Celine Sciamma’s beautiful, yet haunting coming-of-age drama Bande de Filles (or Girlhood in English-speaking countries) is powerhouse of electric performances and enduring sense of mourning for young women stuck in a cycle of poverty and violence.
Marieme (Karidja Toure in her first role) lives in the banlieues of Paris – perhaps made famous by 1995’s La Haine – an estate that feels like it has been left to self-decline. After being told she had no chance of progressing into the last two years of high school, she finds solace and friendship in group of girls who run around with a confidence and a ballsy-ness that she is desperately searching for. Lady (Assa Sylla), is the leader and takes the quieter Marieme under her wing along with Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), and teach her to take no shit from racist store assistants and fight with her fists as much as her mouth.
Sciamma has stated in interviews that she wanted to capture the youth of France as they are and how they speak, specifically wanting to include young black women who she stated are “never on screen” in France. This desire to capture ‘realism’ is achieved partly from the cast who were all scouted from the streets of Paris and are truly remarkable in their vulnerability and vibrancy on screen.
In the opening few scenes of the film, a group of girls walk through the estate at night, a laughing, joyous gang who quickly fall into silence as they round the corner towards the flats. Silhouettes of male figures dominate the edges of the frames, the constant edge of male violence and danger that lurks around every corner.
There are no manifestations of authority as they wander the streets – parents toll away at late-night jobs and gang violence rules the estate more than any official group. This also leads to a complete disconnect between the two groups – when Marieme is told that she needs to attend a vocational school rather than a high school, the camera is static, solely focused on her face and reduces the teacher to a disembodied voice, simply throwing out platitudes with no effort to create meaningful change for the young women in front of her.
As Marieme grows in confidence, she gets pulled further and further into this reactionary violence that these young women extol against each other. They organise fights in front of groups of teens with smart phones and vicious tongues, where losing your reputation is the worst punishment that the beating you just received. Without a way to escape the oppression they face in their lives, the only place to release anger in on each other. There’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness, that there is no possibility of escape without descending into drugs or prostitution, that even then is still controlled by the men who stalk the edges of the frames, creating fear with the slam of a door.
The much talked about dance scene to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ is truly one of the most beautiful and hypnotic scenes in recent cinematic history. Four young, black women letting go and dancing freely in blue light that reflects of every inch of their limbs, able to have one moment of peace and true enjoyment.
Sciamma’s third feature film is more than just a female La Haine (which I love), it’s a depiction of how circumstances and environment dictate a life and it’s outcomes more than any other factor. It’s a visually stunning and vibrant celebration of female endurance and the determination to take control of their own lives. In a world where hair is a sign of pride and power, and life teeters on a knife edge, Girlhood is a haunting and powerful depiction of urban resistance in 21st century France.