A young woman stares directly at the camera. Her body is illuminated by a cold blue light. She looks defiantly at the viewer until the music starts and she lip-syncs to her soundtrack. The tune is Rihanna’s Diamonds, a 2012 anthem that represents hope and self-belief for an entire generation. As the melody continues, the girl breaks into a smile and her solo becomes a duet when one of her friends joins her. A third girl chimes in and the camera pans to the last character, who remains with a look of expectation on her face. It is clear that she wants to join the group. The tempo increases, and so does the last girl’s confidence, finally stepping up and dancing with the sisterhood she has just found.
This scene celebrates the value of friendship among girls on the cusp of adulthood like no other. Céline Sciamma’s films may be minimalistic in their execution but deftly embrace the multiple and complex nature of female relationships.
In her debut film Water Lilies, Sciamma traced the sexual rite-of-passage of three teenagers. During Tomboy, she explored how gender-ambiguity affects the life of the 10-year-old protagonist, Laure. But the film I’d like to focus on is 2014’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles in French), as it touches upon a subject that is often taken for granted or heavily stereotyped: the importance of female affection and amiability.
There are countless films that highlight the platonic bond that can unite several women. Some have reached iconic status, such as 1991’s Thelma and Louise and others are downright ridiculous such as the Mamma Mia saga. What Mamma Mia gets wrong, is that it depicts female friendship as a happy, giggly bundle of fun, full of catchphrases and excitable screams. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is the complete opposite of this mainstream franchise, and I believe that it is her keen observation of the weave of female interactions that has given us some of the most underrated films of the decade.
Girlhood follows the life of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a teenager living in the banlieues of Paris. Struggling to get ahead academically and suffering the wrath of her abusive older brother, the only joy Marieme finds in her day-to-day is taking care of her younger sisters. When she discovers that she has been kicked out of high school, Marieme runs into an all-girl gang. She is introduced to Lady (Assa Sylla), the gang’s leader, a cocky, confident but secretly kind young woman and her followers Fily (Marietou Toure) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). The gang takes a liking to Marieme, who is flung straight into a life of leather jackets, shoplifting, fights, establishing friendships and falling in love. Lady also gives Marieme a new name: Vic, short for Victory.
However, Sciamma is deliberately ambiguous about whether Marieme’s choice is victorious or not. In Lady’s gang, Marieme is connected by a strong bond of camaraderie, but one that is not without its consequences. When the girls dance to Diamonds, it’s in stolen dresses that still have the price tags on. In order to gain the respect and admiration of rival gangs, Lady and Marieme have to fight off other girls in a pit, tearing off shirts and bras as trophies. Outside the banlieues, the girls continue to be judged. The moment they step into a shop, an assistant follows them around like a shadow, something that many of the cast have admitted happening to them. And yet, it is when she is with Lady, Fily and Adiatou that Marieme is content, as she blossoms into a self-assured young woman. Being part of a bande de filles not only makes Marieme accept the world around her, but herself as well. Female circles of friends often seem impenetrable to an outsider, so when welcomed into one, it is easy to feel like the whole universe has acknowledged you as well.
Sciamma skilfully charts Marieme’s transition into Vic, but she also conveys that not all endings are happy. Towards the close of the narrative, Marieme is ejected from her home and breaks away from her group. Released into a tougher world, one that is far away from girlhood, she is eventually enticed into forming part of a drug ring. In the end, it is Lady who comes to her rescue and makes her realize that she has her whole life ahead of her. The final scene of the film is bittersweet: Marieme goes back to her neighbourhood, but finds that when she buzzes the door to her house she won’t be let in. Nervous and confused, she walks a couple of steps before stopping. The camera lingers on her face once more, as she pants anxiously. Suddenly, Marieme looks up, determination inscribed on her features. She exits the frame and it is up to the viewer to determine where she is going. Will she reunite with Lady and the gang or has she decided to leave the banlieues and create a new beginning?
What I love about Sciamma’s oeuvre is how she approaches her female protagonists with subtlety. Like Italian Neo-Realist directors, she does not try to project herself onto her story but succeeds in bringing out hidden stories extracted from real life. This is why she chooses to use non-professional actors in her movies. Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla were picked from a meticulous casting of over 300 girls from all sorts of backgrounds. Furthermore, Sciamma emphasizes how space and setting are some of the key elements in her films. Marieme and her friends travel through long abandoned tunnels, they walk around labyrinthine buildings in which boys stare at them unabashedly. Girlhood is also a representation of how public spaces are constructed around gender, how certain architectural settings impose barriers on women and force them to constitute their own territorial spaces, which, as Sciamma suggests “end up becoming islands”. Marieme, Lady, Fily and Adiatou spend their most joyous moment partying in a hotel room, a space that they themselves have chosen and over which they have free reign.
Interestingly, Sciamma has stated that she does to her male characters what male directors do to their female characters. Male figures in a Sciamma film often play second fiddle to the female protagonists, whilst also being a catalyst for female empowerment. There is a particularly subversive scene from Girlhood during which Marieme decides that she wants to have sex with her boyfriend. She tells him to undress and asks him to turn over so that she can admire his naked back. It is so rare to see an on-screen portrayal of teenage romance where it is the female gaze that predominates. And it is this control that is sadly the cause of Marieme’s downfall. When her brother finds out that she has been sleeping with her boyfriend, he hits her and says that everyone will think that she is a whore. Through her technique of working through the psychology and experience of her characters, Sciamma’s movies contain thought-provoking messages on sexuality and race.
Another crucial aspect in understanding Sciamma’s films is her idea of “giving youth a face”. For this director, the mere act of giving someone a visual outlet through her movies is central to her work. She often uses long, close-up shots on her characters, with a focus on the features. This painterly effect suggests that Sciamma wishes to produce a cinematic portrait of her protagonists. It is no surprise that her first short film, Pauline, consists entirely of an unmoving angle of a girl lying sideways on a bed. Even though her characters are not Hollywood actresses or models, Sciamma frames them as if they were, they boldly invade the viewer’s space as if on a cover of a magazine, allowing their own light to shine through.