Girlhood and Céline Sciamma

Posted 30 April 2015 about Girlhood.

Céline Sciamma’s exhilarating third feature film Girlhood has met with unanimous critical and commercial success, its own stars commenting in interview on the personal and cultural thrill of seeing the film posters, featuring a positive image of four young black women, in every town in France.

Girlhood sees Sciamma’s continuing focus on childhood and adolescence – her earlier films centre on female characters who negotiate their identities in the face of dominant social discourses and behaviours around gender and sexuality. This is done through the extreme normalising context of synchronised swimming in Waterlilies and the objections to a young girl’s gender disguise in Tomboy.  Girlhood signals the classical narratives of the coming of age  film in which teenagers  conventionally face the crises of friendship breakdown, first love and loss of virginity but recasts these as challenges to which this gang is more than equal in terms of their solidarity and increasing control over their lives

Sciamma describes her films as ‘machines for changing identity’ and in Girlhood we see the quiet and anxious Marieme transformed over a few intense weeks into the fearless Vic (for victory). As her confidence and agency increases so does the tension and suspense surrounding the potential choices she may make and their consequences – yet these are seen in the context of her complex intelligence not as externally-driven punishments or moral imperatives.

Sciamma’s stylised filmmaking is present here in her use of colour and the fades to black which separate the concentrated bursts of activity in the episodic structure of the film. Physical interaction and energy speak louder than dialogue in the film presenting the body as not only a site of tension and choice but of pleasure, exuberance and strength.

The French title 'Bande de Filles' suggests ‘girl gang’ thus, whilst Girlhood can be considered in relation to Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ (the central character transforms over 40 days rather than 12 years) it suggests rather the ‘hood' of the Parisian banlieue or outer-city  in which the film is set.  Indeed much of the film’s power resides in the assertion that the story of a 16 year-old black woman, Marieme, is not overwritten by demonising or patronising representations of class or ethnicity but  can serve as a universal story of the power of anger, freedom, and sisterhood to change lives.

Julia Dobson, University of Sheffield

Girlhood opens on Friday 8 May

Competition: Win Girlhood goodies and DVDs

Julia Dobson

Dr. Julia Dobson is Reader in French Film and Performance, School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sheffield Read more posts by Julia Dobson

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