Cinematic choreography and the art of showing, not telling.
There’s a moment roughly halfway into Céline Sciamma’s new film Bande des filles (retitled, for reasons explained below, as Girlhood in its U.S. release) that is both majestic and bemusing. The main character, a French teenager named Marieme (Karidja Touré) attends a knock-down, drag-out ring fight, wherein her shit-talking friend Lady (Assa Sylla) gets utterly trounced by a member of a rival bande. Days turn into weeks and, with the help of Marieme (who goes by “Vic”—short for Victory) and others, the hot-tempered Lady eventually nurses her wounds of both body and ego. But in concluding this chapter of Marieme’s story, Sciamma makes the curious decision to loop back around to the ring fight—only this time, Lady’s ass-whooping is shown through the blotchy digital eye of a teenage onlooker’s cellphone. Para One’s music swells with a curiously breathless anticipation, and the entire frame pulsates with an energy that’s unmistakably adolescent: the thrill of spilt blood, the unwillingness to look away, the anxious potential for payback on the horizon.
In this vein, Girlhood’s most important scenes are never quite what they appear to be, including the celebrated, neon-lit sequence wherein Vic and her friends lip-synch the entirety of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a cheap motel room, a scene that reviews would have you believe comprises at least half of the film’s runtime. Sciamma’s process is one of constant, uneasy dramatic reorientation, zeroing in on the synaptic connection between experience and memory, which announces itself explicitly in raw, spontaneous outbursts of emotion. What is Vic really thinking? Who is the “real” Marieme? As in her previous coming-of-age investigations Tomboy and Water Lillies, Sciamma refuses to provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, making Girlhood both universal (see: title) as well as slyly political. The film confounds superficial expectations of its hood culture milieu throughout its heroine’s transition from a meek, braided girl hiding within the banlieues to an itinerant criminal and then something else entirely. Yet despite its sociopolitical particulars, the key to Sciamma’s radiant film is always Touré, whose wide-eyed performance carries Girlhood’s considerable mystery and its undeniable compassion in fixed stride.
Steve Macfarlane One of the things I appreciated about Girlhood was that most of the emotional turning points were unspoken, or rather, internal moments of decision or realization. Can you talk about your writing process? How do you construct drama that's seen but not heard?
Céline Sciamma Well, you know, I'm trying to embody everything. Because it's cinema, you know? There are great, talkative films, of course, but I think I'd like to find a way to show and not for the characters to actually address what they're going through. I think it's also a way to stay true to teenage-hood, because basically, Marieme is going through some things that are happening in her stomach, in her heart, but it's not in the mind. It would be fake, I think, to have her be so aware of what she's going through. This is a turmoil, you know? She's fighting with feelings.
I'm trying to stay true to the character's age, their state of mind, and I'd rather show girls dancing to tell how a friendship is born, and show that friendship as basically a choreography. I'd rather show girls playing American football with no explanation, rather than saying, This is going to be a film about girls on a team, playing powerfully, and playing violent. And being loud and joyful together. You know? For each scene, I try to think, How do I step into this? How do I get out? How do I build a strong plot without actually saying things? It's something I'm quite obsessed with.
You're making an indie, art house film, let's say. People like this idea that it's not going to be action. But it is. I try to think of it as an action movie, because all movies are! Also, I find that architecture in writing different episodes, or chapters, of the film. So you actually see her taking the step into the unknown, and this unknown is like, the ten seconds of black on the screen, and next you find a result out of that. It's a way to create, actually, a craving for the character's future, for the audience. That was the big step in writing Girlhood, when I said, Okay, I'm going to do this in like five chapters. That's where I found out how to tell that story.
SM I'm glad you brought up the gaps between scenes. I was going to say, there are times when it seems like you're jumping from chapter three to chapter four to chapter six. Some information is withheld, to great dramatic effect. Can you talk more about this “craving?”
CS Yeah—I wanted two different things. One, you're always in anticipation in a classical coming-of-age story. You have the chronicle, the everyday life of the character. And yet I also wanted the big destiny, this great journey. That's how I decided to go with the chapter structure: you're always in the present with her, but the episodes also add up and you still have this big journey. I thought a lot about TV series actually, and the blackouts in the film could even be seen as placeholders for credit sequences! And that's because they have that structure where you can always be in the everyday life of the character, but after one or two or three seasons, you've basically lived a character's life. It's a positive that always relies on friendship. Between the audience and the character – that's essentially what a TV series is about, whereas cinema builds up a love relationship between the audience and the character. I'm looking for the friendship and for the audience to actually care for the character, and of course it's a movie about friendship also.
The craving for the future relies on this architecture, but it's also a craving for a face. One of my goals as a filmmaker, something I'm always thinking, is, How do I make a show out of a face? I'm making films that are portraits, and how does the face get in and out of the frame? That's an idea that runs throughout the movie. The last shot is about that: how do you go out of the frame, and how do you go back into the frame? I like the fact that suddenly, people in the room will be so curious about her face: what expression will she have? It's a way to collaborate with the audience, to put them at the heart of the mise-en-scene. Sorry – I'm making very long answers ...
SM No, it's great! So has anyone advised you against this emphasis on the face? Over the text, I mean. Or do you wish more movies shared the same emphasis?
CS What I like is in between. I don't like to be taken for an idiot; when I watch Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain, for instance, the entire joy is in the speaking – it's about telling me the plot, the talk is actually the heart of the film. Or The Social Network—I love it, because people are talking and talking and it's about the information they give. Basically, I hate it when the talking the characters do is between themselves, but you know, they're actually winking at me and saying, “Okay. We're gonna save the world now.” I'm not saying you shouldn't speak onscreen; some of my favorite films are actually very talkative. But it's about the question, “Why are we talking?” It should never be just to give information when there's no wit, no humor, no personality to it. It's really depressing, I think.
When I go to the cinema, I'm looking for a vision, you know? So it's not about still camera versus shaky camera, I just need to feel that somebody is actually watching something with a vision, and thinking about it. If there's thinking in a movie, then you're good, actually. Even if you don't agree with the thinking, a film must have its own logic inside.
SM Your vision in Girlhood begins and ends on the main character—literally the same framing of the individual shots. Her older brother, for instance, only enters the frame from the right hand side, as if from the narrative periphery, and he's breaking up her world, her sphere of contentedness. You were able to create drama within the frame, without dialogue.
CS I'm kind of obsessed with choreography. When we think about choreography, we think about dancing, or sports. I try to apply the same logic when I'm filming those things and when I'm just filming somebody in a room. When Marieme is in her room right after we've met the brother, she lies down, extends her arm, and we see her hand. The camera goes to her face, then it goes back down her arm to her hand and for the first time, we can see that her little sister is holding her hand. That kind of choreography of movement tells a lot—it creates such a feeling. This kind of choreography can actually surprise you: you won't know where the plot is going. Sometimes it's also about not knowing what the next shot is going to be, and that's also something joyful, playful, for the audience. That’s a choreography of the camera. I always try to find those things.
SM I understand you auditioned hundreds of girls and then work-shopped the script a little bit with Karidja Toure. Was there ever a time when she or one of her cast mates had to correct you on something or improvised on it? Or is the vision one hundred percent yours?
CS Well, when I cast the girls, they were handed the script. and I said, “We're gonna read this together and see if you're on board or not. Now, of course, when you tell me something is wrong, I'm listening.” But the thing is, it was really written as a fiction. It's not actually about being true to an anthropological ideal. It's written in really neutral language, and basically, they'd really say, “Okay, this is a story. I can stand up for that story.” But I didn't cast them for their personal backgrounds, in fact, I didn't even ask what their biographical relationship with the story was. Of course, I know now, but they all have very different backgrounds, and very different connections to the story. Sometimes they didn't even know how much of a connection they in fact had to the story, because they had not yet gone through all of the things the characters go through.
So I didn't pick them for any “expertise,” I picked them for being good actresses. Karidja has friends in the banlieues, but she herself is living in the 15th Arrondisement, a very bourgeois neighborhood. I mean, she's a Parisian girl! And that's fine with me, because I'm not looking for this connection, I'm looking for girls I can work with, so they have that distance. It's cinema, it's always a matter of distance—where you put your camera, how you look at things, where you create vision, and subtext that is more than just a message. Of course we could have discussed everything, but it was written as total fiction. It’s a classical plot that actually stays true to centuries of tradition, I think. (laughter)
SM Can you tell me a little bit about the final passage in which, again, there's a black screen and suddenly we realize her life has changed dramatically, and that she's now working for a drug lord? By the end of the movie, you know everything that's happened to her in the film's chronology, but you still don't know that much about who she is. How do you decide what to keep and what to edit out of somebody's life?
CS Actually, those transitions between chapters are not about editing. They were meant to happen in that particular order.
SM I mean editing in terms of script or narrative.
CS Oh, sorry! I tried to make the last part really different, and a lot of people thought the film could end one chapter before or, that it could have gone in another direction, into a different world. In the final chapter, she gets back to being lonely, and that is the weird thing. This is a movie about the group, about friendship, but I felt like to talk about friendship, you have to begin lonely and you have to end lonely. We already know that friendship will end, and I tried to capture that, like in the singing scene in the hotel room—of course it's a joyful, exhilarating scene, but there's also a nostalgia for that moment, while it's happening. It's melancholy. So the movie, in that last part, is actually creating its own nostalgia for what happened before, which is kind of depressing for the main character and for us, but I tried really to build out the worlds around her new identities, and to create a kind of superhero’s journey. What power comes with what outfit? “With this one, I can fly. With this one, I can freeze my enemies.” She goes through hypotheses of herself, and that's basically how I edited the script: the discovery of a new identity, the power it gives her, and the limits and the paradoxes therein—and then, switch to another one.
For instance, her group identity empowers her, makes her fight and become violent, but it also makes her love and brings tenderness into her life. I mean, it's not pure mathematics. Unfolding is really the word for my process of writing that film. Unfolding, contrasting, paradox, and trying to show how complex every identity really is. It’s about refusing the fact that characters are usually assigned one energy, one language, one style. And to actually unfold that—she speaks the slang, but she can also speak like the president of France. They can be kids jumping on the bed, or they can be iconic divas. They can be loud, and they can be melancholic and silent. Unfolding that is the key.
SM Personally, I always wonder: “What's gonna happen to these characters after the movie ends?” You seem to want to keep that a mystery.
CS Well, the last time you see her face, she has the braids of childhood, the makeup of a woman, and she has the outfit of a boy. And she leaves. Basically, she tried out all these identities including the one that we would propose to her as a society. She did not invent these identities, but in the end she has them all, she chose them all. Now she's going to actually invent who she is by living. She's been assigned identities from this territory, and to me, she's going to build her own self in the future, and definitely not going to pick any of them again—she's been there and she won't go back there. I don't know what's going to happen to Marieme, but she's a heroine of refusal.
SM A heroine of refusal?
CS Yeah. I think coming-of-age stories are about finding yourself, of course, but they are also about fulfilling your desire, having an idea. For youth today is, there's no utopia, there's no strong political idea that you can hang on to. There’s a crisis, and you feel like you define yourself by what you say “no” to. There's nothing you can actually embrace, and so your strength and your opinion rely on that which you deny. That's basically where we all are, I think, right now, and so she's a very contemporary heroine. She refuses, and she leaves. I think it's really brave to say “no,” and it's very different from a plot based around saying “yes.”
SM One of the things I loved about that final passage is, even though she cuts her hair, dresses like a boy, and plays video games, she's still secretly being viewed as an object of desire. It's a political film, but it's not.
CS It's a political film, but not in that there’s a message. Sometimes we mistake what's political and what's not. I mean, if you make a movie about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it's going to talk about politics, but it may not be political. Girlhood is political, but in its aesthetic project—not what it tells but how it tells it. I decided to look at the banlieues, but in the vernacular of cinema: the tracking shot, the still camera, the steadicam, a strong score, Rihanna. These are tools of cinema. Pop culture, you know, is political as a means of refusal, because you're putting somebody at the center who was at the margin of representation. I think political fiction is about that.
It's not about the message you send, and whether the film is full of hope or depressing. I don't care. I'm raising questions and the message I'm sending, if there is one, is in the mise-en-scene, in the whole film, and not at the “end of the journey.”
SM As a white woman making a film about a black woman's experience, you seem to have contented yourself to the fact that there's going be a lot you can't know. And a lot in common too, obviously.
CS At the beginning of the project I was not thinking, “I'm going to tell what it's like to be a black girl in 2014.” I was thinking, “I'm going tell what it's like being a girl.” Which I've been trying to tell for six films now!
But why can't she be black? I want her to be black. I'm white, I can't say I have thoughts like I know what it is to be black. That would be wrong. But I believe in fiction, vision, and collaboration also, because I met with a lot of girls. I tried to craft it as this big fiction, and in general there are very few black characters, and sometimes they are just that, “the black character.” While the characters are black in the film, she's very much the girl character as well.
SM I understand you chose Tomboy over the French-language equivalent, because the phrase is just not the same. So I have to ask: was retitling the film Girlhood a marketing decision, or was it your own?
CS I picked the title myself.
SM Even though it's very different from Bande des filles? Can you talk about the two titles? I'm glad Girlhood is yours. Inevitably, I assumed it was picked to cash in on Linklater's Boyhood.
CS I can definitely see that there's a suspicion among the critics that this is a marketing trick from the distributor! (laughter) But no, I picked it before Boyhood. We proposed an international title, of course, and they could have changed it, but they didn't. I am glad, actually, because I like the fact that there will be a Boyhood and a Girlhood in the same cinema. That film is like watching somebody grow with cinema, but with the most positive approach ever—I like it. There's a rich discussion between the two films. Because Bande des filles, when you translate it, is “group of girls”—not really a great title. Or Bunch of Girls, which I didn't quite like, or Gang of Girls. Gang has a criminal side I really didn't want. It would be a lie, really.
SM It reminds me of Sarkozy using the word “thug” as a hidden racial epithet ...
CS Yes! There's a pun with Bande des filles, there were two connotations to the French title, which you don't get in English. But I liked the fact that with Girlhood, there was also a pun with “hood,” And also, it was a really, really universal title. This is what I was saying before: it's the classic story of a girl's emancipation. It's universal. We decided that this was a new romantic heroine with a new romantic face, to tell that story again, today. And I liked that in the American title. It actually works with the two films—Boyhood is what is actually universal, you know, middle class, white boy, white family, average problems, divorce, alcoholism ...
SM Very American.
CS It's statistically average. And really, you know, this is universal to America. And we've taken characters from the margins and tried to make them universal. So the title is the opposite.
SM Back to your comment about Marieme learning to fight: there's a curious moment just before the end of a chapter, when you include cell phone footage—the only instance in the movie, if I'm not mistaken—of Marieme's friend being beaten up amd kicked around in the dust.
CS It's a clue that Marieme is on the rise, and Lady is on the fall. And it's a clue that the video is going viral, actually, so she's really going be on the fall. That's an arty way of saying, you know, winter is coming.
SM Huh. Well, thanks for rescheduling after the snowstorm. Am I your last New York interview?
CS Yes, it's my last interview. Then, holidays.
SM What are you gonna do?
CS I think I'm gonna go to MoMA. It's been seven years since I've been in New York.
SM I imagine it's gonna be crowded on a day like today. Does a lot of people-watching go into your writing process? Or do you work more internally, and then check it over with others later?
CS The writing is really solitary.I don't watch films or anything; there's too much authority there. But in the process of looking for an idea and actually dreaming about the next film, I try to grab as many impressions of art and life as I can. So I'm reading a lot, I'm going to museums, and I'm going to see films. That's the time during which I really feed myself randomly, not trying to control it, but just trying to embrace the most inspiring things around. But once I figure out what I want to do, I'm just trapped in my mind. (laughter)
Girlhood is out now.
Steve MacFarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.