Céline Sciamma – The Candid Camerawoman
Born in Cergy-Pontoise, an experimental new town outside Paris, Céline Sciamma put her home on screen in Water Lilies. The 28-year-old director is one of a new wave of French female film-makers drawing on personal experiences for a new kind of intimate cinema. ‘Cergy is where I grew up, but the film isn’t autobiography,’ she says. ‘It’s an intimate movie, a personal one, but only because it says what it’s like to be a girl. For the duration of the film, everyone in the audience will be in the head of a 15-year-old girl.’
Water Lilies is about a schoolgirl experiencing a lesbian crush on the star of the local synchronised swimming team. With typical French candour, Sciamma delights in showing young girls showering. ‘I wanted to take viewers to places they’ve never been in movies, like the girls’ changing rooms. Before, it’s only been seen by boys looking between the cracks, like in bad American films like Porky’s.’
A graduate of the national film school (La Fémis), Sciamma is refreshing about suburban life. ‘The place where you grow up defines you and it’s easy to say you get bored in the suburbs,’ she argues. ‘But it can be positive because it’s where I found my imagination soaring – it forced me to create to relieve the boredom.’
Sciamma and the new generation hang out at the cool, MK2 cinemas now occupying Paris, like the one on Quai de Loire and Quai de Seine. ‘It’s very exciting for film fans,’ she says. ‘They’re like a multiplexes for intellectuals, with bookshops and cafes with old and new films.’
Whilst studying screenwriting at the French National Film School, the 27-year old wrote Water Lilies as her graduation script, a teenage girls coming-of-age story set in the hothouse of competitive synchronised swimming. Producers loved it – even insisting that Sciamma, a complete filmmaking novice, direct it herself. Rapturously received, Sciamma now finds herself feted as one of French cinema’s brightest new talents.
WERE YOU as convinced as everyone else that you should, or could, direct Water Lilies?
I was so scared and saying, “I don’t want to do this, I’m a screenwriter!” My agent told me, “OK, don’t do it, we’ll hand it to another director”, then I realised, my God, I don’t want anyone else to do this. Reverse psychology, it’s a good trick! So a year after leaving school I was shooting the movie.
What about your lack of filmmaking experience?
I had a very strong relationship with my producer. I chose a crew who really wanted to do the movie and they trusted me more and more every day. Technical matters, I learned everything while doing it. It’s not about knowing the name of each lens, it’s about expressing your ideas. I discovered I really enjoyed it.
Was your own background in synchronised swimming?
No, the first scene of the movie basically happened to me when I was 15, I went to a show by chance and I was so moved by it and confused for a few days. I kept thinking I should have been a synchronised swimmer. Then I realised no, those were just my feelings of wanting to be part of a team, wanting to be more feminine.
It’s a much-maligned practice….
Exactly. Those girls were so accomplished at something totally pointless – but I wanted to be accomplished. I was really into the idea that it works as a symbol of what it’s like to be a girl, to be a teenager with those two worlds, the surface of things where you’re perfect and you smile and you’re the perfect doll and underneath the water you struggle with the elements and it’s all pain and sacrifice and nobody will know.
There are several very intense, challenging scenes for your three young lead actresses, many of them highly sexual. How did you deal with those?
In casting, I told everyone the whole story, there’s a sequence where a girl deflowers another girl, everything, I was very honest. For me it’s a radiography of femininity. I was very surprised that there were so few girls who were fazed by this, they felt like the movie was really talking about them so that was my first asset.
And lots of preparation beforehand?
We worked together for a month before shooting with a coach, and every day we learned to know each other and out confidence in one another. I wanted to make sure they got every subtle detail so they wouldn’t be caught by surprise by anything. On the set there was no improvisation. We were always talking about the characters and I was never talking about their personal lives.
Coming-of-age stories are very common, but Water Lilies feels very dreamlike, almost timeless.
I wanted to do a teen movie that was like an anti-teen movie. If you’re doing a movie about the youth of 2007, in five years it’s going to be like a period movie in costume! I wanted to talk about something that always stays: the feelings, the emotions you go through, that’s the same. I didn’t want to do a ‘hip movie’ – which is quite funny, because it has now become quite a hip move in France!
Leigh Singer, i-D