Belonging to a tradition of French cinema, Bande de filles (Céline Sciamma, 2014) continues that tradition’s fine balance between documentary-like realism and narrative drama. In this case, teenager Marieme (Karidja Touré) lives in one of Paris’ poorest suburbs, a neighbourhood of concrete tower blocks; the drama of her life unfolding in spaces like stairwells, foyers, and public squares. Her home is a cramped flat that she shares with her two younger sisters and an abusive older brother, who stands in as head of the household while their mother works, which appears to be most of the time. Like so many stories of disadvantage, we see Marieme’s world from her perspective. Touré’s watchful gaze, constantly observing the ways of the world, is present in almost every scene. There’s the look of indignation when the school leader rejects her plea to enter high school. The look of curiosity as she studies her new friends, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), strutting their way through Parisian shopping malls. The crumpled look of despair after her brother strikes and shames her for having sex with a local boy. But in this film of self-determination, there are plenty of moments of action too. Sciamma presents Marieme as strong-willed and fiercely driven to not only survive but also carve out her own destiny and fulfil her desires.
Within this context of self-determination, pop music is vital for Marieme and her friends. It’s a vehicle for bold and joyful self-expression. One of Bande de filles’ most memorable scenes takes place in a Parisian hotel room that Marieme and her friends, the gang of girls, have booked for the night. It’s a heady evening of female-defined frivolity: dress-ups, soothing baths, alcohol, drugs and howls of laughter. All of a sudden, a bare wall soaked in midnight blue stops the narrative. Lady steps into the frame, in close-up. We hear a piano chord followed by Rhiannon’s unmistakeable refrain “Shine Bright like a Diamond”, then Lady lip-synching to the song. Marieme looks on as her gang sing and dance to Rhiannon’s anthem of glorified, unbridled release and ecstasy, conveyed in bittersweet tones of crippling emotion. At first, Marieme looks on with amusement but then promptly joins her friends, also losing herself in the song. Unsurprisingly, Sciamma revealed in an interview that this scene first came to her in a dream. Pop music has that unique ability to express the deepest desires. Marieme and her friends, survivors in a hostile world, enter a subliminal moment of joy and freedom. The tenor of Rhiannon’s voice – bold, fiery, strident – matches the girls’ own attitude. Throughout the film, they’re dominant forces to reckon with; they fight, both literally and metaphorically, to dominate the social landscape of their hostile environment. Through Rhiannon’s song, the girls express their fantasies of total and unfettered glory.
Though the sequence can be interpreted as one of collective sisterhood, the gang of girls’ unison, far from an enduring force, fizzles a few scenes later once Marieme faces a new set of challenges and is forced to leave home and fend for herself. Bande de filles ends on a note of ambiguity and uncertainty. Marieme’s future is unwritten. But for a brief moment, Marieme and her sisters transcend the constraints of their lives – patriarchal domination and social and economic disadvantage – as their spirits soar to the mystery, force and beauty of a pop song.