Céline Sciamma on the Cinema Utopia, the cinema of her teens

Our Dream Palaces column remembers the magic of the big screen at a time when cinemas are closed and under threat. In the second instalment, Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma honours a film theatre in the suburbs of Paris that incubated her early dreams of being a filmmaker.

Updated: 22 October 2020

By Céline Sciamma

Sight and Sound
Cergy’s Cinema Utopia
© Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

I decided to put cinema at the centre of my life when I was 13 and going through the biggest crisis of my life: teenagehood. There was a big culture of cinema in my family. My grandmother introduced me to musicals and Fred Astaire and Cary Grant and all the American comedies and classics. When I turned 13 all of my life was designed around earning money to buy cinema tickets.

I was lucky to have an arthouse theatre with great programming where I grew up: in Cergy, a new town in the north-western suburbs of Paris – where I shot Water Lilies [2007]. It’s a cinema called Utopia, which is part of a network of nine independent cinemas in France. The first was founded in Avignon in 1976. The cinema has five screens but they would show a lot of films – there was a different screening each day rather than the same film for a whole week.

It mostly showed new work. I just went to see everything. It’s where I saw Ken Loach movies and Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County [1995]. They would do reruns too. I saw Metropolis [1927] there.

It was a cinema with a visual signature: there was a lot of red velvet and a strong smell of wood. It really felt like a theatre. It really felt special. I was going three times a week. I was a loner. But it felt less lonely in the theatre. The first time I felt that cinema was going to be my life was when I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue [1993]. It was the first time I was anticipating a film from a director, and I think it was the first time I went to the cinema by myself.

Céline Sciamma
© Portrait by Claire Mathon

Because it’s not just about the films, it’s about the experience of going. I remember taking my bike. It was raining. The cinema was eight kilometres away. I remember going into the theatre by myself. It felt like the first time I’d made a decision for myself in a way. When I got out it was raining and I had a blue raincoat. I remember the connection between the film and my life. It’s not just about finding shelter in the cinema, it’s about how it’s contagious to your own life.

When I was older I went into Paris to the cinema there. Cergy is 30km away – that seems close but it’s not when you’re young. I only went in twice a year to go to the museums. The first time I went by myself to the Latin Quarter, it was the theatres that made me dream. I remember watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [1992]. I hadn’t seen the series but it was a good starting point. I didn’t get much of it because I didn’t know her father had raped her – sorry for the spoiler! – but when I got out of the room the atmosphere had changed. This is important to me: cinema does not exist in just a mental place, it’s a way of life.

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at Utopia. I’m not a very introspective person but when I get on that stage, it feels even more overwhelming than showing my films at the Cannes film festival. Because standing there, I’m so close to my past. I can see how far I’ve come.

Céline Sciamma was talking to Isabel Stevens.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 5 April 2020

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