Before Portraits, There Were Water Lilies: Céline Sciamma’s Own Retrospective

Late last year, Céline Sciamma’s BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture took place and with the incomparable beauty that is Portrait Of A Lady On Fire being released in the UK on February 28th, there’s no better time to revisit Sciamma’s wisdom.

After admitting she put this lecture together only two days ago and apologising for her lack of preparation, Sciamma delivered a retrospective on her career and shared her personal methods of screenwriting, filmmaking and the process of working creatively. In naming her lecture, Sciamma proposed: ‘Ready For The Rising Tide’ as a working title she had yet to finalise and conclude. Humble in expressing her fear at being the one to stand up and talk, Sciamma was firmly aware that she had “to stand for something.”

a portrait of Céline Sciamma
(© Claire Mathon)

I’m not trying to belong. I am a woman. I don’t.

Desire has always been a central theme to Sciamma’s work. Marie, Anne and Floriane come to learn about their sexual desires in Water Lilies, Laure’s desire in Tomboy is to feel confident with self-identity, in Girlhood Marieme is wrestling the desire to belong and Marianne and Héloïse’s longing is an intense desire in Portrait of A Lady On Fire; showing women and desire is at the heart of Sciamma’s filmmaking. It seems a critical understanding of human interaction is what lends her narratives of desire a heightened emotional truth. A combination of Sciamma’s own personal desires, her cultural desires, political desires, aesthetic desires, the desires of her characters come together in on-screen portrayals. Desire is a theme that transcends the individual films and becomes the core from which Sciamma’s filmography revolves, perhaps the most prominent being lesbian desire. In expressing the inner workings of her creative process, Sciamma isolated the way in which she approaches her filmmaking projects with an uncompromising aim on “trying to build an architecture of multiple desires.” 

Describing her work to be: “uncompromising, radical, resisting temptation of belonging,” Sciamma turned her back on fast-paced, rushed narratives and looked inside of herself to understand the acute desire she craves to translate onto the screen. Her method that follows is something Sciamma has narrowed down to a three-step process:

Step 1: Identifying and Locating Desires. 

Sciamma labels this the most time-consuming step, but it is the first and the groundwork to achieve the rest. For Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, this was identifying the film as a “period piece, not dusty, contemporary in form, set in the past” and therefore building a world in which the context of these desires are able to inhabit.

Step 2: Understanding Desire on a Local Level.

Focusing plainly on the scene, Sciamma deems this the centre of the writing process. Explaining that she creates two lists: one is a completely free list where she stores lines of dialogue, associated images and everything that could go towards the momentum of the narrative and the aesthetic of the film. While the second list is one that features scenes that are needed, scenes that belong in the film and these must be desired. In illustrating this point, Sciamma isolated one moment in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire where three women are in the kitchen in silence, the scene contains only five lines but it was a moment that she wanted very deeply, and therefore it stayed. 

Step 3: Understanding Desire on a Global Scale.

In taking a step back and looking at her work through a macro-lens, Sciamma expressed how, for her, the work needed to have a clear intention. With Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, this was numerous factors: no men, no unpassable obstacles, no conflict, no oppression. Sciamma mused that perhaps on paper such a suggestion would be deemed the outline of a boring script, she refutes this claim with the statement: “I got the best screenplay at Cannes” with a shrug and a smile. 

The screenwriting process was placed in the context of Sciamma’s life: “I wake up at 11am and write in the afternoon.” Although her schedule is almost utopic, she admits the experience is incredibly lonely. This loneliness can span months and sometimes years, then suddenly an influx of people join and help create a vision of a film she built alone at her desk. Sciamma was open in detailing her process involves a lot of her time spent simply sat thinking about writing. Perhaps this single confirmation from Sciamma is the most reassuring thing she could have said for other writers in the room. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire was three years of thinking about writing and two years of actual writing. The pressures of the film came in striking a balance between the events and the time dedicated to these events. Sciamma insists that “everything must be meaningful.” A scene cannot be featured if it carries little or no influence. Sciamma continues: “If I cared about a message, I would send a letter. I want you to carry this character, to care.”

“I love fanfiction! Write it for me, I love it!”

Moulding character is also an essential part of Sciamma’s stories. Sciamma’s relationship to her own characters is a key aspect to her constructional work but she keeps a respectful distance from the people she invents. “I don’t give them surnames” and she also only knows the characters for who they are in the scenes of the film. Any extension or possible expansion of this is a factor Sciamma is not willing to give attention to. Although, Sciamma is animatedly positive about the audience’s relationship to her characters: “I love fanfiction! Write it for me, I love it!”

a behind the scenes instagram post of the filming of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
(© Claire Mathon)

In a continuation of this exploration of character and action, Sciamma noted how her aim in shooting the first kiss scene was to “embody the sexiness of consent.” She articulated a resounding truth: getting kissed by surprise is the opposite of filmic, it’s clumsy and uncomfortable. The gaze that Sciamma embodies is one that puts women and their desires at the front and centre. Looking is built into the very architecture of this film: where Marianne is employed to paint a portrait of Héloïse and produce an accurate representation of Héloïse’s body. Sciamma muses: “Not objectifying people is about sharing experience.” Portrait Of A Lady On Fire internally deals with the gaze of its own film. Walking across cliff tops and beaches, Marianne and Héloïse exist in a space where men are not featured and are left alone with their yearning. The positioning of femininity throughout Sciamma’s filmography has been varied but it is in her latest feature where the culmination of character, setting and atmosphere overrides narrative with a masterfully attuned sense of emotionally infused longing. 

We’re having cramps every month! No one gives a fuck!

This talk of women and their place in film internally led to Sciamma’s self-questioning of her position as a woman making films. When speaking about wrestling her own doubt and anxiousness, she came to settle on the fact: “I’m not trying to belong. I am a woman. I don’t.” Passionately riffing on the fact that women are: “having cramps every month! No one gives a fuck!” Sciamma is clear on the direction she wants to follow and her vision is too precious to sell it to be reshaped. Instead, happening upon visions of women and their desires offers a vulnerability in on-screen presentation and therefore Sciamma herself risks being in a position of fragility. Writing and going on to direct this love story was a process Sciamma undertook while not feeling responsible for justifying herself or her work. Writing instinctually, with truth, was the only way to allow this story to blossom.

In her closing statement of the Q&A, Sciamma made it clear she cares about her audience. She wants to make you look, to test her, to feel and to belong. She is thinking of you all the time.