Uninteresting filmmaking but accomplished drama.
Céline Sciamma makes sensitive, patient dramas constructed mainly out of handheld tracking shots, three-quarter profile close-ups, symmetrical two-shots and establishing wide-shots. Her framing tends to be simple but effective; HD compositions shot with a low-depth-of-field that transforms backgrounds into hazy blocks of colour. She favours a subtly elliptical approach to scene building and her sound mixing heightens ambient noise to the same level as dialogue, or only a little quieter. Her qualities are considerable: a desire to tackle generally marginalized subject matter; an openness to communicate emotional beats through actions and facial expressions rather than explicating dialogue; psychologically astute, even-handed, and empathetic writing; an ability to create genuinely complex female characters and then allow them to achieve self-actualization by means other than finding the right dude and starting a family.
Despite all this, Sciamma remains a good filmmaker rather than a great one, because her films never delve into particularly surprising emotional or aesthetic territory. They all neatly fit a particular strand of festival features that approximate a comfortable sort of quasi-naturalist visual immediacy while still being tied to very conventional, shop-worn ideas about pacing, framing and cutting. Like Sciamma’s two previous films – Water Lillies and Tomboy – Girlhood is the story of a teenage girl trying to carve out an individual identity in a world where others try to determine her social role for her. 16-year-old Marieme lives in a Paris housing project with her single mother, authoritarian elder brother and two younger sisters. Consumed with frustration after being informed that her grades are too low to allow her to enter further education and she’ll instead have to begin learning a practical vocation, she joins a gang of local tough girls, who usher her into a life of petty crime, which mostly consists of some minor shoplifting, street fighting and verbally harassing kids even lower down on the social ladder than they are.
The film is a portrayal of adolescent group dynamics – the four girls create an alternate self-contained world with its own rules, their abrasive instincts a necessary reaction to a social milieu so hostile towards them. For Marieme, being part of the gang allows her, for the first time, to create an identity for herself rather than have one forced upon her, even if the one she adopts is a disingenuous, approximated front studiously designed to shield her from emotional pain. Like most showy, anti-establishment figures that maladjusted young people cling to as a way of self-justifying their own aloofness, Lady’s philosophy is pretty shallow. Notably, she places a large emphasis on appearances, and because her persona is mostly based on a string of outfits, poses and sound-bites, it’s very fragile. Lady and Marieme’s relationship is built on a delicate mixture of genuine affection and mutual selfishness – Lady uses the idolizing Marieme as a source of narcissistic supply and Marieme is using Lady as an empowering behavioural model.
Orbiting Marieme is a downright Lars Von Trier-esque string of supporting characters who have internalized – some consciously, some not – a patriarchal system of thought and thus try to subjugate her in various different ways, physically and emotionally. Foremost amongst these are her obsessively over-protective brother, who is determined to keep her stunted so he never has his “pure” image of her tarnished, and her boyfriend, who practices a subtler and more self-deluding variety of sexism which ultimately culminates in a condescending offer to “save” her from the criminal underworld she’s entered by making her his wife.
For Marieme, surviving in this environment requires her to constantly re-invent herself and slip into different roles depending on the situation – fitting subject matter for a filmmaker who’s always perceived gender roles as fluid. It’s a powerful idea, and resonates even as the narrative grows increasingly contrived in a way incongruous to the previously established sense of low-key realism. As for Marieme’s internal trajectory more or less fits the typical coming-of-age mould; a process of gradually taking on the useful traits from the gang while rejecting the most toxic. None of this is particularly interesting filmmaking, but it is, for the most part, pretty accomplished drama.
Girlhood (2014), directed by Céline Sciamma, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.