Céline Sciamma: The French Director Winning Over U.S. Critics

With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, screened in a selection of U.S. theaters in early December before its national release on February 14, Céline Sciamma has found a following in America. Everyone has applauded her liberated perspective and her approach to feminine eroticism freed from objectification.

Somewhere on a Breton island during the 18th century, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is secretly commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a coun-tess (Valeria Golino) promised to a Milan nobleman. Héloïse initially shies away, refusing to sit for the painter, before engaging with and defying her. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma has once again depicted the emergence of desire.


© Courtesy of NEON

Sciamma, 40, is a leading name in French arthouse cinema, and grew up in one of the middle-class families who moved to the new town of Cergy-Pontoise near Paris. She sees Virginia Woolf as the “greatest novelist,” Belgian director Chantal Akerman as one of the most important filmmakers, and has been heavily influenced by David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me).

Sciamma has made just four movies over twelve years: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014), and her most recent work. All of them focus on youth, identity, gender, class relations, and the place and love of women. After training at the prestigious Parisian cinema school La Fémis, she worked as a screenwriter on the fantasy series Les Revenants (2012-2015) — adapted in the U.S. as The Returned (2015) — and André Techiné’s 2016 movie Being 17.

The following year, she wrote the screenplay for My Life as a Zucchini, Claude Barras’ animated movie nominated at the 2017 Oscars. Water Lilies, her first feature-length film with actress Adèle Haenel, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. At the same event last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Award for Best Screenplay.

In the United States, where every single one of Sciamma’s movies has been released in theaters, the critics are even more demonstrative. Named as one of the five best international movies by the National Board of Review, her latest work was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Golden Globes. From the New Yorker and Variety to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. press highlights the central role given to women by Sciamma in her films, particularly in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “The very nature of women’s art and the marginalization of women in the art world are built into the movie via a subplot (an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion) in a way that echoes unmistakably with the present day,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker.


© Courtesy of NEON

Splitting her time between writing fiction and filming movies, Sciamma also plays soccer with the LGBT+ club Baston et Courtoisie (“Brawls and Courtesy”). She is a big fan of Megan Rapinoe, captain of the 2019 World Cup-winning U.S. national soccer team and an activist for women’s, LGBT+, and minority rights. Since Carol Hanisch, one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we have realized that “the personal is political.”

Sciamma writes and directs femi-nist movies with the simple ambition of changing the perspective of cinema. Portrait of a Lady on Fire enables her to pay homage to artists forgotten by history and to deconstruct the logics of domination traditionally associated with masculine viewpoints and creator-muse relationships.

  • “Les logiques de domination qui sont traditionnellement associées au point de vue masculin et aux relations entre créateur et muse”… Ah bon ? Traditionnellement associées… par qui ??? Stéreotypes navrants. A de rarissimes exceptions près le cinéma contemporain est aussi bête que dépourvu d’ambition artistique.

  • Les navets du cinéma français honorés par la presse américaine. Le remarquable J’accuse de Polanski boycotté… Symboliquement tout le crétinisme moderne est résumé par ce paradoxe. (L’argument “moral” ne tient pas la route car par ex le passé violent de Ladj Ly ne semble pas avoir gêné l’Académie des Oscars ni la presse.)

  • Ladj Ly a été condamné le 2 mars 2011 à Bobigny à trois ans d’emprisonnement pour enlèvement et séquestration. Dans ce dossier il a été également mis en examen pour tentative d’assassinat et violences aggravées. Il semblerait donc qu’au yeux des médias, du cinéma français et de la cérémonie des Oscars, contrairement à ce qu’écrit Guy Sorman, dans certains cas le talent excuse bien les crimes.

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