Director Céline Sciamma on the Liberated Imagination in Tomboy

Tomboy director Céline Sciamma talks with PopMatters about exploring that time in childhood when we can freely experiment with identity.

Céline Sciamma
20 April 2011 (FR)

Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy is the story of a nine-year-old girl, Laure, whose family moves to a new home in the Parisian suburbs during the summer before she starts fourth grade. This simple-seeming premise is quickly complicated when she decides to pretend to be a boy, Michaël.

The film had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Teddy Jury Award. At the Torino GLBT Film Festival in late April, it won the Audience Award and the Ottavio Mai Award. It opens at New York’s Film Forum on 16 November.

The young French filmmaker spoke with PopMatters in Torino in April 2011.

I would like to begin by asking you about the subject of youth and adolescence in relation to Tomboy. What draws you to this time of life?

Several things. First, I think you should talk about what you know because it allows you to bring fiction to life. Talking about something I hadn’t gone through would cause me to stick to the cliché. It’s not about being intimate, it’s about knowing what you are talking about so that you can get more generous with it and make it entertaining. Also, it allows you to have very strong characters. Youth is when you live everything for the first time and you have very strong desires and it’s all very sensual. I like the perspective of narrative and cinema that those characters bring.

How does this age provide a particular window onto evolving gender identity?

It’s just that at that time everything is open, so you can play with identity. When you are older, you have to choose. They make you choose. At that time of life, everybody can play with identity. It’s more open. So that’s why I like it because it’s common to a lot of people.

One really feels like Laure is on the edge and she’s stepping off, and she appears very spontaneous as she does so. While she leans towards being a tomboy, she seems to decide at that very moment. Was that something you discussed with the young actress, Zoé Héran?

Yeah. The whole movie is built around this idea that it “just happens.” It’s not something that is premeditated. There’s no determinism, even though Laure is kind of a tomboy. She hasn’t thought about playing the boy. It just happens.

Your film seems timeless. There are no cellphones, no real giveaways in terms of when it is happening.

It’s so that the viewers can relate. I really like to work on empathy and identification, and so I want everybody to connect and say, “This is the childhood of today, but this could be my childhood as well.” And also because I think cinema is about building a universe and about playing between what’s real and what’s not. You don’t have to be Tim Burton to have a universe that is Baroque. And so I like to create my own universe. It’s a very great option for cinema because it can once again be shared.

With your young actors, did you allow for improvising or were you very strict about sticking to the script?

It’s a mix because the movie is very written. All the dialogues are written. But in order to help the children be very natural, I was shooting very long takes. I was always giving them things to do, like playing with playdough, making puzzles, and drawing, so that would make them do stuff and maybe they could improvise. But I wasn’t looking for improvisation. I was looking for them to be good at the moment. We kept it open a little bit, and when there was a gang of kids, there was more room for improvisation, because when you play football, for example, things happen.

How much did you prepare them for the roles? Did you spend a lot of time with them beforehand and talk to them about what you were looking for, or ask them for feedback as to what a child that age would think?

The movie was made in a very short amount of time. I did the casting in two weeks and we had no time to rehearse. We shot in 20 days. It was just this great race. So there was no real preparation. But of course, we talked before. We read the script together. I talked about what scene I was going to do, where I would put the camera, what I was looking for. For each scene, I would always recall the goals of the character and what the scene was about.

But it’s not like we had that intellectual talk about what gender is or anything. I picked this little girl [Héran] because she was kind of a tomboy, so she knew. She had a lot of friendship with the character. She had an appetite for it, and I knew that she would express something of herself. I wanted the children to be in the moment. I didn’t want them to think about what they were doing.

How much background did you explain to them?

I just told them the story. The movie is all action. It’s never about why she does it. It’s always about how she does it. So that’s easy to tell kids. I don’t even know why. The movie doesn’t know why. So I didn’t have to explain to her why.

On the one hand, the film is very even-tempered and yet it is also full of contrasts, between feminine and masculine, the two sisters, innocence, and awareness. How did you come up with that sort of structure?

I picked that story because I am interested in the subject of identity and ambiguity. Also, it all started with the situation: a little girl pretends to be a little boy. I thought, “This is really a good story for cinema.” It’s like a cop who’s infiltrated into the Mafia. It’s like one of those stories where you are the accomplice of the character. It’s very powerful storytelling… I built it really thinking about suspense and emotion. I had fun writing this story.

There is a very nice relationship between Laure and her father [Mathieu Demy]. And yet there seems to be a little bit of distance between her and her mother [Sophie Cattani], who is in part distracted by her pregnancy. How do you see the moment of crisis working out between the girl and her mother?

I think a kind of mystery surrounds the acts of the parents. I didn’t say, “Okay, the mother is going to do that.” It’s just that the mother is at home and she has to handle the whole situation, whereas the father is not there. The movie would be really dishonest if it didn’t mention the violence. But I thought it would also be dishonest if it didn’t mention the fact that it can be okay. To me, I didn’t choose. The mother reacts in a violent way at first, in a clumsy way, and then, when she talks to Laure, we see that she’s actually attempting to help her.

Mothers can fierce as they try to protect their children.

Plus, I’m always thinking about entertainment, and I just want the situation to be climactic. It’s not about my vision of parenthood. It’s about I want that image of [Michaël] in that dress. And everyone thinks she looks more in a disguise than before, and so to get that image, I have to get somebody to make her put on the dress.

The ending is left open. It could be a traumatic incident that marks Laure for life, or it could be one more stage in her life. We don’t know, an effective way to close the film. Having said that, I would like to know about your future. I understand you started out as a screenwriter, that’s what you studied, and then you were asked to direct your own screenplays. Do you want to continue directing?

I want to do both. Between my two movies [2007’s Water Lilies and now, Tomboy], I’ve been working as a screenwriter for other directors. I like both writing for others and for myself. And if I can continue to do both, I would be quite happy.

How is the experience of working for other people?

I think it is essential. I’m learning. It’s not easy making movies. It has to be something. I don’t want to make movies because I have the right to. I have to have the urge. I really don’t get the urge every morning. One should really work with others with their urges.

You’ve said this film is a tribute to your sister. Can you explain why?

Well, a lot of people ask me, “Is this your story?” And it’s not. I was kind of a tomboy, but it was fashionable at the time, in some way. All the little girls had short hair. I was happy with who I was, but beyond that story, it’s also an intimate film about families and, mostly, about sisterhood, the relationship between Laure and her little sister [Jeanne, played by Malonn Lévana]. That was something I really wanted to portray and it really connects with my feelings in my personal life: being a sister, this creative relationship, the complicity, and that relationship between two beings who are so different, but they complete each other.