year soon after my grandmother passed away. Attending her funeral, friends and family spoke about her and gave me this picture of a woman I didn’t even recognize because I had only seen her through my own lens. Seeing Petite Maman felt like some cosmic moment where I needed to experience the film at that exact time to help process my grief.
Céline Sciamma: Wow, thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot. I lost my grandmother in the process of making the film also, so just about a year ago. The film, weirdly, also helped me a lot. So, I had the thought of, ‘Okay, this is working’. Because I made it and it was soothing for me.
What were some of the thoughts and feelings that were unlocked for you during that process of making the film?
In the process of making the film, and also talking about the film throughout this year, I really felt like—rather than the film being fully rooted in my own perspective as a child—the film was fueled by the fact that I was lucky enough to have been in conversation with both of my grandmothers as an adult. I lost my first grandmother when I was more than 30 years old, and now I lost my second grandmother when I’m 43 years old. The fact that I could have feedback from her as an adult in life, it helped make the film’s philosophy about looking at a trio rather than looking at a mother-daughter relationship.
Answering these questions became my personal question within the film. If I met my mother as a kid, would she be my sister? And would we share the same mother? Would my grandmother be our common mother? I decided to not hide that question because I cast two sisters to play the parts of the kids. [Laughs.] I really wanted to investigate it and to fully embody the potential of that dream.
You’ve spoken of a desire for this film to create a dialogue with the audience. Is that how you approach all of your work, or was that specific to Petite Maman?
That’s the way I approach all my films, but my perception of it, or the way I explained it, has changed from film to film. Today I’m really thinking about that when I write. I’m obsessing about the emotional journey of the person watching, and how they are the main character of the film. This is an obsession through writing, and then it’s also an obsession on set because that’s how I talk with the actors. We are talking about the people watching, we are not talking about the emotion of the character or their emotion about it. I can give my emotions, because that’s my job, but otherwise we’ll be like [points at the camera] “People there, they’ll be scared, so that’s like a horror film. People there, they’ll think that…,” So it’s all about how we make the person active, and how is it a pleasure, and what’s the groove of that.
I used to think that was because I wanted to give a physical experience, a phenomenological experience. Also because it was with female characters. For instance, with Water Lilies, I wanted people to be inside of [the characters]. I didn’t want them to have a choice. They had to have the feelings of those characters. It was like a gut thing, but now I really see it more as a philosophical impact. I’m thinking about the impact of the film.
That’s been handed to me, also, by the Portrait of a Lady on Fire experience, because I had so much feedback on the actual impact of the film. Life decisions people were making after watching the film, which included people wanting to make films. I couldn’t act like I didn’t hear all of that. Like I wasn’t handed that for a purpose to go on and to try to make that ride each time more democratic. So for this film, I was like, “Oh, it should be short. Families should be able to go. Kids should be included. Straight men, you’re super welcome. You were always welcome, but come on, you’re on screen. And the character’s really cool!” [Laughs.]
So this idea, it’s not manipulative at all, but it’s very mysterious. The image I had in mind when I was writing the film, and thinking about the kind of impact that I wanted it to have, was a mother and a daughter watching the film in the theater. Them getting out of the room, running to catch the bus, but they run differently. They run differently together and maybe it will be just for this ride. Maybe not. But they feel it. They look at each other and they feel it.
Making films that allow audiences to feel seen is important for you. Your film Tomboy very much did that for me, seeing it as a non-binary person at age 25 who hadn’t seen my childhood self reflected back on screen like that. Are there any specific films that stand out to you as ones that make you feel seen?
Recently, Turning Red made me feel fully seen. I never asked myself… I received a lot of films where I felt seen, but I’ve never said it because we don’t have an equivalent in French. It doesn’t exist. But if I start thinking about it, what I felt seeing Turning Red was that if I had seen this at age twelve, my life would have been different—like, really different. And by life, I don’t mean decisions I’ve made or whatever, but the way I feel about myself.
I guess that’s maybe a good definition of what feeling seen by a film is like. “I feel good about myself. I feel good about myself watching this. I feel good about myself thinking about it. I feel good about myself that this exists. I feel more confident in the society where it exists, and I want to go to see more movies like that.” It’s physical also. What would the equivalent of feeling seen be for music? It’s a song that would make you dance.
I had a similar thought with films like Tomboy or Petite Maman to what you expressed there. I wished there was a way I could go back in time and show those films to my younger self so I could learn what they taught me at an earlier age. Are there other films you wish you could have seen earlier in life for what they would have given you?
For sure. Mostly when that happens now it has more to do with… sometimes I feel seen by a David Lynch film, and it’s not about what they were talking about or even the representation of it—the politics of it—but that it was a new language. That it was possible to write differently, to give some different kind of proof of things. In cinema, that’s what I’m looking for.
Now, though, I have a new feeling, I must say. Because I’m a filmmaker also, I have this feeling like I’m not alone. That’s why, for me, it’s pure joy being the contemporary of people or films or music I admire. I think it’s the most powerful thing. I don’t understand people who keep listening to the same music. [Laughs.] I don’t understand. I mean, I understand, but I don’t understand. I just love that feeling of connection, and frankly you can always have that. When you have time, you can cross the path of something like that every day, if you’re lucky enough. Thanks to the internet, now you can.
There’s that line in the film about how secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. Sometimes there’s just no one to tell them to. As a filmmaker, do you feel like your films are your own secrets that you’re being able to share with the audience, and with your collaborators?
I’m not sure, because I’m quite a secretive person. For instance, I work in absolute secret. Nobody reads when I’m writing. Out of protection. I’m trying to build some kind of rules for the game we’re all going to play together. I guess that secretiveness is not about being protective of what you do, or not being able to take critique. It’s a way to delay the moment where people are going to tell you, “No, it’s not like that”. You really strengthen the rules, play and test the game then with your best friends, the ones that are really going to tell you if this works or not. I really feel that, yeah, my films are secrets at first. I tend to keep them secrets, but also they’re gifts really. A gift is always a secret, at least for a moment. But I don’t think they themselves are secrets because I think you are showing your full self. That’s why people, when they feel like they know me from my films, I guess it’s true.
It helps that connection feel so real and organic. Tomboy was huge for me. Petite Maman, huge. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is so achingly beautiful and a favorite of mine—it’s actually my partner’s number-one favorite film ever. So your work over the years has built this really personal home within me. Do you have a filmmaker who represents that for you? Someone who gives you that feeling almost as if they are making films specifically for you?
That’s a good question. Well, the last film that gave me that feeling super strongly—and I guess all her films gave me that feeling—was Cow, by Andrea Arnold. All of her body of work. Each time I feel like her films are so unique.
And, of course, I must say Chantal Akerman. I must say Chantal Akerman. Her films feel like home because they’re looking at spaces. They’re looking at spaces very frontally, which is the only thing I’m capable of doing also. That love of frontality feels like home. For me, it’s always the thing ahead, which I think is why I have a tough time looking back. I’m super bad at that, because I know how to unlove something I loved. I have no problem with that. I find it incredible that people could fight over art they like. I have good memories, but it’s always about the next thing.
I’m not someone who tends to remember specific lines in films, but “You didn’t invent my sadness” is one that hammered itself into me immediately and I don’t think will ever leave me. What were you feeling when you came up with that line and put it into this story?
Yeah, that line is key in the film. The whole film leads to that line. I really saw the film. Like, if the film would be this session of hypnotherapy, that sentence would be the sign that makes you go deeper. Or wake you up. I don’t know, maybe both. [Laughs.] I wanted that sentence to be really received by kids, also.
It’s weird, the fact that I allowed myself to write that kind of dialogue was borne out of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The love dialogue in that film was me allowing myself some form of poetry. The key sentence in Portrait of a Lady on Fire was, “Don’t regret, remember”, and that was also something that had a strong synthesis. And I had seen the impact of that.
That line wasn’t even supposed to be in the film at first, which is fun. I’d written a casting scene for the callback of Noémie Merlant. She was supposed to do a scene with Adèle Haenel, and I decided that I would write a scene specifically forecasting the relationship—a scene that wasn’t in the script. It would be a scene with a very strong emotional climax, and it would be quite epic. So I wrote the scene where they say this, and where they’re in the bed, and I went really far with it because it wasn’t going to be in the film. But then I saw what they did in the scene together, and I was like, “Okay, well you got the part. And this scene is in the movie now.” [Laughs.]
It’s really the path to radical emotional writing. It’s about experimenting. It’s about hitting the plus button on the volume. It can be a path to accuracy to push up the volume. It also makes writing a little bit like a treasure hunt, and you also have to face what you’re really trying to say. I like this kind of ethics in writing. It makes you accurate. I find it really interesting.
It really does crystalize the film in such a beautiful way. Thank you so much for sharing this time with me today, and for the work you put out into the world.
Thank you very much, and say hi to your partner for me.
‘Petite Maman’ is playing in theaters now courtesy of NEON.