Céline Sciamma on Cannes Entry, Spearheading France's Gender Equality Movement

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"It’s a woman’s story, and we have not been able to tell our stories for a long time," says Sciamma of 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire.'

The French helmer, who is a founder of the 5050x2020 movement, also talks about why her film 'Portrait of a Lady of Fire' is a love story as epic as 'Titanic' and why it's important for her to work with an all-female crew.

Céline Sciamma has served as a driving force in French cinema ever since she arrived on the scene a decade ago with the Un Certain Regard entry Water Lilies. She quickly earned a reputation for her sharply observed explorations of gender and growing up thanks to 2011’s Tomboy and 2014’s Girlhood. She’s also a founder of the 5050x2020 movement, France’s answer to the #MeToo movement, which has pushed for gender equity in the film industry and helped persuade the Cannes Film Festival to establish an evenly split selection committee and publish its submission statistics for the first time.

But it’s been five years since Girlhood, and while she won a César award for penning the animated My Life as a Zucchini, much of that time was spent working on her festival competition entry Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Starring Sciamma’s partner and longtime collaborator Adèle Haenel, as well as Valeria Golino and Noémie Merlant, Fire tells the story of an 18th-century painter who secretly studies her subject, a young girl who has left a convent to be married. The 40-year-old writer-director spoke with THR about the 50/50 movement, bringing Fire to the screen and why it’s a love story as epic as Titanic.

What brought you to this story now?

I’ve basically been thinking about it for five years. It took a lot of time — a lot of buffering. I dreamed about it for years, trying to find the right notes because it’s an original story. I knew that I wanted to write a love story, a story about love and creation, but I didn’t want to adapt a book. It’s pretty rare to see a historical story not related to some sort of historical reference or public figure or a book, so writing an original story set in the past was quite a lot of work.

It still has political implications for today?

The movie is set in the second half of the 18th century when there was more freedom for women artists, but they are not playing around with the idea that they could be free. It’s not even something they have in mind, that they could have a relationship or a space. It’s a double timeline, a double plot that is a love story about what it’s like to fall in love and the pure pleasure of that without thinking about the future — because they can’t think about their future — and also the memory of a love story. The movie has flashbacks and there are two timelines. It’s kind of like Titanic. You get to see the beauty and tragedy in the present time and also the long-lasting effect that it has on your life.

You’ve been a very vocal activist within the 5050x2020 movement. Did the production meet the 50/50 standard?

It’s more than 50/50. It’s a majority of women, that’s for sure. My producer is a woman, the DP is a woman, my first assistant director is a woman, the costume designer is a woman, the head of makeup and the makeup artists are all women. In part it’s conscious, but in a way I don’t have to think about it because I’ve always had a lot of women on my team, and it’s something that happened naturally.

Have you seen concrete changes in the industry since the movement launched last year?

Suddenly it’s not a tired, old question that keeps being asked — it’s a question of the present. It’s a question that matters. France is not really woke around this question, and there is resistance to the whole #MeToo movement in our country. We could even see it at the Cannes press conference [in April], the way the subject was spoken about was really different than even the year before. There’s always been a journalist that raises their hand and they would respond, "Let’s go slow, we’re the end of the road, and we’re a reaction to a sexist industry and blah blah blah," and it was same old, same old. This time it was not the same old. I felt like it was being addressed. 

Are you feeling additional pressure now that you are in the main competition section?

No, I’m feeling blessed. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to have such a level of attention for the film and for women directors. It’s a pressure, but it’s a pressure I wanted, and I’m enjoying that pressure. It’s a great privilege.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 17 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.