Girlhood (2014)

Review first published in a shorter version by Little White Lies

Wearing a chain necklace bearing her new street name ‘Vic’, 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré), together with three fellow gang members, is in a hired hotel room, in a stolen dress (with the security tags still attached), dancing with borrowed moves and lip syncing in a language not her own to someone else’s song (Rihanna’s Diamond). All this appropriation is less a mark of inauthenticity than of the aspirations and ambitions of young black French women unable to find what they crave from within their own immediate environment. Indeed, their need to look outwards for forms of self-expression is reflected in the fact than no other French film before Girlhood has ever focused on the experience of black girls.

Even as 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) enjoys this snatched moment with her friends – and ignores the incoming phone call from patriarchal older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy) – she knows that her bubble of happiness will soon be burst by reality, and that the injunction of gang leader Lady (Asa Sylla) to “do what you want” is not so easily fulfilled. The truth is that Marieme can rarely do what she wants. Near the beginning of Girlhood her pleas to go on to high school are rejected by a teacher. She cannot openly see her boyfriend Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté) without incurring Djibril’s violent disapproval. In the banlieue her prospects seem restricted to maternity and the long-hours, low-pay employment of her own mother (Binta Diop), or being prostituted by local gangster Abou (Djibril Gueye). To be accepted as ‘one of the boys’, she must disguise her own sexuality. Only in the company of other girls, whether the American football team with which the film opens or the gang that she later joins, can she find something like solidarity and liberation – although she will end up facing her future alone.

‘Group of girls’, ‘girl gang’, even the more disparaging ‘bunch of girls’ – these are all possible translations of Bande de Filles, the original French title of Céline Sciamma’s latest exploration of female adolescence following her Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). The international title may have been chosen because of its similarity to Boyhood (2014), but in truth Sciamma’s film complements Linklater’s as much for its stark differences as for any similarities. It is a fly-on-the-wall, over-the-shoulder exposé of life for young women (played by first-time actors) in a very specific ethnic and cultural milieu, and yet its realism is offset by a stylised structure in which the number four keeps recurring: four girls in the gang, several key scenes taking place under the sign of Les Quatre Temps in Paris’ La Défense district, and the film itself being divided (by interstitial fades-to-black) into four parts. It is four steps to freedom, as Marieme, at each stage on her journey towards independence, cuts another tie to her past, with defiance and determination her only bulwarks against highly circumscribed Parisian prospects.

Anticipation: Loved Tomboy.

Enjoyment: Female coming of age in a male-dominated world.

In Retrospect: Sciamma’s gendered rites of passage are a bittersweet triumph.

© Anton Bitel