Set to a pulse-pounding soundtrack, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood encapsulates the careless, giddy energy of teendom.
Girlhood Interruptedby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s third film is the final in an unofficial coming of age trilogy that began with her 2007 film Water Lilies. Where Lilies dealt with the repression of homosexuality followed by Tomboy about a young girl passing herself off as a boy, Girlhood maintains the 36-year-old Parisian’s fascination with identity as well as characters that defy categorisation and societal norms. Seen by some as a white feminist’s view of black femininity, the film transcends such narrow-minded delineations. The patent racial and socio-political DNA of the young director’s film is evident, and while the film is uniquely relatable to the North African diaspora of Paris, the themes of Girlhood are universal. Sciamma’s characters could be male or female, black or white – it’s her incisive commentary on discovering personal identity that we can all relate to.
Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a young 15-year-old girl who lives with her mother, brother and sisters in the suburbs northeast of Paris. With her mother largely absent with a demanding night-shift cleaning job, Marieme is proxy parent to her two younger sisters. Bullied by her older, overbearing brother, she is hamstrung by familial and societal oppression. When she befriends a group of girls led by the boisterous ‘Lady’ (Assa Sylla), the friendship proves significantly transformative to Marieme’s development as a woman. Determined to avoid a life that appears inevitable, Marieme is faced with difficult decisions that will shape her future.
Structured in four distinct time periods, Sciamma’s film fades to black at the end of each – after which we are faced with Marieme’s back as she faces the future. Along with her hairstyles and inhibitions, each transition sees Marieme slowly develop into a self-serving freedom fighter. Oppressed by a controlling and sometimes violent brother, as well as a school system that consigns her to a future where she follows in her mother’s footsteps, Marieme fights for a future through her hardened social identity of ‘Vic’ (for Victory). When Lady is humiliated in a fight between a rival gang leader, Marieme is the one to step in and avenge her ‘scalped’ comrade. There is an interesting sub-narrative involving Marieme and Lady silently – and unintentionally in Marieme’s case – wrestling for leadership of the rebellious quartet of teenagers.
Girlhood triumphs in capturing the small little moments of adolescence; the organic and infectious chemistry of the ‘bande de filles’ (or ‘gang of girls’ of the French title) is captivating alchemy. The defiant, devil-may-care attitude of the girls is heightened by dialogue that shares a similar sense of recklessness. Thanks in no small part to the casting of non-actors, there’s often an unscripted, almost fly-on-the-wall sensation in watching them interact with each other as they battle the world around them. The rough and inelegant dialogue lends a realism to proceedings, also reminding us of our own embryonic lexicon at that age. However, it’s in the raw and unbridled physicality of Sciamma’s film that the nostalgia of youth as well as the rich thematic fabric of the film come to the fore. From viscously choreographed catfights to a superbly shot neon-infused scene involving the four girls lip-syncing to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’. Throughout the film, you feel the energy, disappointment, uncertainty and hope of youth.
The resolute backbone of Sciamma’s film is Karidja Touré’s magnetic and luminous performance as Marieme. She exhibits real emotional depth under her ‘strong silent type’ façade. There is a natural paternal warmth to her interactions with her younger sisters in early scenes that is utterly endearing and alludes to the harsh realities of life with an absent parent. A stunning tracking shot from cinematographer Crystel Fournier midway captures the uniformity of sorority, without compromising the very bold and beautiful individuality of Marieme and her peers. From the striking and kinetic opening shot of the girls playing American football, Fournier and Sciamma’s visuals evoke conflict and struggle from the get-go. One particularly powerful shot shows Marieme taking a kitchen knife in her hands and concealing it for use as a weapon. The camera pans back from Marieme highlighting the weight of her decision and alluding to a horizon of danger and uncertainty.
Despite a rather grim future outlook as well as the societal pressures faced by teenagers to conform, the tone of the film is often relatively light-hearted. When it does shift gears in the final act, where Marieme finds herself in a completely different and more sinister situation, it feels slightly rushed and incohesive. There’s nothing wrong with this progression in theory, but where the film is at its best and most exhilarating as a snapshot of French adolescence, it just doesn’t work as well in terms of engagement.
Coupled with an excellent electronic soundtrack by Para One, Girlhood is an exhilarating and important film. Addressing the dearth of black actors in French cinema, it’s a powerfully political yet wholly personal film from a unique and confident director. Sciamma’s film speaks to each of our own struggles with identity – in youth, and beyond – as well as hope – irrevocably intertwined with adolescence. “They don’t get to dream…and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do” Sciamma has said of the economically disadvantaged young black community in the banlieues she grew up in. And while the closing shot of Girlhood sees an emotional Marieme escape the suffocating weight of her past to face an uncertain future, Sciamma’s film gives us hope that she can shape her own destiny.
Girlhood is released on 8th May 2015 in the UK