Review: Girlhood

Girlhood [Bande des Filles
Dir. Celine Sciamma 

Something Sylvia Plath once wrote comes readily to mind when thinking of Celine Sciamma’s Gilrhood: ‘What does a woman see in another woman that she can't see in a man? Tenderness.’ In the film, the powerful influence of female friendship becomes one of the only reliable bastions of sixteen-year old Marieme's life. The young Parisian - nicknamed Vic - forges a friendship with three more outspoken girls at her school. She struggles at home under the tight circumscription of her bullying older brother - and a boyfriend who later tells her they should marry to ‘protect her reputation’. 

In Girlhood, even when men mean well, they are inclined to be paternal and controlling. Thus, tenderness - and in equal measure, a collective ferocity - can only be found in Vic's sisters - and in her new friends. Respectively, they are Lady, a hard-as-nails leader of the pack (Assa Sylla) Adiatou, a fashionista (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily, the quiet one of the bunch (Mariétou Touré). The girls enact all the tribalism and bonding rituals of modern women - they shop, drink, dance, and talk about boys. They also shoplift and fight for the fun of it. During a fight scene between two women, one knifes off the other's bra and waves it in the air like she’s taken a prize scalp. It’s triumphant, nasty - and a refreshingly direct female confrontation.

In countless male 'buddy' and teen gang films, violence is a crucial and common element. It's practically a male rite of passage; a schoolyard fistfight with a bunch of jeering onlookers. But to see young women unapologetically and brazenly fight each other isn’t just novel - it’s positively thrilling. 

It’s important to say that Paris, or Sciammas Paris, is not the all-white, postcard city of Woody Allen cliché - it is La Haines city - one of the rough, multicultural banlieue. Its a remarkably isolated, distinct part of the metropolis. Vics world is one of car parks and stairwells, of concrete quadrangles tucked in between looming apartment buildings; it feels semi-enclosed. The film moves quickly and with finesse - scenes are occasionally bracketed by black-screen ellipses and a pulsating, poppy soundtrack. Kadija Touré, as Vic, is a revelation - she has a quiet radiance and a knowing, watchful quality that suggest a wisdom beyond her years. Sciamma lights her film invarying shades of blue, as if her luminous first-time star were a nightclub chanteuse of the jazz age.

Sciamma has a real visual preoccupation for the physical details of the young women who inhabit the banlieue. Girls of all races, shapes and sizes get the same appraisal from Sciammas lens; slow pans or close-ups relishing in their tossed hair, their earrings, their painted fingernails or their legs while they dance. Its a curious gaze - de-eroticised, joyous - an implicit celebration of womens great multiplicity. The pleasure that many women take in accoutrement - of any kind - often extends to watching other women, too. In many ways, Sciamma’s lens feels like a woman’s stare. She recognises that a use of lipstick, piercings and the like are vital to women in staking out their identities. In a scene where Lady meticulously applies red lipstick, she isn’t preparing for some kind of romantic intrigue - she’s going to a public fistfight with another girl. Her lipstick isnt a symbol of sexual attractiveness -- or at any rate, its not only that. It’s war paint. The suggestion is that women’s appearances are important, but not in the way that we've all been told. 

The way women look, of course, is still inescapably fraught - each choice has a potential consequence. Vic stumbles through this process - between expressive femininity and binding down her breasts to wear baggy clothes. But the latter transformation has reasons, too; we see how ‘feminine’ women are treated much of the time. At sixteen, trying different identities on for size is par for the course. But in Vic's environment, it can take on a risky dynamic. 

What's crucial is that even when Vic gets it wrong, she does it on her own terms completely. Early on in the film, a poised Lady tells Vic, 'Repeat after me: I do what I want.' And Vic takes the advice wholeheartedly. She's nobody's victim. Girlhood recognises and celebrates what Plath saw as the inherent tenderness in women's friendships; but Sciamma also sees their ability to support and galvanise female strength. It's this strength - a certain steely resolve - that is breathlessly empowering to watch.


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