'Girlhood' Is Céline Sciamma's Lovely Reflection on Growing Up

by Mary Clare Durel

17 December 2015

Pulsing with reds and blues, the film shows that fluidity and discovery are not the same as freedom.
 
cover art

Girlhood (Bande de filles)

Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté, Simina Soumaré, Dielika Coulibaly, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye

(Strand Releasing)
US theatrical: 30 Jan 2015 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 8 May 2015 (General release)
2014

Showing up on year-end lists and best-of discussions during this awards season, Girlhood tells the story of 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) as she makes the transition from girlhood into womanhood in a rough neighborhood just outside Paris. She makes this transition as she meets new friends, a theme introduced in an opening sequence that shows two all-female football teams dressed in uniforms and helmets, so that they are, at first, hard to recognize as girls.

The scene’s slow motion resembles American football highlights, as the girls do battle, running and tackling and catching the ball. When the game is over, one line of jerseys crosses the other as the opposing teams, smiling hugely, give each other high-fives. As the colors of the jerseys mix, we sense the camaraderie of these young women, as well as the sense of community and order those official uniforms convey.

As the players emerge into the night in their street clothes, they form a large, happy, noisy phalanx. That they grow quiet as they pass by a group of silhouetted boys reminds us that this community is at risk when outside the stadium.

It’s not long before Marieme runs into another kind of trouble, when she learns she’ll be unable to move on to high school, advised instead to take vocational classes. She leaves the school, tracked by the camera as she does her best not to look ahead. Here Marieme happens on another option; she’s invited to join a crew of girls.

Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré) are charismatic and tempting. They’re affiliated with the good-looking Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), on whom Marieme has a bit of a crush. Her choice to join the girls, an alternative to the bleak future described by her counselor, is conveyed in an image that recalls the football team: the girls move together toward the camera, confident and sauntering.

Still, the choice to join is not simple. That evening, Marieme pauses in the middle of dishwashing at home, then pockets a knife that resembles one she’s seen Lady holding. Here the soundtrack music rises and quickens and the camera slowly backs away from Marieme. We see her back haloed in kitchen light, her determined figure surrounded with mundane kitchen appliances. We don’t need to see her face to understand that she’s transformed, at least for now.

This images serves as a transition, from the kitchen to the outside world, from familiar obligations to new rebellions. Not all of these transitions work out well.

Instead of the organized sports match, Marieme now finds herself on one side of an all-female gang fight. There are no uniforms, no clear markers to distinguish one side from the other; we only see a crowd of street-fashionable women surround Lady and her competitor as they fight. This is a real fight: anything goes, and the loser leaves shirtless and angry.

The difference between this girls’ society and the more plainly supportive group led by Lady indicates how Marieme’s options are changing. But even out of school, Marieme is finding that individual expression is difficult, as she’s pressed to conform to others’ expectations repeatedly.

Light and color in Girlhood accentuate Marieme’s choices and limitations. From the football match through her time with Lady’s crew, her romance with Ismaël, and her struggle to raise her two little sisters under the same roof with the violently inclined Djibril, Marieme appears again and again in blue light and blue costumes. The black nights are filtered through with blue tones; the dress she wears to her hotel room party with Lady, Adiatou, and Fily is a brilliant cobalt.

Further, this intimate party is bathed in blue light, as the four girls as they dance to Rihanna’s “Diamond”, a scene at once dreamy and thrilling. Several blackouts throughout the film come back view with a blue screen cut in half visually: a shot of blue elevator doors in one case, and a close-up on Marieme’s blue zip-up sweatshirt in another.

This cool shade suggests a sense of calmness and steadiness, denoting Marieme’s emerging, if intermittent, self-assurance. It can also convey melancholy, reflecting her stressful home life, her difficulties with school, her unwillingness to lose out on an education by attending tech school. It also frames her initial failure in wooing Ismaël (as he notes his friendship with her brutal brother) and even her slowly fading self-image as the new girl or perpetual outsider.

Once Marieme begins to take on a more dominant role, initiating fights with other gangs, seducing Ismaël, and leaving home to get paid by a drug dealer, the blues give way to ambers and reds. She stalks through a party in a vivid scarlet dress, her black hair hidden beneath a blond wig.

When she’s not performing to make a deal, she prefers to keep her hair short and braided, replacing her tight-fitting clothes with baggy shirts, and binding her chest. Here, too, she explores a range of sexual possibilities and attractions, finding her desires to be fluid, focused on both men and women.

Fluidity and discovery are not the same as freedom, though, as the film reveals Marieme’s struggles in particular against men’s expectations and presumptions of ownership. This realization is visible in images of Marieme dressing up as a kind of hyper-girl to sell drugs. It’s also audible, as swelling violins and reeds punctuate scenes where Marieme makes a new choice, ascending notes that seem like a call to adventure. But again, none of these calls lead quite where Marieme or we might expect, and she must rethink and adjust to the unexpected.

Sciamma’s film insists on the multiple layers and complications of girlhood, the frustrations and excitements, the steps forward and back. It also makes clear the beauty of the moments and movements that matter.

Girlhood (Bande de filles)

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