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William Ghosh


Director: Céline Sciamma
France, 2015.

It would be a stretch to suggest that Bande de filles – the French language title of Girlhood – could plausibly be translated as ‘girl group’ (in the sense of Sugababes or All Saints). But the best and most discussed moment of the film is, in essence, a music video. Marieme (Karidja Touré) has followed her new friends Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré) from their own quartier to a hotel room in a slightly-less-distant suburb of Paris. The girls – sixteen or seventeen years old – eat takeaway pizza, pour rum into fifty-centilitre Coke bottles, and try on new dresses, security tags attached, presumably lifted from the local mall. Then the screen blacks out, and in the next frame the light is different – silver-blue – and the face of Lady, the leader of the group, appears in extravagant make-up, lip-syncing to Rihanna’s Diamonds. As Fily and Adiatou join Lady, the camera cuts from time to time to Marieme, watching from the bed, herself seen in the normal ‘diegetic’ colours of the bedroom, but seeing her new friends – evidently – as superstars: “diamonds in the sky.”

Much of the film’s reception has centred on the issue of representation. “The film allowed the faces of four young black women to be everywhere,” claims director Céline Sciamma: “in the streets of Paris, on billboards, in the subway.” It’s elevation to billboard status is a happy irony for a film so interested in the idea of celebrity, of visibility, even if that recognition is limited to a small part of a vast suburb. This is not new territory for Sciamma, whose debut feature Water Lilies (2007) – set in a less poor, though equally bland Parisian suburb – framed Adele Haenel’s Floriane (captain of the synchronized swimming team at the local pool) in the same aestheticized, elevating way.

Perhaps better known in the UK is Sciamma’s second film, Tomboy (2011), a work which pared back the ostentatious formalism, the blue-and-green swimming-pool interiors of Water Lilies in favour of the harsh, threatening sunshine: the recreation grounds and scrublands of outer Paris in the summer holidays. Girlhood shares with Tomboy a fascination with the desultory. The two middle quarters of the film follow the gang – nothing to do and no money with which to do it – around the metro stations, the skate-parks, the mini-golf courses of the Parisian sprawl. The reel of mischief, diablerie, wilful aimlessness (the school system wants nothing to do with them) makes compelling and moving viewing. If the film has moments of great visual artistry, its script and narrative architecture is – for the most part – understated.

A governing idea in Sciamma’s oeuvre so far is performance: most famously (as in Tomboy) in the sense of identity-as-performance, identity as constantly in the throes of a painful, effortful realisation. Her characters are, in this sense, kinds of artist – body artists in Don DeLillo’s phrase. This leads to an idea (more prominent in Water Lilies and Girlhood) that adolescent life is lived out and experienced as a series of performances (dances, fights, sexual encounters) which are continuous with and indistinguishable from, artistic performance: television, music videos, Rihanna. Everyone, in all the films, is being watched, judged and rated within atomised, auto-centric suburban neighbourhoods. The loss of dignity – in a fight, or through sex – is devastating and irreversible.

The final act of the film – as Marieme is spotted by local mob boss Abou, and forced to move away from Lady and the group – takes these ideas in a less interesting direction, straying closest to the familiar tropes of melodramatic suburban noir. Despite moments of menace and beauty, the incursion of a more conventional plot jars with the subtle, wandering quality of the earlier sequences and adds little to the film. Half-an-hour longer than both Water Lilies and Tomboy, the film could have been cut at eighty minutes. But that is a minor complaint against a film and a body of work of rare originality and importance. It completes a trilogy of haunting excursions into the lives of girls and teenagers across the variegated landscapes of Parisian suburbia

William Ghosh is a DPhil candidate in English at Exeter College, Oxford.