“I never saw a film before with black actresses in France. When I was little I wasn’t interested in watching French movies because I couldn’t really recognize myself in them…couldn’t relate to them.”
The best thing about GIRLHOOD is that it’s not what you’re expecting. There’s no room for gritty, ugly, realist regurgitation in Céline Sciamma’s coming of age drama about banlieue France (her third in this genre, and her absolute last, apparently). The characters, plucked from the street in an intense 300-girl, 4-month casting stint, are not simply projections of their street-savvy selves. The ‘bande des filles’ were selected for their ability to act and desire to project characters, the director insists, emphasizing that GIRLHOOD is a piece of fiction first and foremost that uses all of the beautiful tools that cinema has to offer. It’s not a documentary hybrid: it’s giving the Parisian marginalized youth a new face, and the face happens to be black.
‘Vic had to be a blank page, because she is several characters’, says Céline of her leading lady, played by Karidja Touré, who sits shyly next to her director looking every bit as gorgeous as she does in the movie we’ve just seen. ‘Karidja was the only one of all the girls we saw who didn’t try to show me who she was, how she spoke. She tried to perform – she already wanted to be somebody else.’
Authenticity – something we as an audience demand of our actors – rests on this paradoxical contradiction: their emotions must be really evoked and spilt out for us to judge but they are performing the part of a character who is not real. They have to make us believe the lie by forcing themselves to believe it too, reacting emotionally as the character they embody would. There was a strong sense of understanding between Céline and Karidja that this was what set GIRLHOOD apart from other urban coming of age dramas in France: they were making a statement that a film about a marginalized group can be as stylish and cinematic and embellished as any other, not needing to fit into the stereotypical cinema vérité look in order to be truthful and insightful. Social groups are not bound by certain styles or certain stories – or at least, not anymore. It is a bold, defiant step, and one that’s received not only critical acclaim but commercial success throughout the country.
Following Marieme make the transition to ‘Vic’ (short for Victory, written in gold in the chain around her neck) when she becomes part of a suburban girl crew led by ‘Lady’, along with Adiatou and Fily, GIRLHOOD is a classical story about growing pains. From being chucked out of school to navigating male-dominated public spaces to falling in love and struggling with aggressive paternalism at home, the perspective is distinctly Girl, in an environment distinctly influenced by the French projects of the 60’s built for immigrants, for whom the Utopian myth was quickly dispelled. “They were meant to be islands with bridges between them. But all the bridges were soon burnt,” says Céline. Perhaps this purveying sense of isolation is what makes moments of intimacy, in the girl group and between Vic and her boyfriend Djibril (Cyril Mendy), so energizing to watch.
“The movie resists the aesthetic that is set for it. It’s cinema, and we should use all the tools of cinema, like the score, and Rihanna. We should make it big.”
It is the universal truth acknowledged by women that when a Rihanna or Beyonce anthem comes on in da club, you throw caution to the wind and let the lyrics fill you up with confidence and liberty. The moment is a religious experience akin to a Maori tribe doing a rain dance. In the first hotel scene when Lady began singing directly into the camera, embodying Rihanna from head to toe in her freshly shoplifted evening dress, and is joined by the others as they belt out the entire song, there was ripple of gleeful, knowing laughter around the cinema: yes, we’ve all done that. It feels awesome. Why has no one put that in a film before?
As Céline explains, GIRLHOOD is about centering the female experience, which is usually pushed to the margins: “Mainly because all the films are made by men.” She wanted to re-engage the youth of today and put a contemporary face to a universal, classical story. “It has both social virtue and cinematic virtue. I was betting on the fact (and the figures show she was 100% right) that strong storytelling can make us identify with anyone.”
The film is every bit as feisty as the filmmaker, who at one point gets so riled up she apologises for “getting communist here.” These women are strong, complex, conflicted, conniving, caring – everything that makes their journey’s interesting to watch. At times they are violent and territorial. An audience member suggests that Céline has dimmed down the violence slightly, having expected, from her experience as a school teacher, to see a bit of weave pulling…
“There could have been more violence, there could have been less. What mattered to me was that there was contrast. I wanted them to be layered. They speak slang, but also perfect pure French. They can be loud; melancholic; lonely; childish; mature. I think movies about ‘youth’ often show this exotic world we can’t understand, coded with tribes like goths and skaters, but this is an old way to look young people. Women can be fighters – we just don’t want them to know it. They are shown as hysterical and not political.”
And the usually male-monopolized attributes don’t stop there. Céline’s girls aren’t only violent, they are horny. In an intimate moment between Vic and Djibril, we see all stereotypical boy-girl-sex-scene tropes thrown out the window when Vic is the one who commands him, telling him to undress and turn over as she looms over him. She pulls back the covers and his naked, curvaceous body is fully sexualised. “When do you see that?” Asks Céline. “Girls love men, they love their bodies, they love their arses, and they just want to look at them.” Never a truer word I heard.
Cruising on the ever-expanding success of the film, Karidja wants to fly the flag for black actresses in her home country now that it’s been a full year since GIRLHOOD premiered at Cannes Film Festival, as well as maybe checking out what Hollywood has to offer her. “I love slave movies like SELMA and 12 YEARS A SLAVE so I’d love to go that way.” And as for Céline? “I’m becoming an alcoholic.”
GIRLHOOD is finally having a UK release on the 8th May. Happy days!