Not having seen Boyhood, it’s difficult to compare Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood to Richard Linklater’s much talked about film, one he spent 12 years making. Both are coming of age stories and while Sciamma’s film didn’t take a dozen years to make, it still has a strong artist’s vision behind it. “I picked the title Girlhood not knowing Boyhood existed, but I was so glad,” Sciamma told The Independent. “I think the movies have a strong dialogue. They were mirroring [each other] and it’s really interesting to take a look at both.”
Sciamma wanted Girlhood to have a different social backdrop than her two previous coming of age films, Water Lilies and Tomboy, which are both about white pre-teen or teenage girls. Sciamma said she intentionally created a story about black teenagers because of her concern over the lack of opportunity for black actors and actresses in France. She was shocked by how black people were never seen on screen in France. “Very, very few—even in TV. Particularly that age group and women. There are no black actresses famous in France,” said Sciamma.
Girlhood follows Marieme (Karidja Toure), who lives in a housing project in a suburb of Paris, and has a hard home life. Her mother is barely present and her older brother is part of a gang and possibly dealing drugs, (Later in the film, he is physically and emotionally abusive towards the girls.) so Marieme, being the eldest of her other siblings, takes on a mother role, making sure the younger two eat, bathe, and do their school work. In fact, her closest friend at the beginning of the film seems to be her younger sister with whom she shares a bedroom.
When Marieme is told she cannot continue on to high school because of her grades, at first she is resolute. “I’m going to high school,” she tells the school administrator who has pulled her aside to tell her her fate. Soon after, she encounters the band of girls—Lady, Adiatou, and Fily—at first she eschews them, but then falls in with them and their adventures allow Marieme to forget about her struggles for awhile.
While the girl gang is by no means angelic: they visit the local mall where they insult others, shoplift, and sometimes fight other girl gangs, they also act like typical teenage girls. One night, they rent a hotel room and get drunk, but instead of trashing the hotel room, they sing and dance along to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”
Sciamma actually shot the scene before securing the rights to the song and had to appeal to Rihanna’s management team during post-production. After seeing the scene, they agreed to grant her the rights to the song for a fee.
Although it is not explicitly discussed in the film, all four girls probably come from similar backgrounds, and as Marieme officially becomes a member of the gang, complete with her nickname, “Vic”, she decides to try and escape from her situation at home. There’s actually a brief scene in the film where she discusses her decision with the other girls. However, the only avenue open to her is to become a drug dealer.
“The project for me was to have another coming of age story but with a stronger narrative and a classical plot—a young girl who wants to live her life and has to put up with the time and place she lives in and the family, which is a typical novelistic tale,” Sciamma said.
The casting process took four months. Sciamma and her team met about 300 girls, many of whom were scouted from the street. Girls who didn’t know each other were picked over those who did. Many were cast against type to create genuine performances and tension. For example, Assa Sylla’s “Lady,” the leader of the teenage gang, was the shyest of the group. “I picked the girl who was not a natural leader so the weakness of the character would already be in that performance,” Sciamma said.
She spent three weeks with the girls before production to create their on-screen bond. During shooting, the young actresses also lived together and shot their own footage at night. Sciamma’s work is described as minimalist and her aesthetic is partly credited to the influence and legacy of her mentor, Xavier Beavois, who advised her while she at film school at La Femis. Much like her American contemporary, Sofia Coppola, fashion and style are a very important part of the characterization in Sciamma’s films and she works as an uncredited costume designer on her films.
Water Lilies, Sciamma’s first film, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. She received a Cesar Award nomination for Best Debut and the actresses Adele Haenel and Louise Blachere were both nominated in the Cesar acting categories.
In 2009, Sciamma made a short film, Pauline, as part of a government anti-homophobia campaign. Written and shot in a matter of months, she followed up with 2011’s Tomboy, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. Girlhood premiered at Cannes in 2014 and played both Toronto (2014) and Sundance in 2015. She considers Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood a trilogy of coming of age films.
When asked about the universality in the three films or the common thread, Sciamma explained it this way: “I rely a lot on the fact that there is something universal in it and that we can make it universal in fiction too. It’s because all three characters are really observers, observing the life around them. That’s the common point there. It’s creating the intimacy between camera and the actor and actors and the audience. They are three different characters but all three films rely on one single character, so we are mentally stuck in one head and one body. There are no grownups, there are no boys. The boys are just archetypes, so you can’t relate to anyone else but her. You have to. It’s a sensual proposition. My movies are not very talkative, so they rely on the rhythm and how actors are being accurate about the body language and choreography of the girls are moving in the world.”
Although Girlhood was mostly released in art house theaters in the U.S. (it’s now available to watch on Netflix), Sciamma says there’s a strong education cinema program in France and her film Tomboy was seen by 200,000 kids because of the program.
In an interview with Twitch Film, Sciamma mentioned that while her obsession with transformation and gender will always be a common thread in her films, but she is now thinking of new ways to apply it, like perhaps 1970s horror films.
Sources: The Independent