Saturday, May 30, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

Girlhood. The very title is more than any movie could handle, and being brandished with such a huge name would speak to the very complexities that girls go through as they reach womanhood, and the difficulties of portraying that in a film. The idea of a universal girlhood is a misnomer as no such thing exists. Girlhood is then chiseled down into something singular. Girlhood is what you make it. Girlhood is a film about one teenage girl growing up, but the connotations of her narrative speak to the type of movie that isn't as easy to pin down as an exhibition of sisterhood, as Vic's tale is more important than the relationship she has with her friends along the way. Bande de Filles is then a misleading title as Bande de Filles turns into the story of Vic, but it was always only about her, even with diamonds by her side through much of it.

Celine Sciamma's film is a portrait of a young girl fumbling through adolescence without a lot of options. Marieme (soon to be redubbed Vic by her friends) is refused the chance to retry the last year of schooling she failed, her home life is constricting to her internal sense of freedom, and she doesn't appear to have any sort of connection with anyone except her younger sisters, and a rocky relationship with her brother. That all changes when she befriends a group of girls who give her life a spark, and some sort of meaning. She gains confidence through the group's overall strength and eventually starts to find her footing. It isn't perfect, but then what life is? The group engages in petty crime and sometimes fighting, but it's all through the guise of youth. These tools have always been extensions of films about white characters, but in the hands of characters who aren't white there's often this sense of concern trolling over where their lives are headed (in Hollywood this often means the inclusion of a white saviour, even though the white saviours kids participate in the same kind of victimless crime, look to Dazied and Confused and Boyhood for similar instances of Adolescent Crime), and it's refreshing to see Sciamma giver Vic the space to explore her age and her choices.

In one transcendent scene Vic reaches the apex of her teenage years, and finds an identity through her friends and a song. That song is "Diamonds" by Rhianna. Sciamma frames the sequence in close up shots of her friends respectively, and doused in shimmering blue (the films colour palette is extremely strong). They begin lip singing to the track in the dresses they just took from a department store. In this one moment the entire world takes a back seat to a singular emotion and the film itself also becomes secondary to the song that it cuts a hole through everything, movie included. It's the sort of thing that sounds regular on paper...."And then the girls sing a song together", but when treated as the single most happy moment of growing up it becomes something else entirely. In a moment of finality Sciamma takes the close up angle away from her friends and onto Vic's face as she contemplates letting herself go completely and singing along to Rhianna with her friends. She decides to join in, and in doing so closed one chapter of her life and opened another. When the moment ends the film struggles to gain back that momentum, but it speaks to the importance of seemingly small moments being the most memorable in growing up.

Girlhood's narrative feels so fresh, and Sciamma's confident filmmaking are joys to watch, but despite remaining fascinating throughout Girlhood struggles to maintain consistency When the film takes a steep right turn in act three and becomes a narrative of personhood and choice after she sheds her gang of friends to move forward with her life the movie seems to be confused of where to go. This could partially be seen as an unsureness on Vic's part, but I think it has more to do with Sciamma having 2 parts of 2 separate films. On it's own the third act, which cycles back into Sciamma's queering of gender (See chest binding above & which relates to gendered presentation in Tomboy) is strong, but within the context of the first two acts there's a real struggle to find it's footing once more. That isn't to say that the final 20 minutes aren't worthwhile, because they absolutely are, but there's an aimlessness that makes the final third feel more plodding than it should. Which is a shame, because Sciamma is entering into  Fassbinder territory by way of her own applications of gender that are really interesting. Vic's hyperfemininity in her new job, the rejection of said hyper-femininity in favour of masculine presentation in her home life, and the possibly queer relationship between her and another girl are all threads left stranded that could have been made more interesting if she gets to this segment of the film a little quicker.

More cinema like this should exist, because it's unfair to be burdened with the weight of an entire group of people to deliver something resonant. We don't often ask that question of films about White, Straight, Cis Men, because they've been given the chance to be everything they could possibly be in cinema. Those same opportunities haven't been granted to other kinds of people. Girlhood isn't a perfect movie. It's far too shaky in it's delivery to be given the highest of accolades, but it's very good. If cinema is to reach it's truest heights then Girlhood needs to be bested time and time again. Cinema humanizes in a way that is like none other. It makes the different relatable, and gives life to those without a voice, but those voices must first be heard. Hopefully Girlhood will be the first in a trend instead of an outlier in a sea of adolescent pictures of white boys. Who knows, maybe even one of those hypothetical films about a black girl will have her become a boring photographer heading off to college, and we'll all call it a universal masterpiece. I hope cinema gets there.

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