Growing Pains: An Interview with Céline Sciamma

We speak to French director <b>Céline Sciamma</b> about her second feature <i>Tomboy</i>, a lyrical tale of childhood identity set in a sun-dappled Parisian suburb

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 15 Sep 2011

Few films so evocatively capture the confusion and self-discovery of childhood than those of French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Her debut feature, Water Lilies, was a heartbreakingly honest look at the burgeoning sexualities of a group of teenage girls in a synchronised swimming team. With its follow-up, Tomboy, Sciamma considers the body and identity issues of androgynous ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran), who reinvents herself as a cool, roughhousing schoolboy called Michaël when a girl from the neighborhood that Laure and her family have just moved to mistakes her for a boy.

Tomboy is reviewed in the September issue of The Skinny; Céline Sciamma spoke to me from her home in Paris to discuss her film in more detail.

There’s a real veracity to the setting and characters in Tomboy – is it autobiographical in any way?

When you write about childhood you go through your memories, especially because I wanted to portray the present of childhood, not some nostalgic look on it. I didn't want to have my adult vision; I wanted to get back to how I felt at the time. At some points it's autobiographical but it's not my story. I didn't pretend I was a little boy when I was a little girl. I was kind of boyish when I was the character’s age but that was because it was the 80s and girls had short hair at the time. Sometimes people might have thought I was a boy but it wasn’t something I wanted to happen. The parts that really belong to my own story are the family interactions and the sisterhood.

That aspect of the film is brilliantly captured by the two young actors who play Laure [Zoé Héran] and her little sister Jeanne [Malonn Lévana]. How did you find them?

I found Zoé in an agency. She wanted to be an actress but she hadn't been getting roles because she didn't fit the stereotype of how a little girl should be in commercials or movies. I heard about her because people said she was kind of a tomboy. So I met her really fast, and it was kind of a miracle: I thought it was going to be such a challenge to find a little girl that would have the look for the part – with this androgyny – and who was also able to perform. I met Zoé on the first day of casting and it was like I had a vision when I saw her – she had what it took. Even though she had really long hair and she was dressed like any other girl, I could see that she had the boyish attitude. Also she had the photogenicity I was looking for — a face you wouldn’t forget.

Her performance is very assured for a novice. How did you work with the young actors?

It's kind of a paradox because I really asked them to work like professional actors: building a character, knowing exactly what to do on set and being connected to the plot of the movie. So that's the job. But also you have to create an atmosphere that makes them at ease because their performances can become really recitative — children can be really bad actors actually. So it is mostly a process of shooting very long sequences. You never say cut, because when you cut it’s like it’s bad, it's like a failure. So we're shooting 10-12 minute takes and redoing the scene and not being religious at all on the set. There’s no silence, I kept talking to them, I kept playing with them, and you always play; make it a big game, especially with the little one [six-year-old Lévana].

I wanted to ask about the title. UK audiences will be familiar with the term tomboy — is it the same word in French?

No, in France no one knows what tomboy means, so the title was quite a mystery. The word for tomboy in French is garçon manqué, which means failed boy – that's how you would translate it. So failed boy is a bit of an insult and tomboy is more charming. Unfortunately, though, in the UK and the US the title is kind of a spoiler because from the outset you know that Laure is a girl.

Did you consider changing the title for English speaking territories?

The ideal spectator, for me, doesn't know anything going in, but that doesn't exist anymore. Even with the trailer we were wondering, Are we telling or not telling too much? But that's not the goal. The plot of the movie is not about whether she's a boy or a girl. It becomes the Usual Suspects – who is she? I like the fact that even though you know she's a girl when you enter the theatre, still for the first fifteen minutes the movie doesn't tell and you can be really doubtful about your own look on Laure’s identity and that's really what the movie is about: how does the look of others define you? She becomes a boy because that's how a little girl perceives her in her new neighbourhood. The audience is in the same position: you are full of doubts regarding what you are looking at, and that is a real cinema moment.

Like your first feature film, Water Lilies, this is a coming-of-age story. Why do they particularly interest you as a film-maker?

As a rookie director I like the fact that my stories are about rookies. I feel like, as a director, I'm growing up and I like to shoot stories of people growing up. It's kind of the same, you know? Now that I'm shooting my third movie maybe I’ll explore more adult problems. It's also a way for me to invent a method, working with people who are nonprofessionals. I like the fact that we are building something together. I also really like the coming-of-age story because their characters have strong objectives and that can always lead to very tense plots. I tried to write Tomboy as a story of a double life – like a cop infiltrating the Mafia.

There have been lots of great coming-of-age films from French directors – people like François Truffaut, Louis Malle and André Téchiné. Were there any particular influences on Tomboy?

François Truffaut's look on childhood, movies like Les quatre cent coups and L'argent de poche, yes he's an influence for sure. Those were movies I saw as a child and I like the fact that you can look at them when you're a child and feel connected. That was one of my ambitions for the movie: it's a film for adults about childhood but I also wanted to make it so a child could relate to the story. And I really remember how it felt: I grew up in the 80s with all those Amblin productions, the Steven Spielberg movies, and they were full of child characters with whom you could identify and they were really powerful. This seems to have disappeared in modern movies – now kids just seem to get 3D animals.

Those films are all about boys growing up but there seem to be relatively few coming-of-age stories about girls. Did you want to address this?

When I begin to write, each time I ask myself: has it been told yet? And sometimes you can come up with a story that hasn't really been told. There have been movies around this subject, but not ones about schoolgirls with this ambiguity – I haven't seen any anyway. It is the part of the process that most excites me when I'm making a movie. And of course it's also political. When you make a film it's always a balance between, this subject really matters to me in an intimate way, in a political way and, also, it's an opportunity of fiction. That's the kind of balance I'm looking for.

Tomboy is released 16 Sep by Peccadillo Pictures Tomboy is screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre 16-22 Sep