In preparation for the highly anticipated release of Céline Sciamma’s fourth film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the Criterion Channel added a collection of Sciamma’s previous works: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014). All of her films are about the exploration of the self and sexual desires for women and trans individuals. Sciamma’s own experiences as a lesbian woman and eye for showing her characters’ humanity allows the stories she tells to feel complete, real, and hopeful. She avoids the fetishization and exploitation that all too often come along with stories about queer and trans characters.
Sciamma’s first feature film Water Lilies is a raw look at the budding sexualities of three teenage girls: Marie (Pauline Acquart), Floriane (Adèle Haenel), and Anne (Louise Blachère). Over the course of a summer, Marie struggles with body insecurities as she falls in love with Floriane, who has quite a reputation for sex acts that she may or may not have done. Floriane has a boyfriend but strings along Marie, giving her morsels of affection to get what she wants in return. Anne, Marie’s best friend, is the complete opposite of Floraine. She’s straightforward about her desires, confiding in Marie about who she’s slept with and what she wants to do with boys. There’s a romantic element to both relationships, with Marie kissing both Floriane and Anne over the course of the film.
Much of the film is spent looking through Marie’s eyes as she gazes at the bodies of her friends and their teammates at their synchronized swimming practices. In the wrong hands, Water Lilies could easily stray into creepy peeping Tom territory, but Sciamma crafts a different narrative. Under her direction, the camera is curious, angsty, and awestruck. Rather than lingering on teenage girl’s bodies in an objectifying manner, Sciamma captures the gut feeling of the first time a teen recognizes remotely sexual desires. The feeling emerges through underwater shots of swimmer’s legs kicking, glimpses of locker room anxiety, and most often from Marie’s reactions to all of it. Because she has felt the same things herself, Sciamma combines those experiences with her talents to create a coming-of-age movie that LGBT folks can see themselves in.
Tomboy is a refreshing film about a young transgender person. Mikȁel (Zoé Héran) recently moved to a new town with his family. When he meets kids in the neighborhood, he introduces himself as Mikȁel rather than his given name and no one questions him. He starts a budding relationship with Lisa (Jeanne Disson) and creates a makeshift packer so he’s assumed to be a boy. His sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), who knows Mikȁel was assigned female at birth, teases at first but later accepts him. Their parents are unaware of Mikȁel’s trans identity and encourage him to present more feminine, sharing supportive words when he comes home with makeup on after playing with Lisa. When they find out Mikȁel has been telling people his name is Mikȁel and he is a boy, they react negatively. They still love him but make him tell everyone he was assigned female at birth. In a heartbreaking scene, even Lisa turns on him in front of their friends.
Despite the initial lack of acceptance, Jeanne comes around in the sweetest way. At dinner, she tells her parents that her favorite neighborhood kid is Mikȁel, giving a sly nod to him across the table. The acceptance and unconditional love shown by Jeanne exemplifies the adaptability of young people. When given a moment to accept a trans person, young people understand and adapt, often more quickly than older peers or parents who have been subjected to more gendered socialization due to their age. Tomboy is sad at times, but it ends on a hopeful note as Lisa re-friends Mikȁel and they go off to school together. The film has been shown in some French schools for its portrayal of gender development. Trans characters are not shown on-screen much but when they are, they are regularly villainized or pitied. Tomboy goes against the typical narrative through its sympathetic portrayal of a trans character.
Sciamma has called Girlhood the last film in her coming-of-age trilogy along with Water Lilies and Tomboy. The film follows Mariama (Karidja Touré), a young Black girl living in the projects on the outskirts of Paris with her family, as she grows into herself. She feels trapped at school and unsafe at home, so when she finds a new friend group to join, she takes the chance. With them, Mariama breaks the rules; drinking, stealing, and doing drugs. Her new lifestyle completely overtakes her life as she moves in with friends to escape abuse at home, drops out of school, and plays with her gender presentation.
Though not all the changes are positive persay, Mariama slowly learns some valuable lessons from her new friends: to be herself, unapologetically and to take control of her own life. The latter includes some drastic changes for Mariama. She decides to leave her family home because her brother beats her, a huge life decision to make at sixteen years old, but one that she knows is crucial for her safety. Moving out signifies Mariama taking back her right to feel safe in her own home. She faces issues in her new home as well, but as they come up, she does her best to preserve herself and persevere through the painstaking teenage years. Mariama’s story is not wrapped up neatly. Instead, the film ends on a hopeful note. Mariama, outside her family’s home, decides to not enter. Instead, she remains outside; sunshine beating down on her and her future in her hands.
Sciamma’s trilogy of coming of age films show the power of her lesbian gaze guiding the narrative. Marie, Mikȁel, and Laurie, though vastly different people, are all shown as insecure and imperfect teens who are still full of hope and drive. Sciamma’s choices in showing queerness, trans identity, racial identity, and their intersections distinguishes her films from most coming of age films that center white, cisgender, heterosexual boys. Her new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (in theaters February 14, 2020), diverges from the coming of age theme but, knowing Sciamma, will be a moving film that captures emotion with realism and kindness.