Film

What Does It Matter if You're a Girl or a Boy? 'Tomboy'

As the sisters come to see that dresses and haircuts and behaviors are a means to create a self, to communicate with others, Tomboy doesn't offer an easy answer; instead, it lets you wonder why gender must be so definitive.


Tomboy

Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Zoé Héran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Matthieu Demy,Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Laine, Ryan Boubekri
Rated: NR
Studio: Dada Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-16 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-09-16 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) likes pink. She's six years old: her bedroom is painted pink, her bedspread is pink, and she wears a pink tutu when she practices her ballet lessons. As she steps and twirls, the camera in Tomboy observes her closely, her face composed, each foot carefully placed.

Jeanne's ten-year-old sister Laure Michaël (Zoé Héran) prefers blue. When their family moves into an apartment in the Marne valley, outside Paris, Laure's mother (Sophie Cattani) is eager to know whether she's pleased with her own new bedroom, painted blue, "just the way you wanted." It's summertime, so the girls are left to find their way around their neighborhood, without the framework of school, the structure that offers a schedule, a community, and an identity.

Premiering this week at New York's Film Forum, Céline Sciamma's film presents the sisters' changed situation with the kinds of details hat will be familiar: as their mother and father (Mathieu Demy) chat in the kitchen, concerning their own schedules, who will be home when, the camera's low, taking the girls' perspective. Their mother's belly is large, as she's pregnant with a boy: they see mom smiling and excited, remarking the baby's movements. When she rests on the sofa, apparently instructed by the doctor to stay home and rest, Laure leans in to whisper to her little brother. "What are you telling him?" Laure's mother asks. "A secret," she says. Her mother smiles, "I hope he'll tell me."

As Laure ventures outside, she meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who sees her short haircut and t-shirt and assumes she's a boy. Laure plays along, telling her new friend that her name is Michaël. It's this secret, unintentional and innocent and still rather thrilling, that shapes Laure's experience for the next few weeks. Lisa invites her -- as Michaël -- to meet her friends. As Lisa watches Michaël play soccer or otherwise joke with the other boys, her face reveals her admiration. He's cute, this new boy, sweet and also tough, willing to take a bump and plainly pleased that she's looking.

Laure can't anticipate how complicated her secret will become, that she won't be able to bring Lisa home to meet her parents or tell Jeanne where she's gone during the day. It's not long, of course, until Jeanne deciphers what's going on: when Lisa stops by one day while Laure's away, Jeanne takes up the game without worries, telling the visitor that Michaël's not home, but she'll tell him she's stopped by. When Jeanne does just that, Laure's suddenly stricken by any number of realizations, none of which she can quite articulate: she presses her sister against the wall, her hand hard on Jeanne's mouth. She relents as a way to keep he secret, inviting Jeanne along to meet the other kids, so long as she promises not to tell their parents.

As the sisters play and laugh with their new friends, again the camera keeps low and close: they're children, it's summer, and there's no end of games to conjure. Jeanne, who suggests she wants to be a hairdresser when she grows up -- after she's a ballerina, perhaps -- agrees to cut her sister's hair. They shut the door in the bathroom and stare intently into the mirror, as Laure cautions her not to cut it too short, or their mother will notice. When Laure takes up a lock of her hair as a mustache, the girls laugh together, her imitation of a man charming and silly and derived from years of mass media images.

With moments such as these, the film considers why gender identities are formed -- by imitation, by curiosity, by accident. As her father dotes on his oldest daughter, letting her steer the car on his lap or offering her a sip of beer while they play cards, Laure's face reveals her pleasure at his approval. And as her mother delights in Laure's new look, when she comes home with makeup on her face -- following an afternoon at Lisa's home, where they "play girls", and Lisa smears her cheeks with rouge and applies lipstick -- Laure is yet inclined to like boys' clothes, to feel an unusual and agreeable freedom when she can take off her shirt while she's playing soccer with the other boys on a hot afternoon. And when Lisa offers Michaël a drink from her water bottle, well, the dreamy day is complete.

Laure begins to perceive the elaborations of her deception when Lisa invites her to go swimming with the group. Now she has to sort out not only how to fashion a boy's swimsuit out of her one-piece, but also how to fake a penis. Not a little ingeniously, she fashions an ump out of Jeanne's playdough, aware that the ruse must be waterproof. When she passes this test, it's as if she can do anything. Until she can't.

As the film leads to the inevitable revelation and upset of the idyll, it keeps focused on Laure and Jeanne's perspectives. Both are horrified and even frightened by the extent of their mother's initial upset, and neither is quite prepared to own up to her part in the performance. As they do come to see, however naively, that dresses and haircuts and behaviors are a means to create a self, to communicate with others, they don't tell one another what they're feeling, and the film doesn’t provide some explanatory narration, a kind of look-back to help you sort out what you're watching.

Instead, it lets you ponder. What does it mean to be a girl, now? How do mothers and fathers sort out their responsibilities in shaping a gendered child? How is a ten-year-old girl like or different from her six-year-old sister? How do your friends assess you as a girl or a boy and why does it matter that you are one or the other? How does kissing or flirting or fighting shape how you feel about yourself or how someone else feels about you? And how do your feelings intersect with anyone else's? Why does it matter that you assume and act out a single gender, when you're ten? It's a terrific set of questions. And Tomboy lets you imagine your own answers.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image