The portrait of the cross-dresser as a young boy, Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy explores a summer of sexual awakening and the limits of identity.
My Summer Of Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s perhaps no shock that Laure chooses Mikaël as her boyish alias. After all, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 film is oft cited as one of the first gay films. And Dreyer’s film of unrequited love and “the third sex” does seem to haunt Céline Sciamma’s second feature Tomboy. But unlike her debut Water Lilies, Tomboy takes place at an earlier stage in queer development, as pre-teen Laure reinvents herself as a boy after moving into a new neighbourhood. It’s not sexual attraction so much as gender identity, mixed in with childhood nostalgia and the crushing tragedy of fantasy which makes Tomboy such a uniquely beguiling experience that builds and builds.
Tomboy begins with the back of Laura’s head, swaying against the backdrop of the French countryside out of the sunroof of a car. It’s faceless and asexual – a captivating guessing game that begins with the back of the neck, a nubile hand. There’s nothing sexual about Tomboy, but there is all the same a curious pleasure to the first half as we bear witness to Laura’s androgyny. Zoé Héran is excellently cast as the young girl who would be boy, even if her feminine shoulder blades or elongated legs sometimes give the game away. She is nevertheless undeniably boyish, dressed in tank tops and hoodies, her hair a tousled crop. And while there’s a pleasure in the tension between male and female, a constant reframing of our desire to see masculinity and femininity in black and white, there’s also something strangely voyeuristic about the inevitable reveal, an unnecessary shock of the female.
No matter how hard she tries, Laure just cannot escape her gender. With her blue walls and her almost testosterone-fusty new room, Laure couldn’t be more different to her sister Jeanne, all curls, tutus and pink. Still getting to know the local kids on the estate, Laure observes the boys at football, recreating their male mannerisms, their tough man stances and spitting later in front of the bathroom mirror. And while at first Laure can’t partake in the male peeing ritual (instead she has has to squat and hide), soon, armed with a play-dough prosthetic, she’s roughhousing and tumbling with the best of them on a swimming excursion at a nearby lake. Befitting its detached, observational camerawork, Tomboy focuses on Laure’s exterior as a boy rather than her interior nascent sexuality. And while there’s a flicker of love interest between Mikaël and Lisa, their dare to trade chewing gum more pleasurable than unpleasant, their burgeoning relationship remains safe within the confines of playground love. Laure’s close friendship with Lisa can at times be intense, as they dance and laugh in Lisa’s bedroom, but like the make-up Mikaël wears, it can also be an unwanted reassurance for Laure’s parents, a smokescreen that she’s still a normal girl with girl friends at last.
While Sciamma with her naturalistically slow-boiling scenes focuses on the manifestations of identity rather than on internal conflict or pre-adolescent confusion, there’s still a hint of recognition as Laure reveals her secret to her unborn sibling. That such a young girl has such a secret is a worry her parents can only take on the chin. Until that is a boy and his mother come knocking at their door, accusing Mikaël of beating him up. With the cat out of the bag, Laure is rigged up in a dress and paraded to her friends’ apartments to apologise. It’s a heartbreaking scene, Laure looking like a boy in drag, the shapeless shift dress hanging lifelessly around her. But this mother’s outing is doubly poignant. While at first she’s indignant, she soon calms to an acceptance of her daughter as she is. Laure’s humiliation is just a necessary reality check for the tragic summer fantasist before the return to school. The family scenes though are beautifully sketched; there’s a loving playfulness in Laure’s relationship with her father, played by Mathieu Demy, as she learns to drive on his lap, a sisterly complicity as young Jeanne covers for her sister, knowing the power this gives her and the rewards she can bargain for. And there are moments that transport you back to childhood too, like the girls playing at men with moustaches cut from Laure’s hair or the delicious nostalgia of music making, one sister murdering a tune on the keyboard while the other dances uninhibited.
Unpsychological and unpolitical (except for a burst of homophobia by the boys) Tomboy is a film about surfaces. But that isn’t too say it’s only surface-deep. Laure’s unconscious desire to express her true self is poignant, if ultimately fantastic, while her naive tendency towards subterfuge and deception is all too revealing, longing to both accept and hide her difference. But as her fantasy bubble bursts in the final reel, and she realises she can’t escape her gender, she takes a tentative step perhaps towards placing her otherness within her own self, hesitantly murmuring “My name is Laure.” With its delicate weave of childhood relationships and identity Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy is a richly satisfying, deceptively simple layering of emotions and ideas. Touching, nourishing and not all about a boy.
Tomboy is released on 16th September 2011 in the UK