May 21, 2015 § 1 Comment
Girlhood’s first scene works superbly in its simultaneous fusion and separation of sound and image. Composer Para One ramps up the urgency of the electronic beat (it sounds a bit like Steve Reich, maybe John Adams) to convey the speed of a US-style football game played by young black women, while the moving image itself appears slowed down the better to show their choreography, its flawless grace and confidence as they spin and run in their spotlit armour and helmets, red and white beneath a night sky.
The heroic drama of this is magical, a visual world at odds with the harsh uniformity of the cités, the housing projects beyond the Paris periphery which, in their size and sterile isolation, more resemble Glasgow housing schemes than any inner-city ghetto. When the game ends – in all-round jubilation – we cut immediately to the dispersal of its players into the shadows, and the draining away of their self-assured energies as they pass groups of boys. At the last goodbye we are left with the teenage Marieme, shy and watchful, heading home. She is the central figure in a film whose French title, Bande de Filles (girl gang) is apt enough for its first half, while Girlhood, the English title chosen by its director Céline Sciamma, better sums up the whole in its focus on one particular girl, specifically a black girl, and what she tells us about girlhood’s struggles.
Next (and this is a film where the images don’t flow continuously, a stylised film built from discrete scenes, from lingering shots and abrupt transitions) we observe Marieme at school, pleading in vain with a teacher who remains only a voice, to be allowed to pursue her studies and take her bac instead of demotion to a vocational school. The unfairness of this (heartless, and implicitly racist) exclusion is what draws her into the orbit of a gang of three girls whose spiky leader teasingly invites her to join them. She refuses at first, but turns back with a smile on seeing that the boys show respect towards this female trio.
It is the first of Marieme’s movements away from what diminishes her: the loss of her right to education, her older brother’s dictates and abuse, her poverty. It is the first of her physical transformations: from cornrows to straight hair, from sombre clothes to stylish shoplifted dresses. With the gang she learns to strut and scare, how to exert dominance rather than being its victim, how to fight. Lady teaches her a mantra: ‘I’ll do what I want’ and gives her a new name, Vic, along with a necklace that spells it out. ‘Vic for victory’, says Lady.
Matching the film’s opening scene in their vitality are two bravura sequences that render a wonderful sense of female happiness and solidarity. In the first of these, the gang creates a perfect secret space in a hotel room (paid for, it’s implied, with the gains of petty extortion) where they take bubblebaths, share drinks, a pizza and a joint, and in their new clothes with the anti-theft tags still attached, perform a dance of sheer joy together, lip-synching to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’. In the second, the camera pans in close-up along a line of young black women, laughing and talking and, we see finally, showing off their dance moves in the brilliant sunshine among the grey buildings of La Défense. Like the opening football scene this one has a quality of hyperreality; both suggest undimmed potential overriding colder realities. In Girlhood’s first half, Sciamma’s direction lifts the visual and kinetic, has the camera dwell on bodies and colours, finds and highlights beauty in them to produce a cinematic pleasure of the senses. Squalor doesn’t prevail, the film’s surfaces won’t allow it, for all its other signs of poverty or racism.
The gang’s defiance will not last, however; it belongs to unfettered youth. But as Vic, Marieme discovers how strong she can be, becoming self-sufficient and tough, acquiring a ruthlessness that conflicts with her protective affection for her vulnerable younger sister, and feelings for her lover Djibril. The gang has empowered her through close bonds of friendship, given her good times, but it ties her to home, her brother’s violent bullying, the eventual prospect of a life doing menial work like her mother. What she wants now is freedom. Her next steps take her elsewhere, leading the film into more existential territory, more ambiguity of purpose, while continuing to offer an allusive commentary on race and how the cinema often defines it. Throughout, Karidja Touré gives a stunning performance. Like her fellow gang members she was found on a casting of non-professionals.
There is so much here: what it is to be a young woman in the face of limited autonomy, what it is to be a young working-class black woman enmeshed in multiple webs of confinement. ‘I don’t want that life’, says Vic at a crucial moment. With all this set against her, what other lives can there be, besides the ones she’s rejecting, the traps she foresees? Yet we know she has courage, and resilience.
Several reviews have described this as a coming-of-age film. It’s a dubious category, unless circumscribed by a genre that suggests some kind of turning point that will bring maturity. The reviewers refer to Céline Sciamma‘s previous films and their explorations of adolescent sexual identity, and in one case the story of a transgender child. I haven’t seen them, though I can recognise questions of sexuality in Girlhood. But this is not a film to be pigeonholed.
I was reminded of two French films which to me have affinities, by two great New Wave directors: Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda. Rivette’s The Nun was inspired by Diderot’s novel about the real-life case of a young woman shut up in a convent by her parents and going to law to be released from the religious vows that were forced on her. In the film she is Suzanne, punished, humiliated, displaced from convent to convent, from one dashed hope to another, thwarted even when helped by a man to escape into the world outside. In 18th-century France, in the framework of female powerlessness, freedom can only be illusory, while striving for it is a necessity. Like Diderot’s books two centuries earlier, Rivette’s film was banned (albeit briefly), in 1966. Varda’s superb Vagabond (1985) has an anti-heroine, Mona (a name she has chosen for herself) whose desperate refusal of any limits on her own freedom has led to a life of vagrancy. Feral in the selfishness this breeds, she is driven by a strong continuing will. The outcome is degradation and death – an ending foretold at the film’s start. Her past remains a mystery.
Vic’s struggle may echo these two tragedies existentially, but she has more resources than either Mona or Suzanne, more scope for self-invention, and a strong subjective core, whoever she becomes. Girlhood concludes with her exit from the final blue-skied frame, and then, a small surprise, she’s back.