And so ends the trilogy of films that began the career of Celine Sciamma… Like many French directors, Sciamma began her career by considering childhood and young adulthood. Her debut feature Water Lillies tells of a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with an older girl who, despite being flattered by the attention and eager to return the flirtation, is more interested in boys. Set amidst the sun-drenched modernism of suburban France, Water Lillies captures attention both thorough its minimalist stylings and its willingness to embrace the fluidity of human sexuality. Sciamma’s second film Tomboy is no less thematically ambitious. Set against a very similar background of summertime and concrete, the film follows a young person who uses the opportunity presented by a new town and a new group of friends to establish a male identity. While this identity is inevitably shut down by a mother who forces Laure to apologise for ‘passing herself off’ as Mikael, the film ends on an upbeat note by suggesting that friendship and even love can reach across the abyss of gender binaries. Sciamma’s third film finds her returning to sunshine and concrete as well as to questions of female identity but it also shows her ambition as a filmmaker as Girlhood addresses not only gender but race and social class as well.
I usually only mention stuff like film names and DVD covers when complaining about the film industry’s pathetic attempts to jump on band-wagons and market art house films as action movies. However, the decision to release Bande de Filles (literally ‘Gang of Girls’) under the English-language title Girlhood was an absolute stroke of genius… aside from the fact that the French word ‘bande’ carries significantly less racist baggage than the English word ‘gang’, renaming Bande de Filles as Girlhood sets up a natural dialogue between this small French film and Richard Linklater’s hugely-visible and over-rated Boyhood. In fact, the dialogue between the two films is what inspired me to review them both in the same week.
Despite an effort to slipstream the marketing spend of Boyhood’s awards campaign, Girlhood is actually a very different prospect: While Linklater’s film spans over a decade, Sciamma’s covers little more than a year in the life of a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Where Linklater’s film sprawls over 160 minutes with neither character arcs nor themes to provide structure, Girlhood seems to cram all the questions of youth into a perfectly-formed 116 minutes. It would be both easy and accurate to state that Girlhood is merely a better made and more interesting film than Boyhood but doing so would do a grave injustice to Sciamma’s talent as Girlhood is an absolutely sensational film in its own right. This is what real cinema is all about.
Girlhood opens with an image that is both visually arresting and rich in thematic potential. A team of American footballers runs out onto a floodlit pitch and begins practicing, the scrimmage is brutal but their movements are elegant and purposeful. It is only when the practice session comes to an end and the players pull off their helmets that we realise we are watching an all-female team. Aside from being beautifully shot, this sequence reminds us of Sciamma’s interest in the fluidity of gender. However, it’s not just that these girls are playing a traditionally male sport, it’s also that the armour they don and the moves they make in the game feel like commentaries on the lives they are forced to live outside it. You had better stay on your toes and thicken that skin if you want to survive…
Sciamma demonstrates the challenges inherent in growing up poor, female and black in contemporary France as the girls walk back to their homes in Paris’s infamous high-rise social housing. Together, the group is strong and the young women laugh boisterously as they approach the towers but the second they reach the steps up the first tower, the group is split and they all fall silent. Out in the darkness, the boys begin calling to them until one girl is left to walk home through an environment that suddenly feels acutely oppressive. This girl is sixteen year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) although her name will soon by Vic.
Marieme is trapped. She lives with her mother, brother and two younger sisters but her mother is never home and when she does make it home she is too tired and sad to care about what happens. This leaves the household under the control of Marieme’s older brother, an aspiring gangster and bully who uses threats and intimidation to impose something resembling a traditional family structure. Forced to cook, clean and look after her younger sisters, Marieme is struggling at school and her teachers are already suggesting that she drop out and consider apprenticeships that she would never be allowed to complete. In Marieme’s world, educations are respected but any education that does not lead to a respectable and well-paying job is deemed a waste of time and Marieme knows that if she isn’t allowed to continue her schooling, she will be forced to work as a cleaning lady alongside the broken wreck that was once her mother. Marieme tries to explain to her teachers that her bad grades aren’t her fault but the teachers aren’t interested… if it isn’t Marieme’s fault then whose is it? Well… everyone’s, but you can’t say that.
Angry and hurt by the confrontation with her teachers, Marieme stomps across the playground in a foul mood and attracts the attention of a group of girls who are long past caring what teachers think of them. Recognising the point at which frustration and self-loathing blossoms into legitimate anger, the girls call Marieme over and suggest she accompany them into Paris but Marieme only agrees once she realises that the boys pay attention to bad girls.
Girlhood is ostensibly quite a conventional coming-of-age drama in that it is a film all about a young person who makes bad decisions only to wind up having to deal with the consequences as part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. As a traditional coming-of-age story, Girlhood is not above using tropes that will be familiar from other works in the genre. However, while everyone and their dog will be able to guess that Marieme’s new friends are going to be a bad influence, Girlhood reminds us how empowering and enjoyable those types of friendships can be.
The group is made up of three girls who are looking for a fourth… for reasons never adequately explained, these types of groups always run to memberships of four. Uniformly clad in black leather jackets and relaxed hair, the group is led by Assa Sylla’s fiercely charismatic Lady. Lady is flanked by Lindsay Karamoh’s feisty Adiatou and Mariétou Touré’s sad-sack Filly but while the three girls have manifestly been friends for a very long time, Lady remains the leader through a combination of fierceness and generosity. Marieme is clearly intimidated by the fierceness of her new friends until the fierceness is turned on a white shop assistant who had decided to follow Marieme around and generally treat her like a shop-lifter. A world so cruel breeds fierceness and fierceness can be fun too!
As time passes, Marieme relaxes into a new identity symbolised by Lady’s decision to anoint her with a gold necklace adorned with the letters V, I and C. Suddenly, Marieme is holding her head high and refusing to answer the phone when her brother calls. Lady is beautifully emphatic: Make them wait. Sciamma captures the joy and sense of empowerment Marieme is experiencing in a wonderful sequence where the four girls dance around in stolen dresses lip-synching to Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’.
Having established the character of Marieme and the friendship that binds her to Lady, Adiatou and Filly, Sciamma pulls back and reveals a bit more about the culture in which these groups of girls operate. While the term ‘gang’ is probably appropriate, the reality is that these women operate on the margins of a criminal underworld operated by men. Acting fierce not only allows the young women to show off their beauty and personality, it is also a way of getting men to respect them as dating a young woman who can beat up the girlfriends of other gangsters seems to carry a lot of cachet. Indeed, it is only once Marieme has fought someone and won that her brother begins treating her with respect but the respect is both gendered and weirdly partitioned as she is celebrated not so much for winning a fight as for shaming another gangster by beating up his woman. The dangers of this subculture are made quite explicit when Lady loses a fight, gets shamed on social media and surrenders leadership of the group to Marieme.
Above all, Girlhood is a film about the difficulties in finding a secure identity. As a dutiful daughter and mediocre student, Marieme was denied access to a French middle-class existence and looked like joining her mother as a member of the faceless underclass until the HLMs’ criminal subculture offered what appeared to be a way out. However, despite her mediocre grades, Marieme is no idiot and she soon realises that the path of criminality offers little to women aside from the possibility of becoming either a gangster’s babymother or a sex-worker. Repelled by both possibilities and aware that her nascent criminality is beginning to set a bad example for her younger sister, Marieme cuts all ties to friends and family in order to go and work for a local drug dealer.
The third identity Marieme assumes is that of a courier who dons a blonde wig and expensive dress in order to deliver drugs to wealthy white people at parties. Painfully aware that the sexuality of this role risks attracting the attention of male gangsters, Marieme retreats every night into a more androgynous persona that allows her to operate in a male culture without being seen as a potential conquest. Initially, this new persona seems to please Marieme as she has her own place and money in her pocket but her room-mate (a sex worker) reminds Marieme that while she may not be sleeping with her boss, she is still his bitch. Marieme reacts quite angrily to this suggestion because she fails to understand that being someone’s bitch is all about being dominated and exploited, sexuality is just one of many ways in which power, oppression and identity intersect.
Central to the current dystopian moment is the idea that identity is necessarily a product of suffering. The strongest identities are those that are hewn from capitalist bedrock and honed by oppression in a thousand different ways: You are gay. You are a woman. You are South-East Asian. You are working class. We understand that these are nothing more than labels slapped onto us by a system built to map, divide, and conquer but people cling to them as they are the only identities that the system seems willing to dispense. As the economics of identity invent and re-invent themselves across Tumblr, even the holders of traditionally protected and privileged identities go in search of a wheel upon which they can break themselves. What is Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash if not agitprop for the idea that you must be broken and driven to madness before you can even hope to hold onto an interesting identity. If you want this shitty job that pays nothing but might conceivably impress someone someday, you better be willing to bleed… and find a partner with a job that pays enough to support the pair of you. Whiplash is the blackest satire on the parental promises of generations past: Get an education, listen to your teachers and you too may conceivably get to eke out a living playing in hipster cafes.
As in Thomas Cailley’s much under-rated Les Combattants, the key difference between Boyhood and Girlhood is that girls are expected to suffer more for any identity they might hope to assume. Mason junior wanders through life untouched by trauma and welcomed like the warmth of the rising sun; His mother may suffer and his sister transforms from a bundle of energy to an awkward and unwanted presence but he waltzes into an arts scholarship with nothing to say and every opportunity in which to say it. Girlhood is an absolutely heart-wrenching film as all Marieme ever desires is a chance to be normal and yet the world conspires to shut down any and all identities she assumes whilst insistently shooing her towards those of whore and cleaning lady. The world is delighted to meet Mason but Marieme had better hurry up and disappear… the film’s final scene finds Marieme crawling back to her family home only to pause before entering. Realising that she simply cannot return to the stunted and dehumanising prospects she started out with, Marieme bursts into tears before calming herself and moving on because the choice is inevitably between trying again and dropping dead.
More so than any of Sciamma’s other films, Girlhood reveals a paradox at the heart of identity: Assuming a role and having people respond to it can be fun and immensely empowering but we pay for that pleasure by surrendering our autonomy and slotting ourselves into a system that wishes us nothing but harm. We are hard-wired for collectivity and cannot help but seek spiritual sustenance in friendship, family, and work but the economics are never as straightforward as they appear. Water Lillies and Tomboy explore the fluid nature of both sexuality and gender but Girlhood goes further and presents this fluidity as a survival trait. Retain your autonomy, retain your capacity to change and re-invent yourself from top to bottom lest society pin you down and extract compliance through the rationing of happiness. Marieme is a figure both heroic and tragic in that she refuses to surrender her autonomy and responds to every closed door and thwarted possibility with an act of radical re-invention. Growing up is not about becoming the person you were destined to be, it’s about learning to take responsibility for the person you need to become.