Friday 19 January 2018

Coming of age in Paris

We meet a celebrated French film-maker who has a fresh view of female stories

The stars of Girlhood, from left, Marietou Toure, Karidja Toure and Assa Sylla, and Celine Sciamma
The stars of Girlhood, from left, Marietou Toure, Karidja Toure and Assa Sylla, and Celine Sciamma

Julia Molony

Something of a prodigy of film-making, Celine Sciamma was just 26 when she made her debut film Water Lillies, which went on to win international acclaim for its sensitive and poised portrait of teenage eroticism and sexual identity.

Now 35, she sees her third film as the final in a thematically-linked trilogy, and it has been greeted with similarly gushing praise. All three films are focussed on a very intimate and subjective experience of adolescence, and are stories told from the perspective of female protagonists.

Though the micro societies that Sciamma represents are different (from a synchronised swimming team in Water Lilies to the exclusively black girl-gangs of the bleak banlieues of northern Paris in Girlhood) they all look at similar themes; sisterhood, family, sexuality and oppression, through the experiences of the young women embedded there.

Why the fascination with adolescence? Sciamma believes her focus on the subject is partly to do with her own age - she started to tell stories though film at a stage in her life when she had "no distance from her own youth." That, and the fact that the intensity of the teenage experience lends itself to story-telling. "I know that I have still - and I'm sure you do too - I have still these vivid images and those vivid feelings. You know, like a shame that you would feel at 14 might hurt you more than something shameful that you felt a week ago, because it's all those first times. It's very powerful, it's a very strong place for fiction, very strong emotions."

Her choice of subject has allowed her to develop her voice and style, too. "I think for a young film-maker trying to figure out who she or he is, it's a way to try out some things. It's a way to invent your own method, because you are working with young people. It also has a lot to do with growing up as a film-maker, a way to stay free in the industry. To have it low- budget, to experiment. It has a lot to do with finding out what kind of film-maker you want to be and what your method is. Now I think I've got it figured out," she says, laughing at the suggestion that she's finally graduated to the next phase as an auteur.

Sciamma speaks in flawless, almost academic, English. She graduated from the prestigious La Femis film school and is part of a grand tradition of unapologetically ideological film-making.

Not however, at the expense of compelling plot and characters, and beautiful aesthetics. Girlhood follows 16-year-old Vic as she comes of age around the hulking urban tower blocks on the outskirts of Paris. The eldest daughter of a single mother who works as a cleaner in an office, she struggles to balance her family responsibilities with her ambition to complete high-school, and lives under the shadow of her abusive older brother. Vic is surrounded by a confusing and contradictory culture for young women in her community - on one hand, her fledgling sexual desires put her at risk of tarnishing her reputation and that of her family, on the other, the threat of sexual exploitation hangs heavily in the air. As she navigates this minefield, she falls in with an exuberant girl-clique inspired, Sciamma has said, "by teenage girls that I would regularly see hanging out in the vicinity of Les Halles shopping centre, or in the metro, sometimes in Gare du Nord train station: always in a gang, loud, lively, dancing."

Sciamma grew up in northern Paris herself, in an area that, though not far from the tower blocks that form the backdrop to the lives of the young characters of Girlhood, was in some ways a world away.

Growing up as a gay teenager in France, however, she presumably faced her own challenges. Did she, like Vic, experience that time as a process of trying out different identities, I wonder.

"Not at all," she says. "I wasn't trying out anything. I was really living in a fiction world and I was obsessed with cinema and escaping through every fiction possible. I felt like I had no teenage-hood at all. Or a very late one. I think I'm a better teenager now than I was. 35 is a great age for being a teenager," she says.

Her own adolescence, "resembles Water Lilies more". Both in its exploration of the gay adolescent experience presumably, but also with regard, she says, to the protagonist's personality - "more a mute, silent observant character."

In making Girlhood, Sciamma follows a classical literary convention, that of a female character seeking self-expression in an oppressive culture, but in an utterly contemporary and as-yet-unseen ways. Black actresses, she has said, are notably scarce in French cinema, and an exclusively black cast pretty much unheard of. Vic is an Emma Bovary or Jane Austen character of a different age.

"This romantic heroine trying to lead and live a life and having to put up with the times that she lives in, with society, with family and trying to choose who she loves and all those classical themes. But putting them in a very contemporary setting with a new face for the romantic heroine was really really the project, in its aesthetic and also its political project," she says.

Her goal was to make this deeply subjective - replacing the traditional male gaze for a fresh new female one, she explains, pointing out particularly, the scene in the film in which Vic loses her virginity. "It's pretty rare in a film to see the first time of a girl that is not her being scared, and the guy wanting but her resisting and him just leading the thing. She wants it. We are in her own eroticism. She looks at him, she wants him, she desires him, and that's I think something that feels good to see. And it's life. Women love men no? They love their bodies, and you rarely see it."

Girlhood comes to IFI and The Lighthouse this Friday

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