The Action Cinema of Céline Sciamma

The French director's movies showcase women doing, creating, and exerting themselves in ways both quiet and radical.
Caspar Salmon

Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting February 18, 2022 in the series Luminaries. Her films are also showing as part of the series Young Hearts Run Free: Céline Sciamma.

Petite Maman

Our actions define us. In the second scene of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the film’s protagonist, the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is traveling on a boat rowed by a dozen oarsmen, when a wooden crate containing her easel is jolted into the sea. Marianne considers the situation for a few seconds, then kicks off her shoes, jumps into the cold, choppy waters in her gown and traveling coat, and swims towards her prize possession. We immediately pick up her resilience, romanticism, and independence of spirit.

This scene, and another shortly afterwards where a naked Marianne smokes a pipe as she warms herself up from her efforts before a fire, shares a quality with most of Sciamma’s work: namely, how she depicts her characters through doing, through exertion; indeed, how her whole body of work is focused on action. This activity—since all of Sciamma’s protagonists are female—is often considered a taboo in the wider world around her characters. It is this exciting agency that opens up the very narrative possibilities of her stories, making her films so propulsive and original.

Sciamma’s most recent film, Petite Maman, is no exception to this rule—in fact, it advances its director’s cinema about as far as it has gone, by paring down dialogue in favor of action, particularly in the way it describes its characters. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), the young protagonist, is first seen completing a crossword with an older woman. In these early scenes, there is startlingly little dialogue particularly between the young girl and her mother (Nina Meurisse), whose terse dialogue contains no sweetening terms of endearment. Nelly is then painted through her interaction with her environment—her grandmother’s old home—as it is being packed down following her death. She rummages in chests; busies herself with building a den as her mother, as a young girl, once did before; absent-mindedly chomps cereal and drags chunky jumpers over her straggly thatch of hair. Part of this depiction comes from costuming and performance; but it’s striking, too, how much agency and independence the child has in her world.

In Petite Maman, this building of a fort enacts a different kind of revisionism, since girls are now given more leeway to entertain themselves as they wish—but it still surely defies a certain notion of female demureness, of a little girl’s pretty passivity in the eyes of society, to see the two girls (Nelly befriends another, played by Gabrielle Sanz, during the film) lugging enormous branches around and fully engineering a truly ambitious hideout. Here, the activity of imagining, devising and carrying out a plan shows the girls transfiguring their own world: sure, there is a giddy sense of messing around with stuff, but more even Sciamma shows two girls as creators within their own universe. Later still, the two nine-year-olds scull a boat together on a lake alone—a more dreamlike sequence, but one which still carries a sense of their spontaneity and hardiness, exploring the limits and possibilities of their world. Sciamma is perhaps not tearing down a taboo here, but she is evidently scratching away at expected gender roles, and considering her protagonists in a different, richer light than we may be accustomed to.

Tomboy (2011) sees another child protagonist, Laure/Mikaël (Zoé Héran) more actively breaking taboos around young girls’ expected behavior: by embracing a different gender presentation, they are able to cross over into the world of boys, playing football (unlike their sister Jeanne, or Lisa, another girl who watches from the sidelines) and even fighting with a boy. These are taboos of different orders, clearly: playing football with boys being a milder one than beating a boy in a fistfight over a girl. (Sciamma’s Girlhood goes even further into the world of fighting, with groups of girls brutally street fighting, bringing a lexicon of violence into a feminine world.) But this presentation of Laure/Mikaël has several effects: first of all, it lends Sciemma’s cinema a dynamic quality in terms of its aesthetics, as her camera is accustomed to following so much movement and bustle. This is visible in other such films as Girlhood (2014), or in Portrait of a Lady on Fire when, along with Marianne, we first glimpse Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the noblewoman who is to be the subject of her painting, in the act of running. Secondly, it is a political act, reclaiming some of the world from men and boys, for a girl to enact her own gender expression in. Thirdly—and this ties in with the act of opening up the universe for women—it shows Sciamma’s properly queer outlook: one which posits girls and women as far more than passive objects, but capable, agile, busy, rough, dynamic. (A cursory comparison of Sciamma’s films with those of such French contemporaries as, say, Mia Hansen-Løve or Justine Triet, whose female protagonists certainly have agency and independence but are depicted more passively, shows that Sciamma is fairly unique in this approach.) If women are often shown taking on the habits, tools, qualities and activities of men in Sciamma’s film, this is perhaps to free them from common standards of beauty, and to show them working, quite often, independently of men (men are largely absent from Portrait of a Lady on Fire) in a way that is surely queer.

This insistence on action is also what opens up Sciamma's very stories, providing narrative developments on which her cinema hinges. In Tomboy, Laure/Mikaël's fight is what tips the story back into the harshness of reality, after practically the whole film had existed on their’s terms—accepting their gender presentation and inhabiting it almost in a fantastical kind of realm. The fight with a boy, because it busts taboos, because it is so humiliating to the defeated boy, is what forces Mikaël to return to their accepted gender presentation of Laure, tipping what had been an airy, enchanting story of possibilities being investigated, into a more closed down film, one of consummate misery, in which possibilities for the protagonist have been humiliatingly shuttered off.

Likewise,  a burst of action on the part of Nelly is what literally triggers Petite Maman's story into being. One day, foraging about for toys, she comes upon a bat-and-ball game, where the ball is attached to a weight by an elastic cord. Sciamma shows the girl lugging the game into the garden, and then—with a vigor that is really quite startling—absolutely thrashing the ball with her bat. It is almost impossible to emphasize enough quite how hard this child thumps the ball. In fact, so fully does she wallop it that the string breaks, sending the ball flying into a nearby wood. Arguably, it is this act that tips the film into a fantastical realm, opening up dramatic possibilities: this is the point at which Sciamma brings in a magical time-travel element, introducing Nelly to her own mother in the person of a child. That act—the sport, the violence, the activity—literally changes the fabric of the girl’s environment, allowing the film itself to be transfigured.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the characters’ inability to have an impact on the course of their own lives, unlike the two tomboyish girl of Petite Maman, is what shapes the film’s tragic narrative. Although, when left to their own devices, Marianne and Héloïse are masters of their actions, deriving pleasure and stimulation from their pursuits, in the world outside of the movie’s small environment their exertions count for nothing. Héloïse is able to live out a fantasy for a while, smoking a pipe, and running: she even says, movingly, “I’d always dreamed of doing that.” The remark shows how highly fantastical such things are, and how Sciamma depicts her characters in moments of liberty: as in Tomboy, the strictures of the world at large are what close down the possibilities available to these women. Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s heartbreaking conclusion, filmed unblinkingly, shows characters finally bent to the harshnesses of a male world—Héloïse, crying at the theatre, is finally a passive figure, filmed in semi-distance, whose sorrow cannot be expressed in full.

The activity of women in Sciamma’s work is queer and political, giving us women and girls in different environments and eras, who for one reason or another are not constantly subjected to the strictures of the world. Filming her characters doing things, getting creative, or exerting their bodies in whatever way, from fighting and fucking to building, jumping, rowing, playing games and smoking, Sciamma gives her women options and transformative actions that might not always be available to women outside of her cinema. In so doing, her cinema becomes all the more vibrant and heady, the camera taking its cue from her writing in engaging with all of this life. Action, in Sciamma, has the feel of reality but it also confers an aura of fantasy, by tearing into the very material of life and opening it up from the inside out. 

Petite Maman

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