Saturday, March 14, 2015

Girlhood (Bande de Filles)

GIRLHOOD (Bande de Filles)             B+               
France  (113 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Céline Sciamma 

Not to be confused with a girl version of 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood, this is something else altogether, something of a pop-tinged, social realist glimpse of girl power in the lower class banlieue regions of the Parisian suburbs, the same neighborhood as Mathieu Kassovitz’s remarkable HATE (La Haine, 1995), a film set to Hip Hop music, both exclusively set in the housing projects of a black-skinned immigrant ghetto where the only forms of economic success are men running criminal enterprises of drugs or prostitution.  From the maker of Tomboy (2011), Sciamma is known as a minimalist director who studied under Xavier Beauvois at the French film school La Fémis, never allowing emotional excess to protrude into her work, instead producing spare, coming-of-age stories with a particular interest in the formative age of young girls still searching for their identity.  While this is a common theme with films like America’s MEAN GIRLS (2004) and Spring Breakers (2012), Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen) (2011), or Sweden’s Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998), what distinguishes Sciamma is her interest in the ambiguity of sexual orientation and her attention to the lead performance, which tends to be exceptional.  While she’s a white director whose previous works were mostly preoccupied with white kids, here she ambitiously immerses herself into a French-African community where it’s interesting that the behavior of young black teens in France closely resembles that of young American overprivileged white girls in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), where their behavior as a group is more emboldened, reflecting a gang mentality that easily veers into fighting and shoplifting without so much as a thought, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, while by themselves this would never be their thinking.  An intriguing comparison, however, is seeing how drinking and underage sex is so romanticized as a yearning for independence and freedom in the white upper class characters in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (2013), while here with lower class blacks the same behavior is seen as so destructive.  This same observation can be seen in Eliza Hittman’s realistic exposé of teen sexuality in It Felt Like Love (2013), a closely observed study of a young, 14-year old white girl’s painfully awkward sexual awakening told with a meticulous precision, where the darker implications come from her extreme isolation, becoming more about what isn’t shown onscreen, creating a mysterious ambiguity about the existing emptiness within and the pressures to want sex in order to finally be accepted.  But perhaps the film this most closely resembles is the Dee Rees independent feature Pariah (2011), reflecting the difficulties of a young, bright 17-year old American black girl with conflicting feelings about her sexual identity.  While Rees and Sciamma are both lesbian directors, where male authority characters are altogether absent or are often portrayed as the obstacles standing in the way, it’s curious how each shies away from depicting openly gay lead roles, but instead show a hint of possibility, growing more curious with both characters dressing more and more like a boy, while shrouding their real intent under a cloud of ambiguity and mystery.  

Melissa Silverstein interview with the director from indieWIRE, January 30, 2015, 'Girlhood' Director Céline Sciamma on Feminism ... - Indiewire  

I chose the title of the film before knowing Boyhood existed. I saw the film, and all of the attention it got, and I like that the two movies have been compared and mirrored. I see here that the press is doing that a lot -- at Q&A's at Sundance I’ve had that a lot. I think it’s really interesting. 

They both believe the same thing: Watching someone grow is cinema, and interesting, and tells us a lot. But they use totally different perspectives. Richard Linklater actually shows someone grow for 12 years, and I watch someone grow in 37 days with special effects – meaning costumes and decisions. 

The two [approaches] are so opposite, but they are starting from the same belief, which I think is really interesting. With these titles, both movies are deciding that they are saying what is universal. Linklater is saying, and he’s right, that what is average is a middle-class white boy's parents' divorce, college, average student, average dreams, and he’s telling a lot about today with that [kind] of character. I’m deciding that "universal" is actually something that is not -- it’s actually the margin; I’m putting the margin at the center. He’s looking at someone in the center, the middle. 

I picked black girls because I was struck by the lack of representation of black women, and characters, onscreen in France, and Europe also. Especially in Paris, where I live, [it's] actually a very mixed society. I wanted to go for it, but not saying, “Oh, I’m going to depict what it’s like to be a black girl,” but actually saying, “I’m going to depict what it’s like to be a girl,” and why can’t that be with a black character?

Opening at the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival while also playing at Toronto and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the casting process reportedly took four months, with actresses scouted from the street, where themes of aggression, also a sense of empowerment, are introduced in the wordless but emblematic opening frames set to the music of a Brooklyn based duo, Light Asylum - Skull Fuct [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube (5:17), as young black girls are playing American tackle football under the lights, complete with uniforms, helmets and pads, violent jarring hits and in-your-face trash talking, but also celebratory touchdowns, where afterwards the jubilant elation is shared by both sides, where teamwork is the operative word.  As the crowd of revelers walks home afterwards, joyful and full of energy, we hear them all bunched together in large groups, everybody talking at once as they head back to the projects, falling suddenly quiet when they reach a line of boys who whistle, call out their name, or offer some crude comment as they walk by, where slowly their ranks thin out as each group arrives at their high-rise destination, finally leaving one lone girl, 16-year old Marieme (Karidja Touré), seen climbing the concrete stairs to her home.  Immediately we become familiar with the hierarchy in the family, with no father, an absent mother (Binta Diop) that works long and extended hours as a cleaning woman, an abusive and overcontrolling older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy) who holds a leadership position in a neighborhood gang, and her doting younger pre-teen sister Bébé (Simina Soumare), where the two of them have a close relationship.  The film is divided into various chapters, but rather than identify them with titles, the director fades to black and holds the screen before moving to the next sequence.  Using a pulsating, techno-synth score from Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Para One, Para One - Girlhood (Official Audio) YouTube (2:28), the infectious music blares with its identification with youth, recalling Adrian Lyne’s FLASHDANCE (1983), an anthem for women’s independence, especially for its use of pop music as an expression of liberation.  After failing to advance to high school, even after repeating a year, Marieme is told her grades are too low, that her only option is vocational school which will steer her into low-end wage jobs, exactly like her mother.  Pleading for a chance to be “normal,” she is devastated to be placed on a fast track to nowhere.  Dropping out of school altogether, she takes solace in hanging out with a group of ultra aggressive girls (hardly a gang, as they’re really just a group of friends), Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Mariétou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), all school dropouts wearing a similar hair weave, a threesome looking for a fourth member.  Living life on their own terms, together they go shoplifting, extort younger students for money, get in fights with other neighborhood girls, and drink while listening to music, where easily the scene in the film takes place in a hotel room (shot in a blue light) where they get dressed up in stolen dresses and collectively dance to the joyous exuberance of Rihanna, Girlhood - Clip 1 - Diamonds - YouTube (2:09).  

Fariha Roísín from Hairpin, January 30, 2015, Not The Way White Girls Do  

Black girls definitely don’t have films made about them. The best explanation for this that I’ve ever read or heard is in Jessica Hopper’s Village Voice piece about R.Kelly. In it, she interviews Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis who laments: “The saddest fact I've learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody." Through studied intentions we are told, black girls, and WOC [women of color] at-large, are non-identifiable; that, in order to write a story about a POC [people of color] kid, it inevitably needs to be within the context of race. The language is coded.

Sciamma defies tradition with Girlhood. Her rendition of a black girl’s life is ordinary. Her lead, Marieme (Kardija Touré) is black, yes, but her life is not defined by this premise—she’s also curious about boys, about how to be; there’s a sense that she’s searching for something more, as all teenagers often are, and she grapples with her mediocre existence as she begins to explore what lies in the world outside of her own confines. […]

There’s a scene in Girlhood where the four girls—Marieme and her girl gang—are in a hotel where they drink, gossip, and dress up; nursing themselves with self-medicated self care. At one point, Marieme starts singing Diamonds by Rihanna, and slowly, one by one, the others join in. Their bodies are blue, against the effervescent karaoke glow of the TV; they are dressed in fancy clothes—they are happy. Do you know how audacious it is for not one, but four dark skinned girls, to be on screen singing the lyrics: Tonight/You and I/We’re beautiful/Like diamonds in the sky” with a disregard and ease that is only ever reserved for white kids? These girls aren’t lamenting their darkness, they are wholeheartedly embracing what they are because they’re never given an option not to. Like whiteness, they normalize their blackness, by never acknowledging a difference.

Taking on a new identity, using her new name of Vic, as in “victory,” Marieme is initially shy, deferring to the stronger-willed personalities of the other girls, but things change after Lady gets her ass whipped in a one-on-one fight with another girl, all captured on cellphone video in front of an assembled crowd, where she gets humiliated, kicked and stomped, with her shirt pulled over her head exposing her brassiere.  Making matters worse, her father trims her actual hair afterwards, shaming her from showing herself in public.  In a somewhat idealized moment (as escalating retaliation is inevitable), Marieme stands up for her friend and gets revenge, showing a newly developed aggression that wasn’t there before, while also finding the nerve to have sex with a cute boy around the corner, Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), a poignant and remarkably understated moment where she surprisingly takes the lead, taking charge of the moment, one of the few films that show a young girl actually gazing at a man’s body, where she doesn’t just desire him, she wants to see the round, muscular shape of his ass.  But this doesn’t bring her closer to any real gratification, as the film has a downward arc while Marieme discovers her choices are constricted to fewer and fewer options, where despite the protection offered by powerful neighborhood men, none of that brings her any joy or satisfaction, having to work for a gangland boss as an over-sexualized drug runner with hopes this might lead to more and better opportunities, but it only leaves her feeling more exploited, where she is continually under the thumb of some dominating male patriarch, where it’s as if her life doesn’t really exist.  Only when she sees that her little sister is following in her own footsteps does she take a second look at herself, realizing you can’t stay young and cool forever, that you need to find more permanent solutions.  Perhaps in response to what she’s forced to do for men, on her own time she begins dressing down, less sexy, wearing pants and baggy shirts, looking more and more like a boy, urging her sister to cover her figure as well, where the suggestion is she and Lady may be closer than we realize.  What’s perhaps most important here are the simplicity of Sciamma’s depictions of complex relationships between young black girls where they mimic each other’s behavior, like spending time at the malls or learning dance routines, where at a deeper level these early years are a search for power and self-worth, something altogether missing from movies today.  Despite the naturalism throughout, there’s also an intentional artificiality, where the housing projects have rarely been seen so empty, as they are usually teeming with noise and overpopulation at all hours of the night, where everyone is literally forced to live on top of one another, with car horns and music blasting, with residents forced to shout over the noise, where there is simply no concept of privacy.  Throughout the film, however, whatever conversations Marieme has are in utter quiet, where she may as well be in a library or a sound studio.  While this adds a degree of personal intimacy to her mystique, where the complexity of her sensual yet utterly authentic characterization remains at the center of the film, as the camera always feels drawn to her, but in the end, with Paris looming off in the distance, she remains at a crossroads between youth and adulthood, just another girl from the projects, where she needs to find some stability and balance before her life veers out of control. 

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