The original French title of Girlhood is Bande de filles – roughly, “girl gang” – and the difference between the two titles is illustrative of the dualism of director Céline Sciamma’s approach to the film. Centring on sixteen year old girl Marieme (Karidja Touré), the film provides an individual-centric portrait of her experience – friendship, shoplifting, fights – after she’s denied entry to high school. But the title Girlhood suggest universality, and Sciamma certainly strives for that as well; this is a story of Marieme – or “Vic,” the name she goes by in her bande de filles – but it’s also a story of what it’s like to be a black teenage girl in France, consistently denied opportunities. It’s a story of being a teenage girl in general.
That universality resonates in Girlhood’s opening two scenes, each nearly absent dialogue and each among the film’s strongest scenes. The film opens with an all-girl grid iron match that never receives a diegetic explanation. Presumably it exists as Marieme’s last experience of community before the door to high school is closed to her. Yet the brief scene, set to throbbing electronica, presents and accentuates the themes that the film will go on to address: teenage girlhood as combative yet communal and, critically, occurring absent spectatorship. Sciamma films this scene largely in close-ups and mid-shots, only drawing our attention to the absence of an audience with the final long shot of the scene.
The effect of (male) spectatorship is made apparent in the very next scene, where Marieme and a crowd of female friends (presumably the same girls who’d just been playing football) wander through nocturnal streets in a flurry of excitable conversation … at least until they encounter a small group of boys on their walk home. The conversation ceases, and quickly the group fractures. Clusters of girls peel off from the pack with a muted ‘Salut’ to make their way home. These scenes operate effectively on a universal level: the football field as an abstract space of female community; the night-time streets as a synecdoche of existing within the constraints of patriarchy, extinguishing the girls’ enthusiasm and sense of safety. But they’re also real spaces, spaces in which Marieme negotiates her place in society.
That negotiation occurs primarily with the help of three girls she meets immediately being denied the opportunity to attend high school. Their names are Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Toure), and they usher “Vic” into a world of shoplifting, drinking and scrappy fights with opposing ‘girl gangs.’ When Vic joins the group she’s timid and reluctant, but soon her confidence grows – demonstrated in an evocative lip-sync performance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in which we observe her posturing and performance become intrinsic.
Vic’s character arc may come across as a grim descent into criminality as I’ve presented it so far, but – at least initially – it plays as celebratory as “Diamonds.” Sciamma and Touré frame her burgeoning friendship as an opportunity for her to assert herself – to escape from her abusive older brother (Cyril Mendy), the cleaning job forced upon her by her mother, the dearth of opportunities presented to her. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that her apparent ascent is in fact a descent. It’s in this descent that Girlhood begins to lose some of its spark, but it remains interesting in its interrogation of the intersection between female assertiveness and masculinity.
Specifically, as Vic adopts more of the attributes valued by her new friends, she adopts traditionally masculine characteristics. Her name, for starters, but as the film progresses she explicitly conceals her femininity by binding her breasts and cutting her hair short. Initially, this masculinity is accepted by the society around her. When she defeats a rival girl in a fistfight – with a hint of sexual assault, as she cuts her defeated opponent’s clothes from her – her brother is impressed by her victory. But when she asserts herself sexually – entering her boyfriend’s house at night and commanding that he undress – she is regarded as a ‘slut’ and looked down upon. Here is a complex portrait of the negotiation of feminine identity, and not an especially optimistic one.
This is a closely-observed film; there are so many little touches that conjure an atmosphere of authenticity without relying on realist aesthetics. Notice the clothes Vic’s gang wears, and how much they tell us about them. The anti-theft tag that adorn Vic’s brand-new dress. The too-small bras that Adiatou wears. The uniformity of the groups’ dress; how Lady casually mocks passer-by’s leggings as “so 2008.” For these girls, clothes are their character, so it came as no surprise to see Sciamma listed as responsible for the film’s costumes.
Yet that specificity and resonance seems to fade as the film progresses; constructed in a loose episodic structure, I couldn’t help but wish that Girlhood had chose to end one chapter earlier. The last half hour seems to just be going through the motions (perhaps Vic’s descent into criminality is too far removed from the director’s own experience?). It doesn’t help that Touré, in her first film performance, is magnetic when portraying Miriame as uncertain and timid, but less convincing as a reluctant drug dealer.
Whatever my qualms with Girlhood’s final quarter, it’s rare to see a film balance so carefully the specific and the universal, or to see a film present such a thoughtful depiction of young female identity.