“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was Céline Sciamma’s big breakout moment, but the French director was clearly a major talent in the making from the very start of her career.
In 2007, the then 29-year-old filmmaker premiered her first feature at Cannes Film Festival, after writing the movie’s script during her final year at the prestigious film school La Fémis. The story of three teen girls awakening to their sexualities during a single summer, “Water Lillies” featured Sciamma’s future romantic partner and collaborator Adèle Haenel, and established the type of female-focused and queer stories she would spend her entire career bringing to the screen.
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Following the positive reception of “Water Lillies,” Sciamma chased it with 2011’s “Tomboy,” a sharply observed coming-of-age about a 10-year-old exploring their gender identity. 2014’s “Girlhood,” about four Black teen girls living in Paris, brought Sciamma further attention, thanks to a much talked about scene involving Rihanna’s hit “Diamonds.” But it wasn’t until “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” premiered in 2019 that broader American audiences took notice of her work.
A gorgeous and seductive historical romance starring Haenel and Noémie Merlant as an aristocrat and a painter who engage in a passionate love affair, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was received with rapturous acclaim as an instant lesbian classic, and has since become regarded as one of the best films of the century, even ranking at no. 30 in the 2022 edition of Sight & Sound’s prestigious greatest films poll. Sciamma followed up “Portrait of a Lady” in 2021 with the smaller but still just as masterful “Petite Maman,” a wistful movie about a little girl who discovers a way to meet and play with her mother when she was her age.
Although Sciamma is beloved by the art-house crowd, the director has as much appreciation for mainstream Hollywood films as she does for auteur cinema. She’s an avid television watcher who has expressed her appreciation for shows like “I May Destroy You,” “The Good Fight,” and even the MCU’s “Wandavision.” The films she has cited as inspirations for her work include family movies she grew up with during the ’80s, such as “Back to the Future,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” and “Big.” She’s a massive fan of animated filmmaking in particular, praising features like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” and “Turning Red.” Beyond those widely recognizable favorites, some of the directors who she considers foundational and inspirational for her filmography include David Lynch and Chantal Akerman, with their films “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and “Jeanne Dielman” serving as touchstones in her work.
As of now, Sciamma doesn’t have a feature directorial effort on the horizon. Although, she collaborated with her “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Merlant on a script for Merlant’s feature “The Balconettes,” and premiered a short film “This Is How a Child Becomes a Poet” at the Venice Days festival this summer. While we wait impatiently for a new Sciamma classic to reveal itself, take a look at the films that shaped her as a filmmaker. Here’s a look at 10 of Sciamma’s favorite movies, compiled from interviews over the course of the director’s career.
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