In our latest survey, a group of critics pick the best Céline Sciamma film (in their opinion), from Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Water Lilies. Read our book about Sciamma, Portraits of resistance, here
When we asked a group of critics to name and discuss the best (in their opinion) Céline Sciamma film for this survey, we knew there’d likely be a bias toward Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma’s most recent film is widely thought of as her most accomplished, and it’s certainly her breakout into the wider sphere of arthouse conversation. A more useful question is “What’s your second favourite Sciamma film?” (Admittedly that’s how a number of these critics have chosen to interpret the question.)
This critics survey was conducted around the release of our latest ebook, Portraits of resistance: The cinema of Céline Sciamma. It’s the first and only book about Sciamma’s films and process. If you’re a fan of hers, it’s a must have, and you can find out more about it here. You can also read a preview of the book’s foreword here, and a preview of the ‘Sciamma’s best scenes’ chapter here.
Ella Donald (@ellafdonald), film critic
It’s difficult to choose my favourite Sciamma movie, as I think she was one of the first directors that, consciously, I would’ve named as my favourite. Even as a teenager who had only seen Tomboy, there was something about her view of the world that stuck with me in a unique way. However, this is a poll, so I do have to take a position somewhere – so for that reason, recency bias be damned, I’ll choose Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s hyperbolic, but the movie has quickly cemented itself as one of my favourites of all time. On first view it’s a crashing wave of emotion, on subsequent views there is the same feeling of being seen and heard that characterises the rest of Sciamma’s work – a feeling, as a lesbian, of a movie being made truly for you and your world view, of putting the silenced parts of history on screen.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan), film critic
I couldn’t really pick a favourite Sciamma film. Across her four features she has developed a tactile pattern of meaning, that drills into her characters without you even realising she’s done it. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire left me colder than her other, more immediately satisfying works (aside from Claire Mathon’s breathtaking watercolour photography), that’s only because she’s working ten steps ahead of anyone else in terms of developing a minimalist cinematic language that’s pared down to the point that reality and dreams, politics and eroticism, ethnography and crowd-pleasing sentimentality all collide at once. I can barely keep up!
Alex Heeney (@bwestcineaste), Editor-in-Chief of Seventh Row
It seems impossible to choose a favourite film amongst Sciamma’s first three because they’re all so different. I saw Water Lillies first, when it first came out, and I loved it so much I watched closely for what Sciamma did next. I’ve probably thought most about Tomboy, in part because it’s almost a decade old, and also because its story about how the adult world enforces gender binaries is so smart in its ambiguity and way ahead of its time.
But I’m going to pick Girlhood because it’s the film with the most images and sounds that have stuck with me, that I can recall like I just watched them. There’s the “Diamonds” scene, of course, but also the way Marieme strokes her boyfriend’s back, the fades to black that mark the chapters in the film, as well as Marieme’s resolutions, and the way Marieme and her sister hold each other by the hand or in a hug. Even when I hadn’t seen the film in almost five years, I could still recall all of this and the emotions attached to it. The film is also just so unapologetically beautiful and cinematic in its aesthetic. And on a more personal note, it’s thanks to Girlhood that I first met Sciamma and she sent me on a journey to think more deeply about film sound that has changed how I’ve watched every film since.
Emily Maskell (@EmMaskell), film critic
The question of ‘favourite Sciamma film?’ leaves me panicking as I love everything this woman has created. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is immeasurably stunning, with every frame being a work of art. But with the film’s release on the horizon, I am sure it’s going to get a lot of love.
So instead, I will point to Girlhood. The film illustrates the highs and lows of Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) life as a young black woman in a poor suburb of Paris. Sciamma’s film is a meditative look at what it is to be a young woman craving belonging. She conjures scenes that frame the wonderful performances of these young women. While there are some issues with this film, Sciamma’s work is a show of exceptional directorial skill.
Max Oxley (@Maximus900), film critic
A large part of Céline Sciamma’s appeal to me is the unfettered access she grants to elusive female spaces. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma delights in showing the way in which female relationships are allowed to accelerate without the constraints of authority figures or male influence.
Perhaps her most compelling look at vulnerability within female spaces comes in her debut feature, Water Lilies. Sciamma uses what initially appears to be a straightforward relationship between two teenage girls on a synchronised swimming team (one tall, supposedly experienced and confident, the other inward and shy) and fills each character with nuance, displaying how the physical space they inhabit — the pool, a club, a private bedroom, around fellow girls, boys or alone together — affects the dynamics of their budding connection. Sciamma has gone on to direct even more complex films, but Water Lilies is proof of her innate understanding of the effect women have on one another.
Christopher Schobert (@FilmSwoon), film critic
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was my pick as the best film of 2019 — the most emotionally powerful, the most dramatically thrilling — and it’s at the top of the Sciamma list for me. However, each film is a stunner. It feels like Portrait is the next step in an incredible career. It’s exhilarating to ponder what could be next for her.
Orla Smith (@orlamango), Executive Editor of Seventh Row
I won’t go with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because that’s too easy (although it is my favourite). It seems the question, “What’s your favourite Sciamma film aside from Portrait?” is a more useful one, because Portrait is so clearly a culmination of everything that makes her great.
My (second) favourite Sciamma film is Girlhood. It was initially one of her films I was less hot on, as it’s messier, more sprawling than the extremely tight and polished Tomboy. But a rewatch revealed the brilliance and resonance of this coming of age epic. It really is an epic. We witness several stages in Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) teenage years, as she finds connection with a girl gang but realises that the looming threat of her abusive older brother won’t go away unless she leaves her life behind. The way Sciamma uses movement in the film is entracing (I wrote about it in our book), from the dance scenes like Rihanna’s Diamonds, to silent scenes of movement within a group or between two people. And I love the score in the film, which is so emotional and feels like a real anthem for Marieme and her journey.
Re-live Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Return to 18th-century Brittany for a romance for the ages with the first ever book to be written about French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, her process, and her body of work.
Release Date: February 14, 2020