Sophie Mayer conquers her initial self-consciousness in Céline Sciamma’s cool presence and asks the director some insightful questions about her latest film Girlhood and more
Céline Sciamma is the most exciting thing to happen to French cinema since Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) definitively blew up le cinéma du papa. Sciamma’s films Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011) thrilled viewers at LGBTQ film festivals with their conjuration of queer becomings and their critical acclaim established her as an auteure to be reckoned with. Tomboy, a delicate and delightful film about a young trans boy, screened in French schools. Her new film Girlhood (2014) has been playing in cinemas that arthouse films never reach in the Parisian banlieues that are the home of the film’s characters.
Protagonist Marieme (also known as Vic), played by first-time actor Karidja Touré, becomes part of the French title’s bande de filles, or girl gang, led by the charismatic and combustible Lady (Assa Sylla). Marieme falls headlong into intense friendship, including bust-ups with rival gangs, the thrills of the mall and increasing discomfort with her claustrophobic situation at home with her older brother. Although Sciamma’s films so far operate as something of a trilogy about adolescence, Girlhood goes where the others don’t, as Marieme/Vic leaves home and enters the adult world on the margins of white French society, full of risks and opportunities.
In London for a preview screening and all-day press junket, Sciamma sneaked a cigarette out the window of the hotel room as we talked, a meeting that felt exactly and excitingly like the start of her own films, where the uncool, awkward kid (me) gets to spend time basking in the aura of the brilliant rebel girl (Sciamma). Luckily, I had some help with the questions from academic Emma Wilson, who has written beautifully about the sensuality of Sciamma’s filmmaking.
Q&A with Céline Sciamma
You said in an interview that you are inspired by Jane Campion and Jane Austen: are there other writers or books – or Janes – that inspire you?
I said that about the Janes because everybody said “You’re inspired by the banlieue movies and La Haine, and all this cinema about the Urban Western.” No, it’s a coming of age story about young women, and it’s always the same rules, and I wanted to bring this new romantic heroine of today. Because it is set in the suburbs with a black girl, everybody looks at it as documentary, with a very suspicious look. But all those heroines have to put up with the time they live in, with their family, with the trouble to love who they choose and it’s this story that I want to tell again. So another Jane would be… Calamity Jane!
I was going to say, I feel like there’s a lot of humour in this film
I’m glad you say it’s humorous, it’s something I’ve been working on from film to film. In my first film [Water Lilies], there was humour, but I had to get rid of it in the editing room, it couldn’t stay; Tomboy was more lively, but with this one, I wanted to succeed in making comedy scenes like the mini-golf scenes.
A lot of it comes from the girls daring to take over public spaces…
I don’t know if they dare to take those spaces. In the first scene [in Girlhood] when they go home and they are all loud, and then there’s that frontier when they get into the neighbourhood and they shut down, it doesn’t belong to them. Then there’s the intimacy of the house, but it’s under control. And then there’s Paris, there’s the mall and everything, but it’s a stage where they perform. The place for intimacy they don’t have, they have to rent it, it’s a hotel. Public spaces aren’t made for women – and sometimes they’re made against women – so to me, they dare, but they have to express different sides of themselves in different places.
Homes are ambivalent in your films, often with older, controlling characters, but also with loving younger sisters…
I have a younger sister. To me that’s the most intimate part in my films, sibling relationship, and I’m really bad at talking about it, maybe because it’s so personal. It’s always something I’m obsessed about and I think I will go on talking about that. It’s funny, because all my actresses who play siblings, they don’t have sisters, I pick them for the chemistry and the bond. But the magic doesn’t just happen. For instance in Girlhood, when they [Marieme and her younger sister] say goodbye, the way they hug is not something that they’re going to find by themselves, it’s the choreography of the camera and the frame. It’s something you make up and have to think, it’s not about the feeling of the moment. To get the right feeling you have to think a lot.
In all your films, there’s a balance between these intimate moments and bigger set pieces – most spectacularly, the dance to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ in Girlhood.
In the same way the character [Marieme/Vic] really tries to refuse what society has set for her, the movie also refuses the aesthetic that society has set for it. The French arthouse, modest economy film in the suburbs, it should be documentary style, it should be grey because it’s a place of sadness. The movie resists that.
So yes, it will sometimes be intimate and be a lonely girl in a room and sometimes it will be spectacular. The fact that it’s going to be in Cinemascope, and the camera is going to be still, and the frames will be composed, and the colour is going to be there – all these decisions are political. [I make them] to refuse the frontier between a committed cinema with a sensitive look and the fact that it should be emotional and fun and a show.
You’ve been involved in making TV as well as films, working on the massively popular show Les Revenants. Would you like to make more TV?
I’ve tried. I pitched Girlhood to Canal+ as a TV show: six episodes, why not? It is structured as a series: five episodes, with a credit effect between them. I would love to do my own TV show, but maybe it won’t be on TV, it will be on YouTube. Especially with regards to creating intimacy, TV offers the principle of the chronicle mixed with the journey across a number of episodes, that’s something I want to experience.
Your films are really intimate and draw us in… How do you make that happen?
It’s in the layers that you put in the stories, and the contrast in the layers within the characters. You build the intimacy, so you feel they are flesh because there’s contrast and paradox. At each step – the writing, shooting, editing room – I just obsess with the intimacy and the involvement of the audience in the character’s journey. To me open endings are about leaving a part of the story to the audience, so that they care. They can’t leave the story in the room, they have to take it back home with them.
One question viewers might take home from Girlhood is about Marieme/Vic’s gender and sexuality. In light of your other films, viewers might read Marieme/Vic as bisexual and/or as trans… Did you deliberately leave it more open?
Marieme has a heterosexual love interest and to me she is not bi. But there are several ways to be queer: she is really trying out the different identities that society has set for her. She’s not inventing them, she’s trying them out. That’s the difference from Tomboy: it’s not something that is subjective, or that she wants to play with.
She can be this shy, quiet girl that goes by the book – but they won’t let her achieve that, the school rejects her. So she can be this more iconic, empowered girl, part of a group, with this more feminine side; and then she can be one of the boys. It’s less inventive than in the other films. But there’s that scene where she dances with the other girl, and there’s that ambiguity, but the ambiguity is in the look of the other girl because she [Marieme/Vic] is dressed as a boy.
It’s also about how the great love stories and great sentimental journey for girls is among girls. But in the end she just leaves everyone. To me, one of the bravest things she does is say no to love, because that guy loves her and he’s gentle. She is a heroine of the refusal, she refuses everything – that’s why I think she’s profoundly from today.
You told Flavorwire: ”In the last shot of the film, Marieme wears the braids of childhood, the makeup of a diva, and the clothing of a boy. She’s possibly everything or none of those.” Where do you think s/he might go from there?
I don’t have this secret story I’m not telling: I’m finishing my movie where I know it should be finished. It’s really about leaving her on the side and going to that blurry horizon and you expect the credits to roll because it’s like ten seconds. But she’s getting back in the frame and you’re going to have to put up with her in the frame. It’s not that open, it’s really saying something. It’s the most political shot I ever did in my life.
Girlhood is released on 8 May by STUDIOCANAL and will be reviewed by The F-Word shortly.
First picture is a portrait of Céline Sciamma. It shows a woman with shoulder-length hair wearing round glasses, black leather jacket and a navy blue/white polka dot scarf. She’s standing with her hands in her pockets. It was taken at the 58th BFI London Film Festival, on 16 October 2014, at Odeon West End in London. Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI. (c) Getty Images, 2014.
Second picture is a still from Girlhood, showing a young black girl with cornrows, wearing a purple hoodie. She’s on a train, with her face turned to the left, perhaps looking through the window, seeming concerned. It’s Karidja Touré as Marieme/Vic. Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.