You might think of French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s remarkable 2014 film Girlhood as a portrait, one that captures the likeness of a girl, not in stasis but unfolding in time and space to underscore the fact that growing into a gendered being is process, flux, drift, and, on occasion, rupture. The film lavishly employs cinema’s essentials – gorgeous cinematography, bold and deliberate colour, electrifying music, and dazzling performances by mostly non-actors – to render 16-year-old Marieme (Karidkia Touré), who lives in a banlieue outside Paris with her mother, younger sister, and older brother, and struggles through a set of vexing circumstances. Her quest is simple: how – with conditions severely limited by race, class, and gender – to build a bridge into adulthood.

The film is structured as a series of episodes in Marieme’s life as the girl’s sense of self shifts and grows while simultaneously being hemmed in by the male characters around her. We begin on a football field in slow motion as Sciamma intentionally skews gender roles, rousing a sense of awe before slamming it back down like a spiked ball, raucous joy reduced to timid whisper. From here, we move with Marieme, keeping pace with the girl’s implacable gait as she strides through the spaces around her; we often track from behind as she walks, and then flip to the opposite view to see her as she approaches, shuttling between perspectives but forever sensing her propulsive desire to keep moving.

When she’s told her grades aren’t good enough to move forward in school, Marieme drops out and connects with three other girls; a girl gang needing a fourth member. But if you think this is a movie about Black girls wreaking violent havoc, remember that this is Sciamma, a director known for her obsession both with coming-of-age stories and the struggles of the marginalized as seen in her two prior films, Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies,2007) and Tomboy (2011), both delicate portraits themselves. Refusing the conventions suggested by the gang movie genre, Sciamma veers toward the celebratory, framing Marieme – who changes her name to “Vic” (for Victory) – against wide washes of blue and green, her young face square in the middle of the wide expanse of the CinemaScope screen. Sciamma wants us to see this beautiful face, and to see it big, the world behind nothing but blur.

And the girl gang? They’re a delight! Led by the bad ass Lady (Assa Sylla), with Fily (Mariétou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) adding muscle or humour as needed, the gang of girls shoplifts cute dresses, brawls with other gangs, and parties, but all the genre cues are ignored. Instead of marauding around town, the girls like to sing and dance, and the film’s most poignant scenes are when the story stops and the girls break into song, lip-syncing and gyrating. But don’t think this is a musical either! These interludes are designed not to entertain but to demonstrate that being together is as much a part of figuring out who you are as being alone. What does it mean to connect? To defend? To dance together and to love? And ultimately to lose? 

Sciamma also ignores the demands of typical story structure, slipping from segment to segment based on the major transitions in Marieme’s life, with 15-second black segments demarcating shifts from one major moment to the next. There’s no rising action and denouement; instead, things get complicated and then they ease in a pattern more like the breath than climax. Sciamma honours life’s odd rhythms and in doing so, attends to what it feels like to grow and evolve.

The episodic nature of the story is made all the more fluid with the soundtrack created by French electronic musician Para One, dear friend and regular collaborator of Sciamma since film school.d. Indeed, the music serves as a lush soundscape, adding texture and forward motion that beautifully parallels Marieme’s evolution. Some of the most important moments in the film find Marieme alone at night, moving through the city with the music helping us sense her desire to know more, be more, become more. 

If the story structure and music emanate fluidity and change, so too, does the character of Marieme/Vic, who not only boasts two names but looks like several completely different people at various moments in the film. She starts as a big sister with braids, sneakers, and jeans; morphs into a bad girl with a biker’s jacket and long, straight hair; then a blonde beauty in a slinky red dress; and finally embodies a butch persona in baggy sweatshirts and closely braided hair. Karidkia Touré manages these transitions with aplomb, retaining the character’s core while allowing the permutations to enact that sense of inquiry that growing up entails. 

Finally, to add yet one more thing the Sciamma disregards: the male gaze. While we look at many girls in this film, the look at their bodies is not erotic in a way that feels objectifying or oppressive. Further, when Marieme sits in the dark on the bed beside the boy she likes, Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), and says, “Undress,” the energy is intensely, sweetly erotic. He obeys, and we see his torso through her eyes, and the image of her hand on his skin becomes haptic, a felt experience of texture and warmth. Marieme stands up and her body, a dark shape in a dark room, dissects the frame; this view of Ismaël is hers, not ours, and Sciamma cuts to black, the music rising.

Throughout Girlhood, Sciamma eagerly attends to sound and vision, with gorgeous compositions that frame Marieme and her friends in washes of blue, green, and purple. Every shot is carefully composed, every move choreographed, and there’s a sense of delicious excess when the camera makes an extra move, showing off a bit with some visual flourish. For example, in one sequence, we see a hand fall into the frame from the right; the camera tracks across the hand and along the arm in close up, to Marieme’s face in the dark. Her arm moves, and the camera travels back the way it came, to show a hand joining hers. It’s the hand of her sister, Bébé (Simina Soumaré). Is all of this necessary? No! Is it moving, intimate, and lovely? Absolutely. 

Many have wondered why the film was named “Girlhood” in English when its original French title was Bande des Filles, which more literally translates to “band of girls.” There are probably good reasons that relate to marketing, but perhaps the single word points to how girlhood might be wrenched from the conditions that all too often crush it and then remade, by girls with other girls. Sciamma’s film honours girlhood not in its diminished state, but in its state of joy and power, and her celebratory use of cinema’s best assets boldly announces her position. After all, girlhood, in Sciamma’s film, is named victory.

Girlhood (2014, France, 113 mins)

Prod Co: Hold Up Films, Arte France Cinéma, Lilies Films Prod: Rémi Burah, Bénédicte Couvreur, Olivier Père Dir: Céline Sciamma Scr: Céline Sciamma Phot: Crystel Fournier Ed: Julien Lacheray Mus: Para One

Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté, Simina Soumaré

About The Author

Holly Willis is the co-chair of the Media Arts + Practice division in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is a co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine, dedicated to independent film, and served as the editor of RES magazine and co-curator of RESFEST for several years. Her books include Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving ImageI. She writes frequently about experimental film, video and new media for various publications.

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