Review: Girlhood


 DIR/WRI: Céline Sciamma • PRO: Bénédicte Couvreur • DOP: Crystel Fournier • ED: Julien Lacheray • MUS: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier • DES: Thomas Grézaud • CAST: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Touré


Girlhood is French auteur Céline Sciamma’s third full-length directorial feature analysing the growing pains of the coming-of-age generation in contemporary France. Water Lilies (2007) explores the provocative sexual awakenings of three middle-class teenage girls and Tomboy (2011) follows the distressing experiences of a transgendered ten-year old child who must navigate his gender identity and youth within a hostile and unyielding milieu. Elaborating on themes of strained childhood transitions into adulthood and arguably incorporating a more political agenda, Girlhood is an intoxicating French feminist drama and compelling counter-response to the familiar, saccharine coming-of-age narratives and the ubiquitous cinematic images normally aligned with sophisticated Paris.


Marieme lives a subordinated life with her mother, two sisters and abusive brother in an impoverished banlieue on the outskirts of Paris. Although she has performed disastrously at school, she yearns to better herself and pleads with her educational officer to progress into high school, who steadfastly rejects her ambitions. Displaced and lacking direction, she joins an aggressive girl gang and, in their presence, transforms from a diffident and timorous teenager into a street-wise and threatening character. Determined not to pursue the same path as those of her gender and social class buried in menial, low-paid employment, a chance meeting with an influential hoodlum sees her destiny take an unexpected turn, far removed from the high-school aspirations she initially harboured.


Striking a chord with contentious issues in contemporary France and investigating female adolescence through a reproving, feminist lens, Girlhood dissects the inevitable fate of marginalised young black girls, who have been demarcated by society’s impenetrable social structures and prescribed an ill-fated trajectory of demoralisation and oppression. Owing to her lack of education, opportunity and default role as redundant, Marieme is obliged to find alternative means to navigate the perilous social jungle she is coerced to remain in, thereby necessitating an appropriation of violent masculine behaviour in order to establish an identity and defend herself from physical and figurative assault.


Girlhood is a polemic on the white, middle-class establishment, who, by rejecting rather than cultivating Marieme’s educational aspirations and breaking the cycle of social injustice, leads her down an inevitable path of self-destruction, perpetuating the stigma society aligns with uneducated, young black girls. Sciamma conceives such tactics are designed to dissuade the malignancy of socio-cultural integration from disseminating throughout civilised French society, submitting ethnic girls to a subsequent life of violence and crime, a contentious theme previously explored in Virginie Despentes’ evocative French feminist film Baise-moi (2000).


Girlhood is equally unequivocal in highlighting the gendered construction of violence in urban Paris, where femininity is severely problematic and aligned with exploitation and degradation. To be a woman in this social milieu is to render oneself a victim, equating to failure, exploitation and subjugation. Female power may only be obtained through a de-feminisation of the self and assuming an aggressive disregard for society’s rules. To de-sex oneself in this Parisian quagmire, nullifies these traits and engenders respect and acceptance, as gang leader “Lady” discovers when her hair is lobbed off for failing to annihilate the most aggressive girl in the ‘hood and Marieme is celebrated for painstakingly punishing the same girl.


Sciamma’s skill in dealing with such relevant social issues is largely owing to her own upbringing in urban Paris, where she witnessed first-hand, black gangs fighting and fighting back at society’s disparaging assault on them. To recreate an equally organic platform for her cast, first-time actors and a largely improvised script were employed to heighten the perils of urban chaos administered and experienced by urban gangs lurking around pernicious urban streets. Sciamma’s screenwriting tactics, whereby action rather than dialogue drives the narrative, allows the audience to affectingly witness the unveiling of the exploitation, violent energy and displacement of a young, black urban generation. Karidja Touré excels as the perturbed teenager-turned-gang heroine and in a reversal of roles, Assa Sylla, ironically assuming the moniker “Lady”, is acerbic and audacious as bullish gang leader-turned-deflated pessimist, both steering the plot furiously as they navigate the most antagonistic aspects of their damaged characters with a vulnerable tenderness their friendship offers.


Rather than alienate audiences with such weighty social concerns, Sciamma creates a slick, edgy and youthful urban platform to springboard her socio-political themes. The production design wavers between a bleak, gritty and foreboding milieu of overpopulated, drab, grey tower blocks; a would-be boot camp for girl gang members, to an explosion of fluorescent colour in central Paris, where luminous spaces of seduction and glamour liberate the girls from oppressive, urbanized restraints, allowing genuine friendship to cultivate. Violence burns, reaps rewards and becomes a gateway to freedom under the sonorous encouragement of a fierce and funky electro-pop soundtrack.


Symptomatic of the national picture, Girlhood is an unflinching portrait into the seething cauldron of interminable chaos created by the fractured social structures in contemporary Paris. The film however, is more than just a socio-political platform to unmask the promotion and maintenance of a racial hierarchy that keeps the socially disparate firmly entrenched in urbanized zoos where they continue to represent ethnic degeneration and have practically expired. It is also pure cinematic joy.


Dee O’Donoghue

15A (See IFCO for details)

113 minutes

Girlhood is released 8th May 2015


Girlhood – Official Website



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