Celine Sciamma on Avoiding ‘Emotional Porn’ and How to Make the Perfect Pandemic Movie

The filmmaker explains to IndieWire her decision to rush into writing and directing a celebrated new feature after the success of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."
This Sept. 30, 2019 photo shows filmmaker Celine Sciamma posing for a portrait in New York to promote her film, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)
Celine Sciamma
Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

A little over a year ago, Céline Sciamma was coming off a hectic time. Her fourth feature, the acclaimed romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” became a breakout hit after its 2019 Cannes debut. Though the movie wasn’t selected by France as its Oscar submission, “Portrait” scored nine nominations from the César Awards. Sciamma joined her star (and ex-partner) Adele Haenel in a highly-publicized decision to walk out of the ceremony after the filmmaker lost Best Director to Roman Polanski.

It was late February 2020 and Sciamma, who has long pushed back on the sexist, patriarchal state of the French film industry, wanted to make a big statement. These days, as she gets on the phone from Paris to discuss her new movie, it’s the last thing she wants to talk about.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I’ve been far away from that for a year and that’s a long time.” In that period, Sciamma dove into a frantic period of writing and directing a new movie for the next festival cycle. The result, a delightful and poignant 72-minute wonder called “Petite Maman,” premiered as a part of the Berlin Film Festival’s virtual edition this week and quickly secured U.S. distribution with Neon, the same company that took “Portrait” to North American audiences last year. “I made this film so fast to put it in the world, to be inspired, to give us the feeling of some future,” Sciamma said.

In doing so, she also provided one of the more eloquent examples of a pandemic-era production. “Petite Maman” unfolds as a delicate two-hander in which eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) copes with the loss of her grandmother through a fantastical encounter with the child version of her mother (twin Gabrielle Sanz).

Sciamma started writing the project before lockdowns began in France, but when they were lifted in June, she realized the story had grown more timely. The opening scene takes place in a nursing home, as young Nelly says goodbye to the other residents following her grandmother’s death. “How many grandmothers had died in nursing homes without their goodbyes?” Sciamma said she wondered. “It felt valid, and even more urgent, to have this film that was coping with loss. It was a tool for the imagination. We need those to dream of the future.”

Outside of her sibling stars, the movie features only three other adult actors, allowing for a small-scale production largely shot outdoors. “This movie was very COVID-compatible,” said Sciamma, who limited the crew to six people at a time. “We know how to deal with protocols on sets. It felt like the perfect opportunity.”

When the camera followed her young protagonists into one room, she would watch from the monitor in another. “It felt like we were locked down together,” she said. There was one brief scare when a member of the production team felt unwell, resulting in a temporary delay, but it turned out to be a false alarm. “You feel every day you have to go through this,” Sciamma said. “It’s very very fragile — but that’s quite beautiful, I think. I have always felt the set is very sacred, and this made it even more sacred.”

The experience also brought her back to an earlier phase of her career. Ten years ago, Sciamma’s second feature, “Tomboy,” revolved around the experiences of a 10-year-old gender non-confirming child. It helped her sort out the unique process of working with child actors, and even as her casts got older in subsequent movies like “Girlhood” and “Portrait,” Sciamma said the “Tomboy” experience was a gamechanger.

"Petite Maman"
“Petite Maman”Berlinale

“That gave me the craft and confidence around working with children,” she said. “It was something that I was scared of doing, but now I don’t see it as difficult or risky. You can trust children with this kind of playing on camera.” She envisioned “Petite Maman” as a narrative that would be accessible to children and adults alike. “The dream of the theater for for me is that it’s a room full of adults and kids,” she said. “I want kids and grownups to be totally focused on the same object.”

She found herself awestruck by the potential of mining her characters’ relationship to the world, in particular the way Nelly shows concern for the young version of her mother, knowing the challenges she faces in the years ahead. “There’s so much depth and candor in how eager kids are to look at everything,” she said. “Kids have the deepest perspective. This film shows kids who are focused, serious, reliable. They care about us as grownups.”

That inclusive decision also informed the concise running time. Sciamma packs a lot of bittersweet moments into her story, from the adult playacting that fills the girls’ time to affecting exchanges between Nelly and characters she encounters from her past. When Nelly tells her mother about her future struggles with sadness, the movie presents a powerful juxtaposition between the innocence of childhood and the complex psychological hurdles that sweep it aside. But Sciamma’s steady direction brings the movie to touching finale rather than wallowing in bad vibes. “Some movies blackmail you into being emotional by showing you violence or people suffering,” she said. “If it’s not emotional porn, then the audience can be happy about it. I wanted to create this weird thing that would be very short but so concentrated. I love very short movies.”

In press notes for the movie, Sciamma cited the gentle rhythms of Hayao Miyazaki’s films as one point of inspiration, but added in conversation that she was also thinking about Chantal Akerman. “Her films have this strange patchwork that gives you ideas,” she said, adding that Akerman’s patient compositions and narrative approach inspired her as well. “There’s a lot of frontality in her films,” Sciamma said. “I’m always thinking about playful cinema.”

With production on “Petite Maman” underway by November, Sciamma was eying an early 2021 festival launch, in part as a means of supporting the circuit. Most her prior work, from her 2007 debut “Water Lillies” to “Portrait,” launched at Cannes, which this year is on the calendar for early July. With “Petite Maman,” she decided not to wait that long.  “Festivals need films. That’s why we wanted to go fast,” she said. “We wanted to be there for festivals. They’re very important culturally as well as in my own life.”

Meanwhile, she has been taking in the experience of launching a movie without the usual red carpet fanfare. “It would feel really, really weird to go through this moment in any other way than this,” she said. “I feel it’s right, and I enjoy how differently it connects you to the people who see your films.”

During an an online conversation hosted by Berlin, Sciamma surprised some viewers by citing “WandaVision” as one of the recent cultural events that had captivated her in recent weeks. She laughed when it came up again.

WandaVision Episode 5 Paul Bettany Elizabeth Olsen
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in “WandaVision”Courtesy of Disney+

“I’m not playing around, like, ‘Oh, you’re this auteur who likes superhero movies,’” she said. “I’m not a big Avengers person. I don’t have a lot of that culture. But you can totally enjoy ‘WandaVision’ without having that. Of course I’m missing a lot of the fetishes that I’m not aware of, but I just find that it’s a great way to talk about grief and loss. I feel connected to that.” She added that Marvel wasn’t on her hit list for future gigs. “I’m not looking for a job,” she said. “I just feel a connection with it. I’m not looking for a connection back.”

And she still wants “Petite Maman” to find its way to theaters, however they come back into the culture. “It’s definitely designed as a collective experience,” she said. “Of course, it works alone on your laptop, too. I haven’t seen it in a room with a lot of people yet, but I can’t wait. It’s really a film about the presence and the body.”

The movie isn’t the only Berlin title with her name on it. Sciamma also has a screenwriting credit on “Paris, 13th District,” the long-gestating drama from veteran French director Jacques Audiard. Sales company Playtime sold U.S. rights to the movie to IFC Films off footage at Berlin’s virtual European Film Market, with speculation swirling that the movie might wind up at Cannes.

Sciamma first worked on the script prior to “Portrait,” adapting several short stories by American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine while transplanting them to a French context. Audiard later reworked it with filmmaker Léa Mysius (“Ava”), who also shares a writing credit. “I think it’s very Parisian,” Sciamma said. “It’s a meeting between Tomine’s work and contemporary Paris.”

Sciamma said she was unsure which of her gestating ideas she might tackle next, but shrugged off concerns about the future prospects for filmmaking around the globe. “I’m not worried,” she said. “Now that cinema isn’t in our lives anymore, people miss it. So maybe now, they’ll know more about why they like it, and they’ll be more honest about that. I’m always hopeful.”

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