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.