While I leaf through the Reelout program in the dark, I hear the familiar notes of “Nouveaux Horizons” by French artist Melissa NKonda in the speakers. The upbeat tune seems misleading as I find the film’s title in the program, marked by a teardrop icon, indicating “drama”.
“Girlhood” is a French film, directed and written by Céline Sciamma, known for previous movies, such as Tomboy and Water Lilies, in which she explores the boundaries of gender and sexuality. She does this also in this film about a young African-French girl named Marieme, living in the projects of suburban Paris with her working, absent mother, two younger sisters and an older brother, the only man of the house whose presence is felt even when he is not in it. Marieme fails to meet the academic expectations of her school and is told that she will not be moving on to high school, leaving her with the only option of going to vocational school, a path to a blue collar job. As she exits the school, Marieme encounters a group of leather-and-denim-clad girls that set her on a different path.
The film opens with two football teams running out onto a field. At first I think that I am watching the wrong movie. Soon enough it becomes evident that two female teams are playing the rough game. They end the game by gathering together and cheering, regardless of team. The light over the field is soon shut off, and the girls go home. This introduction sets the stage and introduces the power structures that will be present for the rest of the movie. The girls walk home in the dark, chattering, and fall silent as a group of neighborhood boys is encountered. One by one the girls go their separate ways and soon Marieme walks alone.
Marieme befriends the set of girls outside of school – Lady, Fily and Adiatou – and is introduced to a world of violence, but also the confidence and freedom that she lacks. It is Lady that instills this attitude in her, having her repeat the phrase “I do what I want”, and presenting her with a new name, a golden necklace reading “Vic” – for Victory.
In one scene, after her first meeting with the girls, we see Marieme tell her mother she is going to high school. Immediately after, she pockets a folding knife and straightens up. Marieme is now committed to her newfound life of freedom. We see the girls encounter other gangs of girls, taking them on in verbal as well as physical confrontations. Simultaneously, their freedom is undermined by the local boy gangs, which govern their interactions.
Marieme’s brother, Djibril, is strong, dominating – the personification of hegemonic masculinity, abiding by the socially constructed gender roles. His role consists of controlling Marieme and her sisters. The gap between the two is significant, only closed once he learns that Marieme has won a fight against a girl in a different gang, allowing us the only scene in which they bond, seemingly as equals, through violence and domination.
The film also flips the sexual script by giving Marieme control in interactions with the opposite sex, as she becomes intimate with Ismael, her brother’s friend. Djibril then punishes her and she earns a reputation as a slut.Marieme accepts a job selling drugs from the local drug dealer, Abou, and leaves home. At this stage of her life, the theme of transgender is touched upon: we see Marieme with short, braided hair and baggy, boyish clothing. We later learn that she binds her breasts as well. The gender spectrum is explored as she embraces her new, masculine persona, which is done for self-protection as well as self-empowerment. Simultaneously, she wears a short, red dress, high heels and a white wig when delivering drugs at exclusive parties, which is where we see her enter into the world of white people. In a movie that focuses on a black neighbourhood, this is one of the few times races are intermixed as we see white people introduced to Marieme’s world and she is merely a provider. Later, when slow-dancing at a party with her female roommate – also Abou’s employee, one of his “girls” – there is an implied intimacy between them while a blue light flashes across Marieme’s face. They are then interrupted by Abou, who forces Marieme to kiss him in order to reassess his role as the boss, the patriarch.
One scene that stands out is when Marieme stands on a corner with her male friends. A girl passes by, earning a comment from one of Marieme’s friends. As he holds the girl by the arm, he tells her to thank him for the compliment he is giving her, insisting that he is being nice as he grabs her harder. Marieme joins in, telling the girl she should thank him. This is a stark contrast to the Marieme that walked home alone in the dark, and not long after this scene she is being forced by Abou to kiss him, dragging her back into the gender role she thought she had abandoned. Although Marieme’s life is not luxurious, it is important to her that it is a life she has chosen. When later offered the option of marriage by Ismael, an action which will save her reputation, Marieme once again chooses not to conform to a domestic life and walks away, thereby rejecting the only life choice that she is given as a girl. The masculine identity becomes her path to autonomy, exercising the little amount of control that is given to her regarding her life. The movie has an open ending and we do not know what the next stage of life brings, but it is safe to say that it is a place of empowerment and personal responsibility, whatever the outcome.
Review by curly-z.