Opening this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (aptly translated into English as Girlhood) concludes her trilogy on adolescent girls finding their place in the world. Perhaps somewhat less focused on the discovery of sexual identity compared to the two predecessors (Water Lilies and Tomboy), Miss Sciamma once again shows herself to have a keen eye for the emotional inner world of teenage girls.
The story, set in one of Paris’ banlieues, follows sixteen-year-old Marieme (sensational newcomer Karidja Touré) on a path of discovery and seeming self-destruction. Living in a broken home where her older brother, who has already started a life of crime, has taken over the father role, Marieme is left to mother her two younger sisters, while the mother is off trying to earn a living and keep their heads above water. Her school work suffers, and Marieme is forced to drop out of school. In perhaps the film’s weakest passage, the young girl is taken under the wing of a three-member gang of tough girls, who live life following a credo of ‘do as I damn well please’. This means loitering around, shoplifting, and taking lunch money from younger girls. Before long, Marieme imitates her new friends in everything they do, from clothing to behaviour, having finally found a clique where she feels she fits in, and where she is accepted. In the meantime, her growing self-esteem and self-confidence also gets her noticed by a boy she fancies, so while we as outsiders see a girl who is ‘growing up to no good’, Marieme herself thinks she is on the right path.
When the leader of her gang, Lady (Assa Sylla), gets openly humiliated in a fight with the leader of a rival gang, Marieme swears to take revenge, ultimately leading to her taking over the leading role in the group of girls, and even earning respect from her hardened brother for the first time. But when she decides to take a step up as well in her budding love life, it turns out to be a step in the wrong direction, and forces her to make some major decisions about her future.
Sciamma’s strictly formalist style (though slightly less so than her previous outings) and fly-on-the-wall approach, combined with a cast of fresh faces and amateurs, lends the film a certain cinema verité quality, without having to resort to things like hand-held camera work. The actions of the teens, which consist of nothing more than goofing around, sneering at rival groups, and being a general nuisance, feel true to life, and the bond between the girls feels genuine. In particular a scene where the girls hold their own party in a hotel room, ending in a full-length lip-sync rendition of Rihanna’s Diamonds (who has a ‘bad girl’ image herself, so one can imagine the girl looking up to her; an inspired choice by the director) is such a cinematic boost of energy that one can forget that we’re basically looking at a four-minute music video. It’s also here that Sciamma allows herself some flourish, bathing the scene in blue hues that make the girls’ dark skins shine bright (like a diamond?).
By the end of the film, Marieme doesn’t seem to have found her place in the world at all, and in a devastating final shot is left to her own devices with nowhere to turn. It is a distinctive downbeat ending, and it’s not the first time Sciamma has denied her heroines a happy ending (in particular Tomboy‘s Laure is in a similar shattered predicament as Marieme). Given the hugely positive reaction at the end of the morning screening, it doesn’t seem her audiences hold it against her (the critical reception for Tomboy in Berlin three years ago would suggest the same). Her harsh and gritty realism, not unlike that of the Dardennes, for instance, is a well appreciated breath of fresh air in a world where most films would not be able to withstand the urge to save the day. The heartfelt emotions of the film, and the sharp observations of the dire milieu the characters move in show a director who has a strong commitment to her subjects, a commitment that ultimately shows up on the screen.