Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 27, 2015 8:31 am 
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Sisterhood and a girl's emancipation in the Paris ghetto

In seven years 35-year-old French filmmaker Céline Sciamma has made three distinctive features about the coming of age of girls. Each is a search for identity and each seems a more radical departure for the director than the last. Each in its way is anthropological but also intimate and personal. In her new one, focused on French black ghetto girls, she triumphantly moves outside her own middle class milieu, ambiguously glamorizing a world usually seen in far less pretty terms and fading seamlessly into the girls' romantic self-image. It may be over-enthusiastic, but it's a breathtaking and gorgeous exercise in empathy.

Sicamma's debut feature, Water Lilies/Naissance des pieuvres, is about a middle class schoolgirl's slavish love for another girl on a water ballet swim team.Tomboy, which goes back to an earlier stage of life, is about a preteen girl still sheltered by her family who seriously wants to become a boy and after moving to a new neighborhood, fakes being one. To go swimming, she fashions an object that looks like a penis that she puts inside her swim pants, and doesn't wear the top. Sciamma's new film, Girlhood, originally titled Bande de filles, Girl Gang, takes the leap of class and race to the projects of the Paris banlieue and the world of a 16-year-old black girl, Marieme (the engaging, remarkable first-timer Karidja Touré). In search of identity, Marieme takes the moniker "Vic" from a stolen necklace a girlfriend gives her. She goes through at least three distinct stages in the film, defined by different hair styles and separated by blackouts, and is on the way perhaps to become herself at last in a fourth as she stands, weeping, under an archway at the end, at a crossroads. Sciamma's films are about transitions and transformations, fairly dramatic ones.

In the first stage Vic/Marieme breaks away from school after it becomes clear her grades block her from a normal path. She is fed up with her mean older brother and leaves home and her two little sisters, in a sad scene where she won't say she's going but the sisters sense it. She still has a boyfriend, Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté). He's cute; but almost everybody looks great: the cinematographer Christel Baras insures that. At first the protagonist wears a big head-full of glossy braids. When she joins three older girls, headed by "Lady" (Assa Sylla), she learns to talk tough, push even guys around, and shoplift. She wears her hair straightened and dons denims and leather like the rest of the bande.

The girls have already engaged in fights, Lady being defeated in a riotous gladiatorial encounter by the girl boss of a rival gang, a big takedown that may help disenchant Vic with this life. Next Vic leaps from this dead end (which is not without fun) into wearing a platinum wig and a red dress for Abou (Djibril Gueye), moving drugs, and, if not a "pute" (whore), in a sense for a while his "pute." Then the wig and red dress are cast aside and she begins to dress plainly, almost like a boy. All of this is exciting, vivid, and gorgeously colorful, and seems very real, even if it's seen somewhat superficially.

Not that Sciamma's other two films haven't also been challenging, in their elegant, handsomely photographed way, but Girlhood has a special element of shock in the way it seems to be glamorizing a milieu that's not very pretty. It's the world Mathieu Kassovitz grimly depicted in his Hate/La haine, which made a big splash 20 years ago. This time, though, focus is on the girls. They talk tough and get into trouble too, here shoplifting at the Les Halles mall, dealing drugs, and getting into prostitution, but they may be more able to slip between worlds than the boys, if motherhood doesn't overtake them. And youth is beautiful. Girlhood stages a surprising opening sequence -- a bright handsomely shot scene of American football, with two all-girl mostly black teams enthusiastically battling it out in uniforms that hide they're girls, the energy pumped up with loud electro-pop synthi music by Para One, who also did the music for Water Lilies.

The images are often closeups that show off sunlight on the girls' beautiful brown skin. Blue is often used for clothes or backgrounds, setting off, again, the beautiful brown skin. Scenes are in-your-face and gorgeous at the same time. In a sequence that Sciamma has said she planned to become "cult," and "iconic" Vic and the three others take money they have extorted, drugs, drink, and clothes they've shoplifted and party in a motel room, jumping, miming, dancing, and lip syncing exuberantly to Rihana's "Diamonds" -- shown, naturally, with a deep blue filter. It's like a video, but with real ghetto girls.

Sciamma celebrates this world and sees the color and vibrancy of the black girls and their life. The irony of her own position is slyly shown in a hip hop scene at La Défense, crammed with laughing, jostling (and pretty) black ghetto girls,the director herself turns up in a corner in her own film, like Hitchcock, and some girls menace her, pull away her purse, and grab her glasses. She's pale, powerless, and out of place.

Vic's love for Ismaël notwithstanding, she isn't ready to become his wife and bear his child as he would like. For some reason, in one scene with him that angers him, he discovers she has been binding her breasts to hide them. Who is she? Is she gay? At the end, we still don't know. But we've glimpsed some colorful action. Sciamma has gotten some amazing, dynamic scenes from these girls, scenes that are vibrant and glorious to look at and as fluid as the street scenes in Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color. However ambiguous the sympathies of Girlhood, it shows Céline Sciamma isn't restricted to depicting middle class white milieus -- and has chops to burn as a director.

Girlhood/Bande de filles, 112 mins., debuted as opening film in Directors Fortnight at Cannes. Many other big international festivals followed, including Venice, Toronto and London. It was released in France 22 October 2014 (AlloCiné press rating 3.7; but Tomboy has done best, 4.2). It will get a late festival showcasing at Sundance 24 January 2015 before a limited US release 30 January at Film Society of Lincoln Center and Village East Cinema in NYC and 6 Feb. in Los Angeles at Sundance Sunset Cinema and Laemmle Theatres.

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