I’ve found myself banging on about gender a lot this year. It has become my critical preoccupation of late. It’s not a queer thing. It is not a feminist thing. It is an intersection of the two (which is good because intersectionality is where it’s at at the moment).
I find myself getting angrier and angrier every time I see normative gender rigidly represented on screen. I don’t imagine it is any surprise that a film titled Girlhood (at least in English, Bande de Filles in its original French) deals directly with gender representation, oppression and expression. It made me angry. Not because of how it deals with gender, but with how its audience dealt with how it deals with gender.
Céline Sciamma’s third feature courts these discomforting reactions openly. It is a film very much aware of the many eyes that will come to fixate on it. Young eyes. Old eyes. Black eyes. White eyes. French. Foreign. Rich eyes. Poor eyes. Straight, queer and questioning eyes. Conforming eyes. Non-conforming eyes. Male eyes. Female eyes. Eyes looking from souls of genders they weren’t assigned at birth. Eyes that have never second-guessed their own existence. And yet, its outlook is very much its own.
Girlhood opens a window on the life of Vic (Karidja Touré), a young African-French girl living with her mother, brother and two younger sisters in Paris’ high rise fringe. If you are not a young African-French girl from the outskirts of Paris, this is a world you will never have seen. If you are a young African-French girl from the outskirts of Paris, this is a world you will never have seen on the big screen. At least not with such empowering centrality. Not with this eloquent beauty. Not with this unbridled and joyous camaraderie.
Vic’s story is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of a world that cinema rarely explores. When she ventures into Paris with the girlfriends who have (a little brutishly) taken her under their wing, we see the city from a different viewpoint. Even correcting for Sciamma’s exceptional eye for colour and motion (not to mention her ear for music, which here provokes a beautiful sense of mounting hope thanks to the electronic score of Jean-Baptiste de Laubier a.k.a. Para One), Vic’s Paris is a wondrously vibrant, enticingly dangerous playground.
Left to their own devices, the girls carve out their own territory and within it they thrive. The female-only spaces of Girlhood become arenas in which they can flourish (be they sports grounds or hotel-room dance parties) and their private ecstasies encapsulate the fulfilment of the girls’ potential; the kind of creativity, freedom and happiness they can express only in isolation.
The topology of femininity that Sciamma presents here is one of the most fascinating aspects of Girlhood. As a writer and a director, Sciamma has dealt at length with the place of young girls within society, yet here she extends her purview. She forcefully engages with how violently girlhood collides with pubescent manhood and how both gender and cultural expectation corrupt and control burgeoning womanhood at every turn. It is a concept she throws up at the very beginning of the film, cutting through the humming afterglow of the glorious gender-fucking gridiron opening, silencing it in a moment. As soon as a man steps within earshot, the mood changes. Hearts sink, eyes lower, shoulders hunch.
This is the other girlhood, the girlhood that exists in joint spaces is embattled, armoured, warped to conform to (and confirm) male exertions. This is something that Sciamma presents with painful frankness in a rare moment of recognition from Vic’s till-now violent brother. He’s seen a video of her physically de-bra’ing a rival gang leader and in a gesture of acceptance, he shares a game of FIFA with her. The only way Vic can stem the violence in her own home is to take on violence outside of it. It had me in tears. The audience around me laughed. Such is the power of the paradigm of masculine violence.
It is a perversity of interaction that cuts both ways. Just as Vic is slowly but surely pressured into its grip, so are the others around her. Outside of Vic’s time with her girlfriends, her most tender contact is with a young boy, a friend of her brother’s from the same housing estate. Together, alone, free of the smothering gender-judgement of the steps outside, the two explore each other’s selves intimately. They assure each other they will not succumb to the hardening environment outside their bedroom. Together, girl and boy, they can soften their distinctions.
Such tenderness is fleeting. For both of them, living in the space between men, navigating their competing needs takes its toll. And while he is assured his entrée into that world by nature of his birth, Vic’s journey only becomes more fraught. Running from her brother and, for needs, her friends, she starts a new life away from her family.
This final act, which in many ways exists as an extended coda to Vic’s journey to self-reliance, has been viewed by many as an unnecessary extension to Girlhood‘s completed, though somewhat anticipatory, developmental arc. Indeed, Sciamma’s introduction of a brace of new potentials to Vic’s expression of gender, through her loves, through her clothes, through her overt identification, reads as opportunistic to those comfortable with the accepted options. Yet Sciamma challenges this, as she did in both her previous films, most explicitly in her debut, Tomboy. Vic’s impending triumph over not only her social situation but over binary gender expectations as a whole, and it is all that much more powerful for it.
This will be challenging for some but it is my sincere hope that every set of eyes that encounters Girlhood will see it for what it is. Something wondrously beautiful, and rarely seen on the screen. A brilliant spark of life that has been cupped in the creative hands of a socially-intuitive, visually-acute director and allowed to shine, multi-faceted through layer upon layer upon layer of an oppressive reality.
Some eyes will drink it in with the thirst of years of representational drought. Others will need to peer a little harder, maybe even lift their cultural shades a touch. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this one shines as bright as any diamond.
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