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Céline Sciamma: ‘I want you to have the film in your pocket’

Director Céline Sciamma tells Lounge how lockdown influenced her film Petite Maman, and why working with children is rewarding

A still from ‘Petite Maman’
A still from ‘Petite Maman’

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No one makes films about young people like Céline Sciamma. Nearly all her films have been about children: younger ones in Tomboy and My Life As A Courgette, the animated feature she wrote, and the teens in Girlhood and Water Lilies. An exception was her 2019 film, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a story about adults, also the first she made with a cast of professional actors. She returned to childhood as a subject, and to non-professional actors, in Petite Maman, which premiered at last year’s Berlinale. It’s now getting a digital release, premiering on MUBI on 18 February.

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The film, about two girls who become friends and discover an unexpected connection, is a miniature gem, displaying Sciamma’s extraordinary facility with young performers. Lounge speaks to the director on Zoom about making the film in the pandemic, and why one should make films that appeal to children every now and then. Edited excerpts:

You had written the film before lockdown. Did the pandemic change the way you saw the project?

Yes, actually. I built up this film in my mind, like daydreaming, and daydreaming for a long time. And when I started writing it, then the pandemic happened, and I stopped. When things became fine, I read the first scene, which has these women in a nursing home. Suddenly, it felt very intimate.

The film needed to be connected to what was happening, so we decided to make it really, really fast, so that it would be in cinemas when they reopened. So the film is definitely charged from that moment. We shot it during the second lockdown in France, crossing this empty city to go to a studio. Even though the film is not about that moment, it’s linked to it.

I would imagine you couldn’t shoot with a huge crew in lockdown. Were there advantages to working small on such an intimate film?

The film is modest. It’s not like Hollywood—it’s just watching little girls eat cereal.

The team wasn’t that small actually, especially the camera team. This was mainly because we were working with kids, you only have three hours a day, so you have to be ready. What changes is that there was no social interaction other than work on the sets. So cinema was very central and very sacred. I am okay with that, I think it should be kind of sacred. But even the fact that we were looking at people’s faces felt incredible and poetic: cinema as a machine to watch a face, a face as a landscape.

Céline Sciamma. Photo by Claire Mathon
Céline Sciamma. Photo by Claire Mathon

On paper, the story that unfolds could have been a sci-fi fantasy or comedy studio film, but you treat it very naturally. Was the tone with you from the start?

No, it had to be developed. It’s true that it was found in the dialogues. When I write a film, I write the whole film. I don’t write, like, first the treatment, then the dialogues. I wrote the film from the first scene to the last. If I am blocked on scene 12, I am not going to scene 13. Writing, to me, is a mix of very long buffering in my head. And then when I write it’s very organic—a draft is out in five-six days. When you write like that, the tone appears suddenly, it’s kind of magic. You never know the actual tone till the actors are there, how they move, their attitude, their voices. So yeah, I finally had the tone of the film when I first said, action.

The film makes these imaginative leaps, like a child might while storytelling. And you show the girls playing at telling stories.

Yes, it’s like the film is Russian-dolling a little bit. The fact that when they play, it’s super subversive, and that’s what kids do. They role-play all the time. They go even further than the film by imagining they have a child together. The film is less adventurous than their own personal scripts! Those scenes were my favourite to shoot. I could do a show of 12 episodes of just that.

The film is almost novella-length.

I had this length in mind, an hour and 10 minutes. My Life As A Courgette, the animated film that I co-wrote, was an hour and five minutes. Tomboy was an hour and 22 minutes, Water Lilies an hour and 25. The fact that it’s short means it hits very hard. And it doesn’t just give much detail, it stays very minimal, so that you can take it home with you. I want you to have the film in your pocket. Then you can experience it with your own personal story.

It was also for the film to be democratic, so a child could sit through it. I wanted it to be intergenerational. Tomboy has been seen by a lot of kids in France, maybe 300,000. I get a lot of 17- to 18-year-olds who tell me, I saw it in school, it was my first arthouse film, it made me discover cinema. It’s such a privilege to have a connection to the young audience today because they saw this film as kids. That’s why, every 10 years, you should do a film for kids. When you do a film for kids, you are basically trying to put cinema into their lives.

Was working with child actors easier since you had done it before?

Well, what was different was that in Portrait I was working with professional actresses. And now I was back to non-professional child actors. It was exactly the same job. It’s the same interaction, with professionals and non-professionals, you share the ideas of the film and you are looking for solutions, for the language of the film, together. It felt like the same collaboration but with less time. No, the only difference is you actually watch them understand the craft as they are learning it. It’s beautiful, a kid understanding the language of cinema and making it their language also.

You and Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (composer Para One) continue your long-standing collaboration with a delightful song here.

When I did my first film, I asked him to do the score. We have in common a very strong relationship to childhood, and childhood expressed through music. His melodies... I feel like they are always perfect. 

I asked him [on Petite Maman] for a song that would be like a cartoon from our childhood. When we grew up in the 1980s, these (themes) were very electronic and psychedelic sometimes. And he suggested that I write some lyrics. Writing those lyrics was like writing a poem for the film. There’s very few things I like as much as the privilege of seeing someone making music.

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