Halfway through Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Adèle Haenel turns to Noémie Merlant: “Do you think all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Haenel’s Héloïse and Merlant’s Marianne have just become lovers: the question comes moments after their lips first met in a secluded stretch of the windswept 18th century French coast they’re stranded in. Heloise is a bride-to-be, waiting to be palmed off by her blue-blooded mother (Valeria Golino) to some affluent suitor in Milan. And Marianne is the painter hired to finish her portrait, which will be used to seal the deal. Merlant does not answer Haenel, but Sciamma lets the question carom off Héloïse’s scarcely furbished mansion, and resurface in a final heart to heart, with the young women now in bed, whispering in the dead of night. It’s the last they’ll ever share. They both know it. “I feel something new,” Héloïse tells Marianne: “regret.” And Marianne, holding her lover’s face in her hands: “do not regret—remember.”
In an interview following Portrait’s Cannes premiere, Sciamma told Film Comment she wanted the movie to trace “a luminous path” even as the devastating love story between Héloïse and Marianne ends in a heart-wrenching and untimely farewell. “Love is emancipation, and the movie says it’s something that can only grow, and it has a future.” I saw the film in Cannes, and then again earlier this month. In between the two occasions, I watched Sciamma’s earlier works. The remark seemed to traverse them all as some mission statement.
Love, in Sciamma’s films, carries a liberating aftertaste. The sense of emancipation she evoked in the interview boils down to a struggle to renew yourself; to desire is to give birth to something you’ve been carrying inside you all along. Long before Haenel and Merlant’s first kiss, Sciamma populated her films with characters who heed to their impulses, and transform themselves in the process. There is something empowering about this: it’s the idea that love can change the way you carry yourself into the world, because it helps you understand the space you occupy inside it, embrace the image you project into it, and ultimately, rescue some of it from oblivion.
Take Water Lilies, Sciamma’s 2007 directorial debut. In it, teenage Marie (Pauline Acquart) falls for a girl her age, the captain of a local synchronized swimming team, Adèle Haenel’s Floriane. As a title, the English Water Lilies loses all the transformative allusions of the French original. Naissance des pieuvres (literally, “the birth of the octopuses”) suggests a certain opening, an entry into the world. And Sciamma’s first feature is the story of a re-birth: Marie longs for Floriane, acts upon her desire, and is shaped by it—even as her interest is unreciprocated.
In interviews, Sciamma has recalled the day when, still a teen, she watched a synchronized swimming event, and found the experience seducing. You can feel this seductiveness, this bewitching allure, gleaming in every shot of Water Lilies. This is a film whose attention to routines and choreographies aligns Sciamma with the work of Claire Denis, and Crystel Fournier, whose cinematography Sciamma would rely on for every feature until Portrait, is as fascinated by the two young leads as she is with the rituals in which they partake. All around Marie, sensual and athletic bodies are glittered, exercised, depilated, lacquered. And the choreographies she watches—whether underwater routines or alcohol-fueled house-parties—turn into battlegrounds where identities are shaped and negotiated.
Marie is transformed by her love for Floriane, and this causes her identity to constantly shift. Hypnotized and manipulated by Haenel, she turns from acquaintance to friend, from friend to confidante, and from confidante to a gateway into the world of sexually active adults. But even as Marie maintains a tragically subaltern relationship with Floriane, Sciamma captures that heartbreaking first crush as an empowering process. The transformation Marie undergoes isn’t so much physical as it is emotional: by acting upon her desire for Floriane, she learns to uncover and embrace something that was tucked deep within her. That love, unrequited as it may be, completes her, for it teaches her something—not necessarily something new, but something she could not previously articulate or accept with the same ease. In the end, as Floriane dances on her own, cooly beautiful under a party’s neon lights, Marie floats in the pool next to her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère), smiling at the ceiling. Could this be the luminous path Sciamma mentioned in reference to Portrait—that idea of love as emancipation, some liberating, electrifying force?
Anytime I revisit Sciamma’s films, I am stunned by all the courage her characters brim with. From Water Lilies to Portrait, desire traverses Sciamma’s universe intertwined with pain. Her heroines’ struggles are chronicles of frustrated pursuits, unanswered—or tragically short-lived—love interests. And yet none of them ever chooses to repress their longing as a way to stave off hurt. They'd rather pay the price of that yearning than numb themselves from pain. Which is one of the many reasons why, I suspect, Marianne invites Héloïse to remember, but to never regret.
That lesson echoes all the way back to Pauline (2010), a short Sciamma was commissioned for for the collection “Five Short Films Against Homophobia.” Anaïs Demoustier plays a small-town girl who recounts, over an eight-minute monologue, the day she began to be “troubled by girls” and eventually fell in love with one. Her Pauline chose to follow that longing, and was chastised as a result: once the village found out she was a lesbian, she was shunned by her own family, and forced to flee. But pursuing that desire also emancipated her. By refusing to compromise or repress her longing, she was able to vindicate a sense of self she could have never otherwise set free. As the monologue ends, Sciamma shows this much is true. Far from home, Pauline has found love, and in a last-second twist we realize she’s been addressing her new girlfriend (Adèle Haenel), who jumps into her bed and hugs her. “Home is still over there,” Demoustier smiles at Haenel, “but that may change now.”
All through Sciamma’s work, desire has a distinctly corporeal dimension: you long, and you watch as that urge refracts through your body. Pauline does capture some of that in the words Demoustier mutters when she recalls the first aches of longing as “something in my guts, a bit like feeling nauseous.” But it’s in Tomboy (2011) that the interplay between yearning and body receives its most thorough examination. Sciamma’s second feature follows a few weeks in the life of Laure (Zoé Héran), a 10-year-old who moves with her family into a new suburban neighborhood. Short-haired and blue-eyed, graced with a luminous and androgynous beauty, Laure inhabits that pre-adolescent age suspended between genders. But she identifies as a boy, so much so that when she is befriended by Lisa (Jeanne Disson), a girl who’s visibly smitten with the newcomer’s cherubic looks, she introduces herself as Mikaël. And Mikaël she remains, all through the summer, in the eyes of her new pals.
The double identity goes unbeknownst to her parents. Laure at home and Mikaël outside of it, Sciamma’s heroine spends her days studying her new male friends, memorizing and imitating their gestures. Fournier’s camera assumes here a near anthropomorphic character, trailing behind the kids as an anonymous observer, and placing us at their eye-level. It works through close-ups and medium shots that keep us near them at all times, and force adults to bend down to enter the shot. Oscillating between rest and hyperactivity, rapid cutting and longer takes, Tomboy replicates the cadence of children: it brims with that observational quality that makes so much of Sciamma’s work feel like ethnographical footage. Still, the longing Laure confronts is altogether different from the yearning that permeated Water Lilies or Pauline. Sure, there are traces of erotic tension with Lisa, but the overarching struggle here pivots on a quest for acceptance. Laure’s desire is to pursue an identity independent of the one her body comes attached with.
“The body is the object and the limit of the film,” Sciamma has noted about Tomboy, and just how clunky and big an obstacle becomes apparent in the film’s brutal denouement. Like Marie’s and Pauline’s before her, Laure’s longing is imbued in pain. As her mother comes to know about her secret, she forces her to confess it to her new friends. It’s an unspeakable humiliation. For the kids are more furious than dumbfounded by what they perceive as a deceit, as if Laure had violated some invisible and sacred rule. And yet Tomboy lands on a heart-warming note. Laure and Lisa bump into each other again, and Lisa asks for the child’s name a second time. Laure’s dream may have shattered, exposing her in the most belittling way possibly, but pursuing that desire may have helped her embrace a different understanding of her self. Whether or not she’ll be able to vindicate a new space in the world remains to be seen, but there is a sense that things have changed, and can begin anew. That “Laure” she finally tells Lisa after a long pause is the same Laure she was when they first said hello, but a different one, too: a freer, lighter being. She smiles, and we cut to black.
It’s interesting that the closest relative to Tomboy’s heroine should be a girl hailing from a diametrically opposite turf. With Girlhood (2014), Sciamma’s shifted her focus away from white female culture and turned it onto France’s multicultural banlieue. Her third feature follows Marieme (Karidja Touré), a black teen who seeks solace from an abusive family situation and lack of school prospects, and finds it in a local three-girl gang headed by Lady (Assa Sylla), a charismatic figure against which shy Marieme is pitted like Marie opposite Floriane in Water Lilies. But even as some of Lady and Marieme’s interactions crackle with desire, there is no infatuation like in that film, no unrequited and tragic love story like Demoustier’s in Pauline. In fact, much like Laure’s in Tomboy, the sense of longing simmering through Girlhood boils down to a struggle to belong and find acceptance into a new group—in this case, a family surrogate.
There’s a scene in Girlhood that has jostled itself in my mind like few others. It’s the moment the four girls break into a full rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” inside a hotel room they’ve got for the night, a safe space Fournier’s deep blue palette turns into some marine reverie. Lady stares at the camera as she lip-synchs and dances, and a reverse shot reveals Marieme staring back. The camera pulls out to show the three girls dancing together, and pushes in on Marieme’s face. She’s lying on the bed as she watches, and Touré lets the image work on her physically, contracting and relaxing her gaze, until she rises and joins in. It’s a moment brimming with contagious energy and affection; a short-lived mirage, sure, but in that magical space suddenly opened up by the love for her friends, the world seems a far more welcoming place than it probably ever did.
And even if that mirage won’t survive, even if the four will grow apart and the violence Marieme is escaping won’t cease but only finds new shapes and perpetrators, that love she begins sharing with them will help transform her. It’ll provide her with the safety net and confidence to imagine a new place in the world. This is a film that could have ended by lingering on the tears Marieme sheds as she finally realizes she will never be able to return to her family. Instead, it closes with the teen’s profile, tears wiped away, marching into the future and the city sprawling below the projects.
Girlhood may well have been a departure for Sciamma, but like Water Lilies and Tomboy, the film follows characters preoccupied with the images they project into the world. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the other hand, focuses on those they choose to hold on to and rescue from oblivion. Which makes Marianne’s plea to Héloïse, “remember,” all the more harrowing. Here too, love traverses Sciamma's world as a transformative force. Lovers do not necessarily invent something new, but exhume and nurture something they had only kept hidden. Watching Marianne and Héloïse fall in love—a choreography of searching and wanting glances—is to witness them grow together and complete each other. Nowhere in Sciamma’s work has a relationship ever been as symmetrical as the one between them. “That’s the heart of the film, equality,” Sciamma noted in Cannes, “[Merlant] is being looked at as much as she looks.”
But love takes on a far more urgent meaning, too. The longing Marianne and Héloïse feel for each other is as much about consummating an incandescent desire as it is about saving and crystallizing some of it into eternity. Which is why the myth of Orpheus the young lovers discuss plays such a crucial role—Orpheus, the Greek god who turned his head back to look at his beloved Eurydice as she reemerged from Hades, knowing all too well that doing so would cause her to vanish from the world forever. Why would he do such a thing? Maybe it was Eurydice who asked him to turn around, offers Héloïse—and Marianne will only understand her words in their devastating farewell. It is not an egotistical choice. It is not about preserving some lover as young and beautiful, but the memory of a love at its most powerful and vivid. Only then will it never truly finish, forcing you to grasp for air anytime it will resurface, as Héloïse will do anytime she’ll listen to Vivaldi’s “Summer.” From Water Lilies to Portrait of a Lady’s arresting final shot, falling in love, in Sciamma’s world, is to escape the things that made you; in this case, your own mortality. It’s all an illusion, of course. But it’s just too beautiful to resist giving it one last look.