Girlhood (Bande de filles, 2014)

Poster for Girlhood

Not a sequel or matching bookend for Boyhood, although the two might make an interesting double feature. The third film by the French writer-director, Céline Sciamma, is a slice-of-life coming-of-age story about a black girl named Marieme who lives in one of the poor, immigrant suburbs of Paris. She’s sixteen years old, and she lives with her older brother and two younger sisters in her mostly-absent mother’s apartment. There’s no mention of a father that I recall.

As good as the film is as a character study and depiction of marginalized life in the big city, it’s just as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does say. This makes it difficult to interpret, which is no doubt the point, although there were aspects that I might’ve understood better if I were more familiar with France. For example, there’s an interview between Marieme and some kind of school counselor (who is never shown, only heard — literally a faceless bureaucrat) in which Marieme is told she has to attend vocational school; she’ll never get into the university. I know that France has an academic track system like that, where kids have no choice about which track they’re assigned to, but what I wasn’t sure about is whether there was any implication that Marieme was being shunted into the vocational track because of racism. The fact that the counselor is invisible made me feel she had a hidden agenda, but maybe it was completely straightforward.

I felt similarly uncertain about the lack of any mention of a father, and about the mother’s remove from the story. Neither of these things is commented on directly, so they inform the story as absences, as lacks. On the other hand, the brother is present, but I also didn’t understand why he had so much power over Marieme or what his role in the household really was. We see him playing video games and mostly being hard on Marieme, but is that really all there is to his life? The one time he treats Marieme nicely, and let’s her play a video game with him, is after she beats up a girl in the neighborhood as part of a gang-related conflict. Why does he approve of that? Is he in a gang too?

To the extent that there’s a story with a traditional narrative conflict in it, it’s that Marieme takes up with a trio of tough girls after the confrontation with the faceless bureaucrat. The French title of the film, Bande de filles, seems to translate as something like gang or crew of girls. The girls give Marieme a sense of belonging and friendship, and maybe there’s an implication that girls in her situation are forced to create allegiances with gangs. But like everything else in the film, the gang life is portrayed fairly obliquely, without the usual moral stances or melodramatic, existential crises typical of such stories. The ambiguity and uncertainty that hover over why Marieme makes the decisions she does makes everything we see seem enigmatic.

Stories of impoverished characters stuck in painfully difficult social situations are not my favorite thing in the world, but this one worked for me, perhaps because of the ambiguity. It has some of the features of social realism, but it didn’t have any of the miserablism that I associate with social realism. (I bounced right off Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, for example, because the main character was so angry and miserable.) I suppose it reminded me a little bit of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, with its elliptical evasion of narrative and resolute lack of resolution. Both films end with their young female protagonists facing an unknown and unpromising future. But in reaching their lack of a conclusion, both films create a sense of the unbearable lightness of being that Kundera wrote about: the lack of rehearsal for the big decisions we all have to make, when the choices are neither wrong or right. Marieme, in fact, is defined mostly by her refusal of all the choices that are offered her. Where can she possibly get living that way? Girlhood offers no answer.

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