Following on from her powerhouse romantic epic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma returns with a very different story, an intimately framed portrait about a mother and daughter who meet each other at important times in their lives in Petite Maman. We sat down with the director-writer before the film was to screen at BFI London Film Festival to discuss her latest masterpiece, filmmaking, collaborating with actors and her thoughts on disparity between stories centred around girls and boys.
Firstly, I wanted to say I very much enjoyed Petite Maman. The story is very different from your previous films where you explored gender, sexual identity and womanhood compared to this intimate portrait of a mother and daughter relationship. Why did you decide to tell this story?
CS: This film is different, but they all are, in a way. I'm never about topics, it's not about the subject, it's always about the language of cinema and how we are going to build around the story and idea. I think the ideas that are at stake within Petite Maman are kind of the same, definitely post Portrait of a Lady on Fire ideas. For instance, the narrative and equality between the characters. How do you bring equality into a family, which is naturally hierarchical? Suddenly you meet your mother at the same age as you, then it's some form of equality between a mother and a daughter, an opportunity to share a very unique special time and I think that my films are designed like this, you get a week to love someone, a week to meet someone. I had the idea for Petite Maman while I was writing Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a very warm idea that I had kept and I thought I am going to do this no matter what happens after this. For me it was the same kind of filmmaking ride as Portrait of a Lady on Fire but more democratic. Also, for me, its about holding hands, an image of holding hands. I really see films as they are holding hands, in Petite Maman, this friendship between them. Each time it's about getting closer and what feels good as a director and this film felt really good to make.
Did you feel that this was the right time to make this film?
Yes, but also it was due to the pandemic, in a way. I had had this idea in my mind for so long. It was the idea of a child mourning her grandmother and suddenly, we're hit by this new reality and I felt that the film was going to be needed because children and our elders had been hit dramatically. The first scene of the film is a collective goodbye to the women in the nursing home and I wrote this before the pandemic. Having re-read it after the first lockdown in France, I saw this image, which was very intimate, now charged with the collective need to say goodbye which is why I had to make this film and release it into the world, I felt it was going to be meaningful.
The opening scene is hard hitting, especially as Nelly says, “I didn't even get to say goodbye” which is quite poignant as many people didn't get to say goodbye to loved ones. Focusing on Joséphine and Gabrielle, who have excellent chemistry, most likely because they are sisters, but had you always envisioned that this is how you would cast the roles?
I didn't always plan this, it came at the end of the writing process. Casting is always about ideas; from previous films you get some experience on how to cast but it's about putting an idea out there and then the someone is going to walk into the room. So, my personal question was, if I met my mother at 8 years old would she be my sister? This whole story about meeting your mother, your parent, as a kid, you could do this in very different ways, it felt like an ancient story, even mythological. Maybe in a matriarchal society this mythological idea would have existed. It felt like the story, wasn't my mine but we could fuel the story with my questions. So, I told my casting director lets pick sisters, let's embody this question. We were welcoming all kinds of sisters, those born on the same day etc but one day Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz were there and I just saw them. What I was looking for wasn't that they would look alike, I didn't really care about that, it could be more troubling than anything, but I knew it would mean total. They embodied my personal question in the film.
Would you say that the film is just about the two girls?
The film isn't about the duo, it's about the trio, the grandmother is part of it.
And Nelly actually gets to say goodbye to her grandmother in the end, even though her grandmother doesn't realise how important this is for Nelly. It is a heart-warming moment in the film and Joséphine Sanz gives such a brilliant performance as Nelly. How does directing children compare to adults, professional and non-professional?
Now that I find I work with professional adults, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was really the first time, I realised it was the same job. It is really the same but the big difference is you only have 3 hours to shoot a day with children. The film is studio shot so the actors would get on set and everything was ready to go. But directing them is really about sharing ideas. I don't like the words ‘directing actors', it's about building ideas together then, its scene by scene. We always romanticise the relationship between actors and directors, but it's about ideas for cinema. I would never say ‘you're scared' or ‘this is a moment where you're sad', it's not about the emotions, it's about the emotions we want to evoke. I would tell the child actors, this is a scary movie or this is a spy film, when you're looking for clues. This is the same with adults, thinking about how you're going walk in the room, what's the action, what do we want people to feel, what's the connection between this scene and the next scene, it's a world of ideas you're building together. Also, this is something I do with adults and professional actors, I talk all the time during the take. This is about getting attitude and rhythm, so we're sharing a brain and then in the moment, live interaction such as, ‘put your hand in your pocket' or ‘get in some laughs', they're really connected and listening.
Do the actors wear earpieces?
No, I'm just talking out loud. We spend the first week of editing getting rid of my voice. Talking through takes is about being together and creating ideas together all the time.
Is this always the case that you speak out loud during takes?
A lot of us do, I think it's a pretty common thing among directors. This is also how I pick actors, during the casting process, I see whether they are ok with this and whether they feel comfortable with this way of working.
I've heard that talking through takes is something they tell you at film school, not to do. I do feel though that there are rigid ideas in film schools that aren't necessarily practised in the actual film industry. What are your thoughts?
With film schools I think there is always the paradox of creating an equal world for students compared to how it is on the outside. Film schools are amazing but they produce some sort of standard. I went to the national film school in France but I was studying screenwriting so I never actually had any class about directing. I was lucky enough to experiment on a real set of a feature film for the first time.
When it comes to the stories that are being made, there seems to less stories about girls and young women comparatively those about boys and young men, why do you think that is?
There are more and more stories and women have always been at the centre of cinema, but not as ‘strong leads' or even leads, I don't know what strong lead is anymore.
I've never understood what Strong Female Lead actually meant.
That's an idea from patriarchy. But cinema is definitely changing, as is TV and in turn TV has influenced cinema, it's competition. I watched on Mubi the other day, a documentary by Delphine Seyrig, French actress and activist for women's rights. In the film, Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Pretty and Shut Up, 1981), she interviews a lot of actresses throughout the world asking them the question from the Bechdel Test but this was before the Bechdel Test, so she asks ‘have you ever played a scene with another woman where the two of you are close together' and all them realised they haven't. It's really about the writing of characters which has evolved. This is a very steady fight. We have a problem of memory, we are forgetting our own archives, because women invented fiction cinema and we're not celebrating this enough. I felt really close to women pioneers of cinema while making Petite Maman because I had the exact same tools that they had; studio, magic in the cut, everything done within the camera on set and I felt connected to them through magic realism which is the genre of the film and definitely some sort of childhood cinema.
Petite Maman is in cinemas from 19th November