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Directory of World Cinema France Volume 15
By Tim Palmer, Charlie Michael
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
FILM OF THE YEAR TOMBOY
Studio/Distributor: Hold Up Films
Director: Céline Sciamma
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cinematographer: Crystel Fournier
Composer: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (as Para One)
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Duration: 82 minutes
A strikingly androgynous pre-adolescent drives with her family to their new home. This is Laure, whose short-cropped hair and boyish mannerisms are warmly accepted by her mother, heavily pregnant with a male baby, her caring but busy father, and her mischievous younger sister Jeanne. Settling in, Laure introduces herself to the neighbourhood kids as a boy, Michaël, and is invited into their games: football, chase, swimming, hiking. The thoughtful yet vigorous Michaël soon catches the eye of Lisa: they hold hands, and later kiss. When Lisa visits to ask for Michaël, Jeanne discovers her sister's deception, but keeps Laure's secret in exchange for being allowed to join the group. However, Michaël then has to defend Jeanne against an aggressive older boy; s/he wins the fight but her subterfuge is exposed after the boy's mother complains to Laure's parents. Laure, wearing a dress, is forced to apologize to her new friends, who react with confusion. Finally, after Lisa visits her again, Laure re-introduces herself as a girl, and smiles.
Tomboy, Céline Sciamma's second film, opens in rhapsody. Stretching from a moving car's sunroof we see the back of a child's head – a character whose name and gender are not disclosed until nearly ten minutes into the film – and then point-of-view tracking shots exposed directly into the sun. Dazzling beams of light slice through rippling overhead tree fronds; the frame is intermittently cast into shadow and bleached into white-out. The child's hand now moves into the frame, and in shallow focus its windblown fingers arc over blurred swathes of foliage and sunshine, as if conducting a tiny organic orchestra. Birds sing, and Sciamma cuts finally to the child's face, eyes initially closed ninconcentration, brow furrowed, a youngster surrendering to natural arapture.
Sciamma's beautiful preface sets up Tomboy's conceptual agenda: childhood as an urge towards sensorial discovery. Echoing avant-garde film-maker Stan Brakhage, Sciamma creates lyrical encounters in and around nature, immersive perceptual episodes in opposition to the banal adult world of names, objects, roles, and socialized identities. As context to her main character (Zoé Héran) diverging into two genders – the twin personae of Laure (inside, domesticated, among adults) and Michaël (outside, independent, among children) – Sciamma represents pre-adolescence as an amorphous, experientially heightened state, which ironically makes Laure/Michaël's doubled emergence all the more empowering and authentic, even logical. As such, Tomboy avoids polemics about the motivations of its polygendered protagonist, and instead simply revels in her/his moment-by-moment emancipations, the imaginative continuum of a childhood community. But as the parents constantly remind their daughters about summer ending and school beginning, we rarely forget that these liberties are finite, that they must end.
Often Sciamma's approach highlights the spontaneous intimacies of the two young sisters, their fierce solidarity, as they constantly play-act. When Laure disappoints Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), for instance, telling her that she has to leave but will return at six o'clock, the younger girl immediately insists that Laure draw an ink watch on her wrist to reflect the happy deadline. Similarly, when the two girls paint together, Jeanne arranges Laure before her as a model, studying her form before a canvas of paper and crayons, complaining – 'Stop moving!' – when her sister breaks the pose. Later, tenderly daubing red antiseptic lotion onto a cut on Jeanne's leg, Laure cannot help but add a little heart onto her arm; her sister smirks in delight. In essence, Laure's life extends from this unforced familial infancy with Jeanne, who is six, to the more complex, rising social peer demands of ten-to-twelve-year olds. One scene has the two girls enjoying Play-Doh, and we only gradually realize that Laure is actually sculpting a clay penis to put in her swim-suit, so as to pass for male during her swimming outing the next day. Always, though, these childhood pursuits stand in sad contrast to the diminished capacities of the adult caregivers, whose creativity extends mainly to entreaties and policing, like the (unnamed) Mother (Sophie Cattala) curtailing the girls' hour-long bath by warning them that if they do not hurry out they will die from cold, and their waterlogged fingers will stay webbed forever. Grown-up lies like these pass unchallenged, whereas Laure's casual ruses will bring the world down around her ears.
Stylistically and logistically, Sciamma's work on Tomboy also builds from Water Lilies/ La Naissance des pieuvres (2007), her debut film about the coming-of-age of three teen-aged girls, nominated in 2008 for a Best First Film César (Palmer 2011: 32-40). Second time around Sciamma, a committed minimalist, streamlined things even further. She cut her budget to under 500,000 euros, went from scriptwriting to principal photography in three short months, and turned, both creatively and practically, to the Canon 7D hybrid digital film camera, typically used for stills but extremely lightweight and mobile, perfect for shooting small humans on the move, designed to capture legible images in extremes of high or low light. All of her child performers were non-professionals; the cheapness of digital video allowed Sciamma (who also designed the sets and costumes) to expose footage, frequently long takes often minutes or more, of them interacting and improvising, her direction sometimes limited to highlighting on camera a single pivotal movement or gesture, like when Michaël, a fledgling boy, decides to try spitting during a football game, or removes his shirt like the other boys on his team. As in Water Lilies Sciamma downplays dialogue: Tomboy has only 669 spoken lines over its 82-minute running time, averaging a (usually laconic) statement just once every 7 seconds. (The same length of film in Philippe le Guay's more typical The Women on the Sixth Floor/Les Femmesdu 6e étage (2011) has, by contrast, 1,231 lines of dialogue.) Decisive moments – like when Lisa (Jeanne Disson) learns that her possible boyfriend is in fact a girl – are played by the young actors in silence, with unreadable static faces. Sciamma's behavioural anthropology of children is often compellingly inexpressive, latent or inert. And clearly Robert Bresson's influence looms large, traceable to Sciamma's apprenticeship at La Fémis, the illustrious Parisian film school, where she was advised by neo-Bressonian Xavier Beauvois, the head of her 2005 graduating board, to jettison the expositional elements of her scriptwriting in favour of sound cues, muted performances, and a stylized mise-en-scène.
Conspicuous among Tomboy's achievements is this dialogue with other notable French films, past and present, as Sciamma reacts to a diverse, rich, and quite competitive national cinema ecosystem. An applied cinéphile, Sciamma practices her craft in part to converse with her peers. Repeatedly in interview – a vital part of the job of artistic self-elaboration in France – Sciamma spoke of the inscrutable miracle of photogénie (photogenesis) in Zoé Héran, her lead whose face and body and inner life Tomboy explores, citing explicitly the subjective poetic ideology of French Impressionist film-makers of the 1920s. (The opening shot of Héran's hands inscribing the sky seems a direct visual reference to Dmitri Kirsanoff's 1928 Autumn Mists/Brumes d'automne.) Tomboy also strategically reworks the aesthetic of Jean Paul Civeyrac's Through the Forest/A travers la forêt (2005), a DV-derived chamber drama about a young woman and her possibly dead lover that refuses to distinguish diegetic reality from its protagonist's mental longings. (Civeyrac also teaches at La Fémis.) As Laure, sleepless one night, apparently contemplates Michaël, her indeterminate alter ego, like Civeyrac, Sciamma shoots her actress wandering alone through her apartment, almost invisible in sepulchral twilight, her body dividing in a mirror, a liminal space in which the fantastic becomes tangible. Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence (2004) is another engagement: in Tomboy's vivid woodland splendour, its timeless child world virtually abstracted from grown-up society, and its ambivalent organic designs that periodically supplant narrative. (Fabi-enne Berthaud's Lily Sometimes/Pieds nus sur les limaces (2010) uses similar devices to evoke a mentally disjunctive woman's retreat from adult life.) Hence when Laure is outed and abandoned by her friends, she runs into the forest, removes the blue dress she has been made to wear, then apparently vanishes into ephemeral harmony with nature – the camera wanders upwards, the customary long focal length of Sciamma's lens letting her rove freely, blissfully through the leaves of the canopy above, accompanied by piercing birdsong and ambient gusts of wind.
Exquisite in its techniques, open and non-judgmental in its materials, Tomboy is a film to savour, a piece of micro-cinema whose scale is deceptively small. On the strength of her two first features alone, Céline Sciamma is already a major figure in the wonderfully bustling environment of contemporary French cinema.
Tim PalmerCHAPTER 2
UN STYLE DÉPOUILLÉ:
The story commonly told about Robert Bresson is that the difficult and unfamiliar simplicity and elegance of his films make them like no other in the history of cinema. Because of their challenging austerity, Bresson has developed (and holds to this day) the reputation of a film-maker 'apart' – apart from the storytelling traditions of the art form, from the film industry, and from French taste culture. A recurring theme in Bresson commentary and scholarship is that he is sui generis. Bresson is of his own kind, self-generated, an artistic singularity. He is one of few film-makers to devote his art to the expression of the ineffable. His characters do not seek to rid the world of villainy or pursue heterosexual romance. They are in a spiritual predicament; they are in search of grace. Bresson is thought to have developed his own unique language to tell their stories, his own personal system of film writing, le cinématographe.
This system stands apart from le cinéma, whose borrowings from the theatre give it a 'fraudulent realism, vulgarity, and facile psychology', as one critic explains it (Quandt 1998: 3). Bresson eschews storytelling that establishes clear character goals and linear developments in favour of an elliptical and episodic model, creating gaps and mysteries and often leaving major events and dramatic high points to be inferred by the audience. He also makes extensive use of off-screen space, reducing information redundancy about characters' actions and the spaces they occupy and replacing what is normally 'seen' in movies with what can more evocatively be 'heard'. If Bresson's economical dramaturgical approach uses sound effects to replace phenomena that a conventional film would depict visually, he is also known for stripping down the performances of his actors, which he calls 'models'. His models do not act; rather, they repeat lines and takes in order to re-emerge as their natural selves and simply react – to behave automatically as if there were no camera or crew present.
With such a rigorous and exacting approach to theme and storytelling, Bresson only made fourteen films in a 40-year film career. He was born on 25 September 1901, in Bromont-Lamothe (Puy-de-Dôme), Auvergne, a region in south central France that was also the birthplace of the mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal, whom Bresson often cited. He studied at the prestigious Lycée Lakanal de Sceaux, in the western suburbs of Paris. Known for its literary heritage, former students include the poet and essayist Charles Péguy and Jean Giraudoux, an acclaimed dramatist of the interwar period and dialoguiste for Bresson's Occupation film, Les anges du péché/The Angels of Sin (1943). Bresson appears to have been a painter, presumably during his twenties and thirties, although no paintings have ever been exhibited. He is reported to have married for the first time in 1926 to Leidia van der Zee, a marriage that ended in divorce (Riding 1999: C27).
His earliest documented professional activities in the 1930s were varied. Eight surviving photographs reveal that he was as a commercial and avant-garde photographer of promising talent during the early years of the decade. Bresson made his directorial debut with the comique fou film, Les Affaires publique/Public Affairs (1934), a medium-length production (Bresson, cited in Ajame 1966: 13). The sets were by Pierre Charbonnier and the film's eclectic score by Jean Wiener. Both were longtime companions of Bresson. Bresson gave his first interview in 1934 in order to promote the film. Between 1933 and 1939, he also worked as dialoguiste on several commercial, feature-length comedies. He was an assistant director on La vierge folle/The Foolish Maiden (Henri-Diamant Berger, 1938). The film, whose theme of the social constraints of love anticipates Bresson's own Les Dames du bois de Boulogne/The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (1945), recounts the ill-fated affair of a respected (and married) Parisian lawyer and a young girl.
A project called 'Air pur', directed by René Clair with Robert Bresson reportedly assisting, began preproduction in January 1939 (Billard 1998: 238). A film about the challenges facing youth in urban France, it would have very few stars. The production was cut short when France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 (Billard 1998: 234–38). None of the footage survives.
Despite disagreement over the precise dates of his capture, few contest that Bresson was taken hostage during the earliest stages of war (Samuels 1972: 76). Once released, his career took what most regard as a marked turn. Although there is some debate about how to periodize his work, the tendency is to view his career in a three-act structure, with an early 'Bresson before Bresson' phase, a middle 'mature' period of black-and-white film-making, and a final 'colour' period characterized (for some) by its examination of the bleakness of contemporary life. For many scholars and critics, the early period consists of works completed before the Liberation: Public Affairs and two features produced during the German occupation of France, The Angels of Sin and The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne. The Angels of Sin, was inspired by a 1938 non-fiction source, Les dominicaines des prisons (Lelong 1938), suggested to Bresson by the Dominican priest and public intellectual, Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger. The Angels of Sin received immediate praise from Roland Barthes, among others, with Giraudoux's dialogue and the authentic handling of convent life as the main traits that caught critics' eyes at the time (Barthes 1993: 37-39; Vinneuil 1943: 7). The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne was adapted from the Madame de la Pommeraye episode of Diderot's Jacques le fataliste/Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (1796). Like The Angels, The Ladies was scored by the future St-Sulpice organist Jean-Jacques Grunenwald and shot by the esteemed cinematographer of poetic realist films, Philippe Agostini. Bresson also contracted Jean Cocteau to write dialogues, which he did, according to Bresson, for 'less than one hour, sitting on the corner of the couch' (Bresson, cited in Ajame 1966: 13).
Excerpted from Directory of World Cinema France Volume 15 by Tim Palmer, Charlie Michael. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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