Ranking the Céline Sciamma Films

Céline Sciamma has been making some of the most haunting and beautiful movies this century. She is one of the best going today. If you have not seen all of her films, you should make a point to do so.


5. Bande de filles [2014]

While this whole film is about Karidja Touré’s Marieme making her way through some less-than-ideal circumstances, her journey here feels distinctly separated by two parts. In the first part, Marieme is exploring a new friendship group which leads to good times, hanging out, misadventures, and fucking up. It is frankly as beautiful as any adolescent movies gets. The second part of the film gets a lot more sordid as Marieme ends up living with a sex worker and working for a drug dealer, and it just seemed so cheap in comparison. All I wanted was for it to be the “Diamonds” sequence again. Having said that, any filmmaker would be lucky to have this be their weakest outing.


4. Tomboy [2011]

Tomboy, Sciamma’s second film, captures much of the mess we have made for ourselves in this world. So many forces, seen and unseen, are at work trying to narrow and limit our conceptions of gender and sexuality in a way that is damaging to all of us. It is not a protest film. It is distinctly about a person, but the experiences of Laure/Mickaël show both the beauty in being able to express and reveal your true self and the horror show that is the pushback.


3. Water Lillies [2007]

“Maybe he likes me a little bit.”

Sciamma’s feature-length debut displays many of her trademarks that have made her one of the very best going today. She utilizes just a level of empathy in her portrayal of humans that is nearly unmatched. Here she manages to capture the pure horror show that is being a teenager. Of coming into your sexual awakening. Of trying to balance the avalanche of desire just bombarding you. Of trying to navigate the absolute mess going through your brain and destructive decision making you start as soon as you have the opportunity. The way you are so unknowingly selfish and can be such a bad friend. Just a beautiful film that makes you grateful that you survived your youth and that you never have to go through it again.


2. Petite Maman [2021]

“You didn’t invent my sadness.”

Sciamma crafted a beautiful and haunting tale here where a little girl deals with her mother mysteriously leaving home for a few days only to be inexplicably confronted with the eight year old version of her mother (played by the protagonist’s twin). There is this amazing early scene that kicks off the gimmick. Nelly is digging through her mom’s old childhood toys in the house of her recently deceased grandmother, and she discovers this paddle ball deal. She goes to play with it outside. She gets to a few good swings with it and then one time she smacks the ball and the string breaks, and the ball gets lost in the woods instead of returning back to the paddle. In that moment, Nelly gets this very real and immediate and easy to process moment of seeing the impermanence of life. It captures so much of what this film is exploring. For a child, it can be so hard understand the weight of loss. It can be even more frustrating and confusing to be a child and witness your family grieve. Because you simply cannot relate to that level of emotion.


1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire [2019]

It is the end of the 18th century. Adèle Haenel is a closeted lesbian and due to be married off by her Countess mother to some Milanese man. She was not supposed to be marrying this man. It was supposed to be her older sister who was due to marry that man. But the older sister killed herself instead of marrying this man.

Then Noémie Merlant shows up.

Merlant has been hired by Adele’s Countess Mother to paint a portrait of Adele, who has proven uncooperative previously in allowing herself to be painted. The painting really signals an acceptance of being sent off to get married, and it is a line too far for Adele. Merlant eventually wins over Adele, and they have a beautiful love affair.

Before this love affair, it seems like there is a chance Adele might follow in her sister’s footsteps and jump off a cliff instead of going off to get married. After the affair, Adele does consent to get (unhappily) married. It feels like the experience of getting to love just once for ever so brief a moment gave her just enough peace to move forward.

For all of us, we are so lucky if we can just get that moment. Sciamma’s ability to explore simultaneously what it is like to be a woman (particularly a queer woman) all the while connecting it to universal human experiences is just unmatched. This was one of the best films of the century.


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