Céline Sciamma’s third film Bande de Filles, or, the cumbersomely translated Girlhood, begins with two powerful, contrasting images. It opens on the unusual, unbridled sight of a group of girls playing American football, hurtling their padded bodies into one another and across the goal line. Post-game, Sciamma follows them through an outer Parisian housing complex as they yammer on, a gloriously energized cacophony of adolescence. The instant the film’s first male figure is glimpsed in the corner of the frame, however, they all fall silent. It’s a jarring, immediate adherence to the kinds of social codes Sciamma has teased apart since 2006’s Water Lilies.
With Girlhood, Sciamma tackles a slightly older age bracket as she charts the stymied growth of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sensitive, moral teenager who is drawn into the orbit of three boisterous schoolmates. With an abusive older brother, an absentee mother, two younger sisters, and a poor collegiate track record, Marieme doesn’t so much come of age as seek a way out of her apparent trajectory. I spoke to Sciamma about the political underpinnings of personal cinema, and why she was intent on portraying an ensemble of black women. Girlhood is currently playing at the Village East and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
This is your first film that isn’t an explicitly queer coming-of-age story, but it still deals with the social and socioeconomic stratification of women. How did it come together?
I think I knew I wanted to tell a story about a group of girls, but thought, “Okay, if I’m going to do the coming of age thing again, it’s got to be different.” I started thinking about how there are no black characters on French screens—TV or movies—or even, one might say, in European cinema—
I think it’s almost the same in the U.S.
When we watch your TV, the white character goes to see a doctor, and the doctor can be black. They aren’t the protagonists, but they’re there. In France, that’s not the case. They’re only allowed to play the drug dealer. But, yes, I’ve always been working with characters at the margins or the periphery, and I wanted to go with it all the way. I wanted to make a movie about friendship, and I kept passing those kinds of groups of girls in the street. They had great energy, and sorority, and they were great characters. It’s a messy answer to a simple question.
Both Tomboy and Water Lilies were more concerned with a finite period in their characters’ lives. Girlhood feels grander, more overarching. What appealed to you about being able to relate a trajectory?
Previously, I think my films were more intemporal—they could have taken place whenever—and I wanted to do something that felt very contemporary. I wanted to tell a Romanesque story. If you tell that story about a woman trying to make her way, free herself and figure out who she is, it’s a very classic tale, so I wanted it to be classic and epic. In that mythology, it’s always the same rules. It’s a young girl who wants something, and so she confronts the time she lives in, her family, the place she lives. That’s basically what’s in Jane Austen and Jane Campion and basically what’s in Girlhood. But I wanted to mix that classical tale with a new face, and a contemporary character from French youth. It was a narrative project, and also a political project, to make a huge fiction out of a very contemporary character. To reinvent the romantic heroine.
I wouldn’t say it’s straightforward coming of age story—she’s not finding herself per se, she’s struggling to define herself against the path that society has set out for her. With respect to her mother, and her mother’s line of work, and the fact that she’s already the caregiver of her younger sisters, and she has to forfeit her education—all of that tends to be unusual in a coming of age story because a lot of the time, it’s a genre concerned with people of a more privileged background.
Right, well she’s a heroine of the refusal. It’s not about getting what she wants, it’s about defining what she doesn’t want, and escaping what’s already written. And maybe that’s what makes it so contemporary—with the lack of idealism of the youth today, just because of the world we live in, now the struggle is about what you say no to, not what you embrace.
How did you come to cast this group of actresses? I think all of them were non-professionals, which is something you tend to go for.
I’m not obsessed with the fact that they should be unprofessional, I just want them to be young. I’m not going to have a 25-year-old girl play a teenager. We basically went looking for girls everywhere. We went to agencies but of course there were very few black actresses; we went to theaters, and looked on the street, where we met most of them. We met with three hundred girls in four months. We had a busy agenda. We had to create a group, because that’s alchemy, that’s synergy, but we also had to find strong individual characters. We had to find girls that could put up with the text, with the lines, but not just ones who could perform, ones who could also improvise. There are plenty of comedic scenes that rely on them and their wit, so that’s how we cast the four actresses. Obviously, the most difficult one to cast was the lead part because she’s in every frame of the film, she’s an observer. She has to be fascinating because we’re always looking at her looking at things. She has to have an incredible face that you want to look at, a face like a landscape. But she also goes through several identities with physical transformations, so she had to be able to embrace that. I only came across one girl who was able to do that and it was Karidja Touré.
With street casting, does your casting director approach people based off of a look, or would she gauge their behavior before going up to them? How specific do you have to be in terms of what you’re looking for with the casting director?
I think it’s really a craft. I’ve worked with the same casting director on all my films. I don’t tell her to find a girl who looks like this or like that, she just has an eye. I’m always amazed at how much she gets it from the script. I don’t have to be that specific.
Once you cast the four women, did you revisit the script to tailor some scenes or was that just left to improvisation?
We read the script together. I wrote it in total loneliness, and I consider them to be experts on their own experience. So I handed it to them and said, “If you find anything wrong, just tell me.” We changed some dialogue, but it was written in very neutral language, so that’s the way not to be wrong. When you write for the youth, if you try to mimic it, you’re just going to lose track of whatever’s right. We worked together a lot before shooting, for a month we hung out and built that friendship and trust between them. It wasn’t rehearsal, it was more team building. We worked a lot with the body, and danced. With Karidja, there was a specific workshop where we built each of the different characters from the different sections. It was also a lot about the costuming. I’m always the costume designer on my films because I think it’s direction, but also because working with non-professionals, it’s a great way for them to understand what’s being looked at. It’s a lot of attention to detail, but it’s a great part of the process.
Formally, this film feels very different to me than your other work. There’s the blue color palette, and the fluidity of the camerawork, in particular. It’s always following the women and their movements so you can sense this cult of personality. Do you feel that you approached the visuals at all differently?
I did. The movie stands up with the idea of mise-en-scene as a pleasure. I didn’t want to have any shaky camera or gray colors, which kind of suggest you’ve already been there. I wanted refute the notion of the film with a social subject that should be intimate and sensitive versus a film that has entertainment, emotion and great scenes with steadicam and long takes, and for it to be colorful. I wanted to do both, so I think the mise-en-scene is really a statement. I can use all the tools of cinema and throw in some Rihanna.
When I watch that scene, I think it’s somewhat sad. That and the other scene where they’re all dancing on the plaza, because it doesn’t feel like freedom of expression in the way that dance sequences can, it’s just a respite from their lives before they’re brought back down to earth.
Yes, it’s really a narrative scene. It’s not a clip at all. The Rihanna scene is about friendship, and how it’s a choreography. It’s about her staring at that group and finding them beautiful, but being melancholic about the chemistry between them. And then she steps in and is the center of it, and suddenly, because they’re all together, they have a voice. But then you look at it, and they’re just a bunch of girls jumping on a bed. I wanted the audience to feel happy but then sad, because you know it’s the happiest moment they’re going to get. And then it disappears. I’m obsessed with the rhythm of emotions. There should be layers. With an image that’s happy, I want you to also have the feeling that it’s dying, and it’s going to pass.
It’s a bit like how Audiard uses a Katy Perry song when Marion Cotillard is rolling around in her wheel chair in Rust and Bone. I wanted to talk about the third act, which I think makes quite a statement. It’s as if you’re suggesting the closest Marieme can ever get to a white man’s world is by being a mule. And that she has to play a part to do so, she has to act femme, but immediately retreats into this protective shell of masculinity. I love the line that the prostitute tells her, “Just because you’re playing the guy, doesn’t mean you’re not the bitch.”
That line sounds so much better in English. “Bitch” is much more adequate than the French word.
Because it signifies ownership.
But it’s heartbreaking because you have this woman who has spent the whole movie trying to outrun this downward trajectory, and her version of doing so is still playing “the bitch.” It’s a bit gutsy to make her enter the drug trade.
Well, I think this part of the movie gets discussed because you feel so attached to the group, but I think if you want to talk about friendship, you have to talk about loneliness. In the movie she goes through several identities, but in the end she has maybe two—
They’re also explicit identities. She’s literally trying on other personas, when she goes to that party with the Hillary Clinton wig, and then at home bandages her breasts.
Yes. I really wanted to go through with it. People believe that the film can end when she leaves the hotel room, but the last part is where the movie really says what it thinks. Sometimes that bothers people, who want a movie to send them explicit messages. But the movie doesn’t want to leave her. We see her become an oppressor of other women, too. I really wanted to go all the way with the paradox. In the last shot, she has the braids of a child, the outfit of a man, and the makeup of a woman. She’s everything she’s been in the movie.
Did you know that you wanted this coda to solely focus on Marieme?
No, at first it was a question. I tried different things in the writing process, and it was kind of the same thing with the casting. Do I do the perfect little diversity mix—a black girl, and a white girl, and a Chinese girl—because that’s what we do in France, it means that things are all even, but that’s not true. It’s the same for the polyphonic movie as opposed to the character-driven movie. If it’s polyphonic, you try to even things out: one will succeed, one will fail. It’s not committing the audience, it’s sending mixed messages and being reassuring. I don’t think movies should be reassuring, they should be asking you questions and making you commit to a character. I think the whole experience is about being in the skin of someone you’re not, and that works so well when you have one character and you’re in his head. I love that, when you’re in the mind of someone, and you feel that their journey is your own for an hour and a half. That’s the beauty of cinema, but it’s also the political side of cinema. You can be the President of the United States or a sixteen-year-old black girl.
As an American, this is a film that would not exactly be easy to finance. When you decided you wanted this movie to be about four black women, did you come up against any friction from financiers, or people who wanted to push it in a different direction?
No, not at all. If it was my first film, then maybe it wouldn’t have worked. But it’s my third one, my last one worked, so I had the confidence of the industry. And also it’s cheap. I always try to think about the economy of my films so I have the freedom to not make any compromises. It cost 2.7 million euros, so around $3.2 million. I could do what I wanted and not underpay anyone, but it’s because it’s my third film. Tomboy, especially, was really a cheap movie, that worked really well. When there’s a good balance between what you’re telling and what it costs, I think the financing people really want it to happen. I have an identity now in the French industry that allows me to make it happen. We got it financed in four months once the script was complete. I don’t have to compromise, I just do what I want to do.