WIFT NZ Exclusive: Award-winning filmmaker Celine Sciamma on her latest feature Petite Maman

Posted Tuesday 07 Dec 2021

WIFT NZ Exclusive: Award-winning filmmaker Celine Sciamma on her latest feature Petite Maman

French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s animation is obvious, even through the fuzzy lense of a Zoom meeting.

Sciamma, who wrote and directed the 2019 multi-award-winning Portrait of a Lady On Fire, lights up when discussing her latest feature, Petite Maman. 

Shot in her hometown, with some characters and locations based on childhood memories, Sciamma describes Petite Maman as "deeply personal". But what she loves most is that it is also a universal story one that is, in her words, “made to travel”.

“This is the paradox of the film, that it is so intimate to me, but it is not located [anywhere] - the film reaches the time and space of your own personal response to that situation.”

Petite Maman tells the story of a sensitive and surreal relationship. Eight-year old Nelly, who, while grieving over the death of her grandmother, befriends a girl in the forest behind the now-empty family home. In a gentle, fantasy twist, the girl turns out to be Nelly’s mother as a little girl, and, over the course of a few days, the pair (played by eight-year old twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz) form a firm friendship, playing together in the forest and the old house. 

The idea came to Sciamma while she was writing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her 2019 Cannes award-winning coming-of-age film set in the eighteenth century.

She had an image of two little girls, one the mother and one the daughter.

“And this idea hit me. It was totally new but also very simple - which means very ancient in a way. It felt really peaceful but also really troubling. Suddenly the whole story started to unroll, all the possibilities of that situation. It felt like it could be told in so many ways. It felt like a very ancient tale that I could adapt and tell my way.”

Sciamma says she wanted to capture a child’s sense of adventure, so set Petite Maman in the forest, and left out the adults.

“The adventure of being a kid is about being not being with adults,” she laughs, “otherwise it’s just normal life, right?”

Indeed, the eight-year old Sanz sisters had never done some of the things Sciamma asked them to do, by themselves, such as warming milk and pouring it from the hot pan to a cup, or cooking and (amusingly) flipping pancakes.

This is her seventh film working with children and young people, and it’s clear she loves that kind of collaboration, explaining that she doesn’t force her ideas on her young actors. Rather, “I’m going to go with their interpretation. It’s this language we create together.

She also doesn’t rehearse with them, preferring instead to rely on building a solid, trusting relationship.

The first days with kids on set are the most difficult, she explains, as they have to learn about making a film.

“Then they learn about making my film and that’s the process with all actors I think. But with children you get twice the joy. You get the joy of seeing them understanding something, being competent at it, and being trusted.”

This is the fifth film Sciamma has both written and directed; what effect did knowing she would direct have on how she wrote the film? Did she manage to make it easier on herself as a director?

“I love to solve the riddles [that the process of making a film creates]. So for me writing was not about making this easy but about putting myself in the position where I love the riddle I have to solve. So I enjoy it. That’s what I call making it easy.”

And the first day of filming involved a very tough riddle.

When the two little girls first meet there is a rainstorm and a lengthy tracking shot follows them as they run to shelter.

“Making them meet in a rainstorm is already a strong constraint because it means [sprinklers] involved, and was something I’ve never done. But I put it in there because I thought ‘I’ll do a new thing’. Then, the track shot has to run along with the girls and it’s very, very long scale, and needs different focuses.

Also, we decided to shoot this on the very first day of filming! But I write what I will enjoy to do and what I will enjoy solving. I used to think I had to put conflict in my films but now I’m trying to solve tension.”

She no longer writes for other directors (she co-wrote on the upcoming Jacques Audiard-directed love story Paris 13th District but the work was several years ago now).

“I basically write for myself now. Sometimes a project can reach me that I will only write. But there’s no struggle here. When I write for other people it’s clear I write for them. I feel no frustration that I’m not doing the film.”

Sciamma is a founding member of the French branch of the 5050 by 2020 movement, a group of French film industry professionals advocating for gender parity in film by the year 2020. She also co-organised and participated in the women's protest against inequality at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, alongside the likes of the late Agnès Varda, Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett and Léa Seydoux.

In 2020 Sciamma and the Portrait of a Lady on Fire team famously joined lead actress Adèle Haenel in walking out of the 45th César Awards after Roman Polanski won the award for Best Director.

However, she’s reluctant to be seen as someone at the forefront of activism.

“I don’t have all the answers, and just because I am a filmmaker I am not at the top of the pyramid of activists. True activists are rarely the ones with a platform like I have. Women are always activists in their own communities.

Being an activist doesn’t mean I change the way I act. I kept acting the same in a world that reacted to my action - which was making films, and also supporting Adele Haenel [actress and Sciamma’s ex-partner] in the #METOO campaign. For me, being an activist is about what you do with your body in the room.”

- Christine Stride