For one reason or another I missed Céline Sciamma’s superb Girlhood (aka Bande De Filles in its native France) when it hit UK cinemas on a far too limited release a few months back. So now, as mediocre box office goliath Spectre stalls releases from smaller distributors afraid of getting lost in competition, it seems like a good time to catch up on one of the finer films of the year.
Though the film’s name has been tweaked for the English language market the way it has presumably to key in on the success of Richard Linklater’s 12-year pop experiment Boyhood, Sciamma’s film shares scant similarities save for its overarching scrutiny of youth in bloom.
Here we follow roughly a year in the life of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sixteen year-old black girl living in the projects near Paris. At the film’s beginning she is literally in transition, crossing a bridge from one team (having participated in an American football game that opens the film in exhilarating fashion) and heading toward another. Flunking at school and perceiving few prospects beyond working as a cleaner with her barely-seen mother, Marieme finds strength and security with an all-girl street gang.
Her cranky demeanour catches the eye of gang leader Lady (Assa Sylla), who hangs around with Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré). Marieme is initially dismissive, but joining them has great appeal; there’s the respect earned through inclusivity and then the intimidation of others, but joining the gang also allows Marieme the opportunity to get closer to Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), a friend of her violent, domineering older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy).
Sciamma divides the film into untitled chapters bookended with blackouts and accentuated by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s dreamy synth score (fans of Cliff Martinez’s music for Drive will be in heaven listening to this movie). As Marieme’s year progresses she starts to assert her own dominance within the gang, seeking vengeance when Lady loses a fight, protecting their unity, but at the same time threatening their future together by pursuing a forbidden romance with Ismaël.
For a while, at least, everything that Marieme encounters happens on her own terms. Joining the gang is her decision, while her relationship with Ismaël develops wholly at the pace she decides on; Marieme instigates every step. During this time the film soars. Sciamma makes no judgements, if anything celebrating Marieme’s development, even when the choices she makes might broadly be deemed unwise.
What is conveyed is a generation severely lacking in role models. Though she dotes on her younger sisters, the family unit offers little solace for Marieme and no guidance whatsoever. One of the film’s key scenes sees the girls spending a day in a hotel room, taking selfies, trying on dresses and – in a standout sequence – dancing and lip-syncing perfectly to a pop song. It’s a scene of pure, total reverie, but at the same time underlines their appropriation of pop culture roles and aspirations in the absence of any others.
Sciamma’s method here is exceptional. Girlhood boasts moments of stylised beauty, long slow tracking shots that fetishise youth set to that aforementioned rousing score, yet these scenes are countered by a consistent sense of truth and realism. It’s a delicate balance but Sciamma makes it seem effortless.
Part of this success comes from her judicious avoidance of sensationalist material. Stereotypes are acknowledged – one might say the plot itself is close to generic, save for the fact that there have been few if any prior films about what it’s like to be a young black woman in modern France – but outright cliché is usually skirted or subverted. A lesser film would have descended into finger wagging warnings on the perils of drugs and prostitution. And while Girlhood is in no way an advocate for either, it allows its lead character the sense to come into contact with these worlds without necessarily sinking wholly and irredeemably into their calamitous influence. Even during the film’s relatively gloomy final chapter, Marieme has the strength and confidence to determine her own limits.
The colour blue permeates the film constantly, giving proceedings an occasionally reflective, downbeat palette, yet the tone is anything but dour or hectoring. Blue symbolises liberty in the French flag, and it’s prevalence here is probably no coincidence. And for every difficulty Marieme encounters there is a moment of joy to act as counter argument. It all looks beautiful thanks to cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s wise, modern eye, at times operating in a similar manner to The Tribe from earlier this year.
Like The Tribe there is a sense also of ritual being observed. Take for instance a peak from the second half in which Lady and Marieme take part in a dance-off, showing off their synchronised choreography sketched out earlier in the film. Unlike the street fights seen elsewhere, the dance-offs are arenas of mutual respect. A truce between rivals where individuals and groups also have the opportunity to show off their mad skills. The gangs all dress more-or-less alike, yet you can tell a girl is in a gang from her clothing. It’s a legitimate lifestyle choice for these adolescents, with its own codes and fashions to adhere to.
The sense of realism in the main body of the film is so successful that it’d be easy to overlook the fact that these are performances. The cast are all eminently believable, but props must go to Karidja Touré above all for making Marieme such a rounded, believable creation. It’s all too easy to empathise with her even as she makes moves we’d rather she didn’t.
And while it’s tempting to round out this review by coming full circle and judging it against Linklater’s crowd pleaser, the truth is that the two are barely related and it would be a disservice to both. Sciamma’s film deserves to be met on its own terms, and on that basis is a superlative success, marking it’s creator out as a talent at the top of her game. Someone who, like her protagonist, is surely moving determinedly forward to the next challenge.