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Céline Sciamma • Director

"One is not born a woman, but becomes one"


Acclaimed at Cannes earlier this year where it screened in the Un Certain Regard section, Water Lilies [+see also:
film review
film profile
(see article) opens in France on August 15. Soon after the title will make its way to the Toronto Film Festival, yet another step in the successful career of the young director’s feature debut.

Cineuropa: How did you manage to make Water Lilies without ever having directed before?
Céline Sciamma: I wrote the film while at the fémis, where I studied in the scriptwriting section. I never dreamt of becoming a director. It was the director Xavier Beauvois, member of the graduation jury, who gave me the idea of directing myself. A few months later, producers suggested I make a feature without trying out shorts beforehand. I rewrote the script and the funding was secured in six months. I was so busy that I didn’t have the time to ask myself whether I was doing the right thing or not or if I had what it takes.

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Why did you choose adolescence as a subject?
First of all, you should talk about what you know. Also, because it’s a crucial period with so many powerful emotions. I wanted to take a kind of snapshot of the birth of womanhood. As Simone de Beauvoir said, "one is not born a woman, but becomes one." I wanted to take a close look at this very precise and minute period, which is a type of difficult test where the conscience emerges. Through the main characters, there are three different relationships with femininity, three archetypes. You have to accept that a film on adolescence has its stereotypes and play around with these. This allows you to develop a kind of narrative pact with the audience, who identifies the initial situation, which makes you think perhaps that it’s a kind of Billy Elliot on synchronised swimming. But then we go further, we expand. Dialogue doesn’t play a central role in the film. Emotions aren’t verbalised. Nobody ever says they are in love. Everything advances through actions and bodily movements.

Where did you get the idea to base the film on synchronised swimming?
At the beginning, there was an autobiographical anecdote with emotion and eeriness that I felt when I assisted a synchronised swimming performance as a teenager. This set the film in quite a strong directing universe, while making it possible to produce female discourse through sport. I didn’t think beforehand that this would be so complicated and now I can tell you for sure that I’ll never again make a film at a swimming pool (laughs). It’s original though because few films are set there entirely, while in mine it’s a place of central dramaturgy. But that’s also a trap because you have to invest yourself on a very personal level. There are lots of restrictions, especially the miniscule time slots that make it necessary to prepare beforehand, to be very committed to directing. I therefore decided to work on the lighting of cold tones, the blue, and to give a lot of importance to sound using very aggressive water. The swimming pool scenes shot in a frontal way were never supposed be decorative, whether they were critical moments that moved the story along or not. With the young actresses, discipline was very important too.

Parents are absent from the film and males are treated in a very harsh way.
Boys are just brutal forces, without a point of view, words, because they are seen through these young girls who don’t communicate with men. They – like parents – are subjects to be dealt with subtly, so I chose voice off so as not to deal with them in a superficial way and to avoid typical adolescence films, in which parents symbolise a kind of law, morals with stereotypical rebellion scenes. The real enemy in adolescence is oneself.

Outside the swimming pool, the mood of the decor plays a key role.
Everything was filmed in Cergy, in a suburb of a new town that is very representative of the France of today. This middle-class town offers many possibilities on a visual level but is also a place of emptiness, boredom. It’s France, but it could be the north of Europe with these little brick bungalows or even the United States. It has a fantastical element that I was interested in, a mood linked to the relative timelessness of the film, which is set in the summertime but could just as well take place today as it could a decade ago. My intention was to go beyond this "temporal" dimension of films on adolescence, with their folklore and buzz language. The film is rather silent. There’s not even a mobile phone.

What are your preferences and influences?
I became a cinephile with young French cinema of the 90s, Desplechin, Lvosky, Rochant. But I like Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark a lot too for their work on adolescence, not to forget David Lynch. But I also watch a lot of TV series that have influenced my film, especially 24 for its lighting and night exteriors. I also draw ideas from literature, the 19th century Bildungsroman (such as Balzac) and from animation.

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