Art Intelligence

Céline Sciamma’s Quest for a New, Feminist Grammar of Cinema

Céline Sciamma’s Quest for a New, Feminist Grammar of Cinema
Written by Noah Roy

Sciamma took a picture on her phone. “I needed this! I needed to see women like this, not like this,” she said, showing a rude attitude and then a decorative one. For the rest of the day, she periodically consults her phone and says: “The writer is at her trade.”

Between the work of “Girlhood” and “Portrait”, Sciamma wrote a screenplay for children. (It was for “My Life as a Zucchini,” directed by Claude Barras in 2016.) Sciamma believes that the new experience of writing specifically for children — to try to create a “safe space for a child’s viewer” — is something “open” in her work. Sitting at the Zucchini Awards in 2017, a strangely compelling image came to mind: two young girls building a cabin together in the woods, they are the same age, but one is the mother and the other is the daughter. It is the central image of the “Petite Maman”, and its influence can also be felt in the “Portrait”. In both films, intimate relationships play a fictional role of perfect political equality. In “Portrait,” it’s romance—and artist-model relationship—without imbalances in gender, status, or age. In Petite Maman, parent and child meet as equals. (To play the pair, Sciamma casts twins.) All goes well, a departure from the formative myths of psychoanalysis, which Sciamma sees as based on “rivalry and competition.”

In a scene in the movie Petite Maman, adult Marion discovers, among her mother’s influences, some of her old elementary school notebooks. The notebooks shown are Sciamma, since she was six years old. We looked through them together on our first day at the cafe. In one, there was an unfinished story about a lost white dog who wanted a warm home with good friends to love. The dog encounters a series of neighborhood characters and asks if they want a good white dog for Christmas. They all back off. Tasked with writing an ending, six-year-old Sciamma came up with one sentence: “A chicken offers him her nest, and he says yes.”

“This is the ending I want for every story,” Siama told me. “I want this ending to my story. I want chicken.”

In the hen’s gracious gesture, Siyama now sees the narrative moving away from conflict, toward desire. The premise of the story is that the dog wants love and home, and he can’t have it. He has to bargain, portraying himself as a Christmas present and not as an asylum seeker. These are the principles that Sciamma absorbed when he was a screenwriter at La Fémis, the French National School of Cinema. “We were born and raised in cinema learning that conflict is the natural dynamic of a storyteller, and that a good scene is in a way a good deal between characters,” she said. But she is more interested in what happens if the dog doesn’t have to compromise, annoy, or get past the chicken’s defenses. What if the chicken was already viable? What new form could the story take?

Since the days of Greek drama, it has been widely accepted that the narrative focuses on torment: the struggle between hero and antagonist. Sciamma is increasingly not interested in antagonists. In Portrait, I made the decision to “not talk about obstacles, enemies, traps, men.” (From the moment, early in the movie, when the routine rower dumped Marianne’s luggage ashore and rushed onto his boat, we hadn’t laid eyes on another man for more than ninety minutes.)

Nor is she any longer interested in making the viewer suffer. The Water Lilies were meant to get hurt, forcing you to live in your teenage girl self for the entirety of your run. Sciamma was “targeting the stomach,” even with his sound design, and learning to use a subwoofer to target the gut. The film’s French title, “Naissance des Pieuvres” (The Birth of Octopuses), is a reference to a line from Proust comparing sexual jealousy to an octopus. She wanted to feel the octopus in your stomach.

Sciamma thinks of the octopus differently now: not as jealousy, she says, but as desire. The problem was that “As a teenager, the way I defined my desire was via Jealousy.” He was reminded of René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. According to Girard, desire is not based on the actual properties of a thing, but on the idea that someone else wants it. He is thus inseparable from rivalry and violence. At the mention of Girard, Siyama’s face brightened; he was a theorist important to her in high school. She still believed that theory describes reality. But while she was thinking, ‘This is how it goes, and these are feelings,’ she now saw that the problem was culturally specific: part of a fraud.

“What a surprise. Greg makes the whole night go around him.”
lars kenseth cartoon

In his historically male canonical storytelling, Sciamma suggested that the character’s desire is itself a source of conflict: “I want to be rich, but I love that girl.” Or, “I should be the godfather, but I wish I could be an artist.” There is a formal desire and there is a secret desire. There is not only one desire.” She said she looked at her life for a long time with “conflicting desire.” Was perhaps the implicit text “that great conflict of desire that society has designed for us—every woman?” She said that part of her newfound freedom, at forty-three, was From her age, “I know now this thing so clear in my life, that I’m never going to be a mother.”

Today, when she thinks about her work, she no longer has two warring thoughts: on the one hand, “I love my job, I’m all about my job, I do my best, I’m so lucky,” and, on the other hand, “I’m tired, and I don’t go on vacation.” What is my private life?

Now I am, ‘No, this is my life! I make films because I love the life I lead in filmmaking. Everything is professional. It’s not like, “Oh, I make movies, so I don’t have a wife.” I also make movies to fall in love, because I’m going to travel, and I’m going to meet people. It’s not like it has a downside. This is your life.”

What if the thing you were weighing against “life” was the same as life? What if it was all one thing, not a bunch of swaps? “I’m not saying you have to love everything,” Siyama said. “But, yes, you should love it all.”

Sciamma has little patience for people who claim that the current political climate is “harmful to art”. “If we listened to them,” she said, “it’d be like, ‘Well, what do you want, black women fantasizing about consent?’ Yes, it ‘may destroy you.’ It’s the best thing I’ve seen. As a passionate TV viewer, she can quote Hannah Gadsby from memory, recounting entire lines from “The Good Fight.” She visits Tik Tok regularly, and marvels at the level of editing there. Since the early pandemic, she has been reading obsessively – “for hours and hours, more than I was in college” – mostly working by and lesser-known artists of the past.

The new view of the past is, for Siama, part of the present moment. On a recent Zoom call, she was looming over a giant French edition of Patricia Highsmith’s recently published memoir: Now we have access to gay experiences from the 1940s through the 1990s! The next minute, she was excited about Andrea Arnold’s new documentary, “Cow”: Now we have access to cow trials! How lucky we are, says Siyama, “because we always have some kind of new thrill ahead, whether it’s a new girl in town or an old lady we haven’t heard of.”

Particularly important to Siama was the rediscovery of many of the silent film pioneers of the past decades, notably Alice Gay (Alice Gay Blashy), who directed what is sometimes referred to as the first feature film (“Fairy Cabbage” in 1896). Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Gay served as head of the Gaumont studio in France, starting her own studio, and making over a thousand films. By 1927, nearly all prints were lost, and Gaye’s efforts to find them were unsuccessful in her lifetime. Routinely omitted from movie histories. Renewed scientific efforts have resulted in the restoration of more than a hundred of her films.

Siama and I watched one of them on YouTube, Consequences of Feminism (1906). In the living room, one man toils in ironing while another man sews; A woman walking beside them, casually puffs out a cigarette. The complacency of the characters makes the scene seem revolutionary: an insight into the absurdity of gender roles. Men do not appear resentful or as if they consider themselves oppressed; They seem important to themselves, exhausted, and convinced of the importance of their activity. The system is working.

The final scene is in a cafe, where women are drinking, smoking, and reading newspapers. Men gathered outside, two of them pushing baby carriages. Women’s suffrage advocates begin by trying to enter the café. They give impassioned speeches, some of which catch children. After several attempts, they succeeded in getting the women out.

Sergei Eisenstein writes in his memoirs about seeing this film at the age of eight, in a theater in Riga. (The title is not mentioned, and scholars have recently linked.) The last scene particularly impressed him, with women in the café and husbands standing outside in what he remembers as “an endless array of children. Train cars.” Children his age were not supposed to see such images, which seem to have etched them in his mind. When the ladies were kicked out of the café, Eisenstein recalls that he “(almost) walked out of the cinema” while holding the chairs in vain, unable to tear his eyes off the screen. “Consequences of Feminism” remained with Eisenstein throughout his life, such as “La Maternell” with Siyama’s grandmother. A drawing of what looks like a coffee shop scene, prominently showing a baby carriage, appears in a teenage Eisenstein sketchbook. In “The Battleship Potemkin” he summed up the brutal crushing of the rebellion in the famous image of a stroller rolling down the stairs of Odessa.

Our culture is in the stage of memories. “It’s not at the stage of history,” Siyama told me in an early conversation. The historical record is so incomplete that it must be supplemented, and even replaced, by memorable stories. “You still have to tell the story. You can’t quote. Not yet.” She added, “This is gay culture. Sorry. Pointing with a cigarette, she emphasized the second stanza in a way that seemed French she made it clear she was not sorry. Then she quoted Sappho’s Fragment 147: “Someone will remember us/say/even at another time.”

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About the author

Noah Roy

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