Wednesday, 24 June 2015

‘Solide mais pas Solitaire’: Female Solidarity and Feminist Empowerment in Girlhood (Bande de Filles, Céline Sciamma, 2014)

DESPOINA MANTZIARI



Céline Sciamma’s latest film, introduced at the Cannes Film Festival 2014 during the Directors’ Fortnight, has become a worldwide sensation. After travelling the festival circuit (Toronto IFF 2014, Sundance FF 2015), it was finally released in UK cinemas in May 2015. Its contemporaneous release with Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) has had an ambiguous effect regarding its critical reception, as it has tempted most critics to somehow compare the two. Sue Harris in her review noted the differences between the two, describing it as “much more defiant and unsettling than Richard Linklater’s subtle meditation on middle class American suburban boyhood”[1]. Mark Kermode has gone further in finding visual and thematic kinship between Girlhood and the British films Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and its sequel Adulthood (Noel Clarke, 2008)[2]. And of course, its generic predecessor, La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), has been frequently conjured up in discussing the film’s contribution to the French cycle of realist banlieue cinema. However, it seems more tempting to consider this film alongside Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, for its focus on the underrepresented and marginal social group of working class adolescent women. The portrayal of the stifling environment these young women are growing up in, and the difficulties they have to face in order to fulfill their desire to transcend these barriers that time and again are raised in front of them in their journey towards adulthood, is the strongest point of comparison, which are lacking in the rest of the films other critics have referred to. Both girls, Mia and Marieme, are strong and solitary[3] in their struggle to adapt and survive in a world that is fundamentally hostile to them.

 

And yet, the comparison to Boyhood may seem inevitable due to the choice of the English title Girlhood. The film’s original title Bande de Filles would be more accurately translated as Girl Gang. In her review, Harris comments: “[t]his cookie-cutter title, while great for distribution, does a great disservice to [the] film”. Initially this may seem like a just comment, but one could argue that this choice is actually a stronger statement, challenging mainstream assumptions concerning the semantic category that the word girlhood triggers. It is too often that we get this type of over-generalised title – and Boyhood is a case in point – to refer to an unmarked minority in society, i.e. white and middle class. Films like The Women (Diane English, 2008) and the Sex and the City franchise come to mind as examples of a multitude of screen products that unashamedly adopt these overarching titles to portray a very specific type of glamorized, Western, white, upper class femininity. And although the issues presented in them point to the wider social structure and the problems it presents [some] women with, one can only celebrate the ramifications of a different use of such an all-encompassing term. Therefore it can be argued that what sets this film apart from the films mentioned by other critics, is its feminist attitude in challenging pre-existing assumptions concerning young women of the social periphery.

 

A lot can be said about this film and the complex account it presents audiences with, concerning the inextricable link between gender, sexuality, race and social class in the constant negotiation for individual identity. The present review focuses on the manifestation of feminist authorship in terms of the representation of the empowering possibilities, as well as the vulnerability, of homosocial female bonding within a strongly patriarchal society. I will specifically address the main character’s need to belong and be accepted by society, which is the central factor impacting all her actions up until the very end, where the film insinuates that she is resolved to venture out on her own. The individual’s need for society has been observed as far back as Aristotle’s time, as well as women’s inferior position caused by legal subordination and poor education. Sciamma, through the depiction of Marieme’s struggle with the social role she is expected to perform as a black woman of the banlieue, produces a passionate social critique, which beautifully completes her trilogy of non-conformist coming-of-age femininity.

 

The film starts with the scene of a group of girls playing American football. The powerful physicality and the vociferous celebration of homosocial female bonding comes in stark contrast with the behavior of these young women outside the pitch, where they have to keep quiet and bow their heads in front of men. From the very first moments the film makes a statement concerning women’s strength as a collective and their vulnerability as individual entities within a patriarchal society. Marieme, facing hostility on all fronts (state represented by the school counsellor, family, and the hyper-masculine world of the banlieue), finds solace, even if temporary, in these all-female groups (e.g. her sisters and the girl gang she joins). And yet these relationships are constantly threatened by male intervention and are only ‘allowed’ as long as they reinforce the status quo. For instance, Marieme’s relationship with her younger sister, Bébé, reflects the solidarity as well as the delicacy and vulnerability of their bond. During a tender scene where they are alone in their room Marieme playfully teases Bébé about her budding breasts. They are laughing and shouting, but they immediately fall silent when they hear their older brother, Djibril, come out of his room. They wait until he leaves the flat to resume their chat, at which point they are both serious and Marieme asks her sister whether Djibril has noticed the change. She advises her to wear baggy T-shirts in order not to draw attention to the fact that she is growing up, which creates the impression that becoming a woman for them is dangerous, as it seems to accompany further restrictions and cruelty. They both seem terrified of Djibril and Marieme is systematically bullied and beaten by him.

 

This sisterly alliance within the domestic space mirrors the supportive bonds that are created amongst the members of the girl gang within the wider social structure of the banlieue. Marieme becomes acquainted with the girls – Lady, Fily and Adiatou – after she quits school, because she is not allowed to progress to general high school. Once stripped of this opportunity, and as a direct consequence of the state’s inability to support people from less privileged backgrounds, she joins the girl gang. Despite her initial reluctance she gets into a lifestyle of petty crime and violence (shoplifting, gang fights, etc.). However, the film does not adopt a judgmental attitude towards these gangs, showing that this disruptive behaviour is a result of their effort to create a little space within their restricting environment where they can forget their problems and enjoy each other’s company. When the girls are alone they can experience a sense of freedom, but they have to create alternate tough-girl personas (Sophie/Lady, Marieme/Vic) for their public encounters with other gangs. They have to constantly prove themselves to the boy gangs by literally fighting for social status against other girl gangs. Quite tellingly the only time Djibril acknowledges Marieme is after he finds out she has beaten another gang’s leader in a street fight.

 

Therefore it seems that male power is predicated on dissolving the supportive bonds between women, and Marieme once again hits a brick wall in her desire to develop as a person and transcend the boundaries that restrict her. After she has achieved Alpha female status in the group, Marieme sees her sister with her friends, bullying a younger girl and stealing her purse. She immediately heads to that direction, grabs her sister and commands her to go home. When Bébé talks back she does not hesitate to slap her hard in the face, at which point Bébé tells her that she is just like Djibril. Their solidarity comes near breaking point and it is a moment of realization for Marieme, who leaves the group and goes home with her sister. Not long after, once her secret relationship with Ismael is revealed, Djibril is once again violent and beats Marieme. This leads to her decision to leave the neighbourhood and she cuts off her ties with her sister and her friends. She meets Abou, who employs her as a drug trafficker, and although the girls try to dissuade her from leaving, Marieme sees no alternative and makes one more attempt to gain some kind of independence. Her visual transformation – dressing in high heels, a red mini dress and a blonde wig while at work and changing into loose trousers and baggy T-shirts after the deliveries – marks her effort to be perceived as one of the boys thus discouraging sexual attention from the men in her environment. However, Abou tries to force himself on her during a party, which results in her running away once again. It seems therefore that for a young woman in her position relationships with men (familial, romantic or professional) seem to only bring her trouble one way or another. Ismael is the only one who seems to genuinely love her and he offers to marry her in an effort to repair her reputation within their social circle. However, Marieme realises that by accepting his proposal she will have to settle for the life of a housewife and she expresses her desire for more than this life can offer. The film ends with Marieme alone crying, finding herself at an impasse and not wanting to return home. As the camera moves forward, she is left out of the frame her crying still audible. At the last minute, the sobbing stops, Marieme, looking strong and determined, moves in the centre of the frame from the right side and walks out of the frame on the left side. The open ending leaves a glimmer of hope that Marieme will keep on struggling for the improvement of her situation and the fulfillment of her innermost desire to find a viable place within society.

 

In her final installment to her coming-of-age trilogy, Sciamma delivers a beautifully crafted yet disturbing picture of the difficult transitions a woman has to face growing up in the Parisian banlieue. Even if Marieme is solid and solitary, the same cannot be said for the director, who is part of an increasing number of women directors who can rightfully claim the status of a feminist auteur within global art cinema. Without being patronizing she makes a film “with” black women instead of “about” them, as she herself has commented[4]. Sad and touching but not “misery-mongering”, as another critic has commented[5], it can serve as a strong social critique demonstrating the need for feminism in creating a fairer society not only to the usual middle-class art cinema audiences but to young black female audiences as well[6]. A celebration of female strength and resilience in the face of adversity, which crosses geographic boundaries, and provides a relatable experience for women who are facing similar restrictions the world over.



1 “Film of the Week: Girlhood,” Sue Harris, last updated May 11, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-girlhood
[2] “Girlhood review – electrifying portrait of a French girl in the hood,” Mark Kermode, last modified May 10, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/10/girlhood-gritty-teen-life-review-mark-kermode
[3] This phrase, “solide et solitaire”, is used by Abou, Marieme’s drug trafficking boss, when he meets her after she runs away from home.
[4] “The stars of Girlhood: ‘Our poster is all over Paris, with four black faces on it…’,” Jonathan Romney, last modified April 26, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/26/girlhood-film-karidja-toure-assa-sylla-celine-sciamma
[5] “Girlhood,” Sheila O’Malley, last modified January 30, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/girlhood-2015
[6] This intention was achieved by a series of screenings in multiplex cinemas outside the Périférique to target specifically young black women.

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