Let’s be clear from the start: French writer and director Céline Sciamma’s new powerhouse film Girlhood is in no way riffing off of Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated, 12-year saga Boyhood–and it’s not simply a difference in gender.
“What I don’t find funny is people thinking it’s a marketing strategy to get attention, which is not true because I picked the title myself a year and a half ago when I didn’t know Boyhood existed,” Sciamma says. “But I like the comparison because it’s two very different movies that have opposite dispositifs but they believe in the same thing: watching somebody grow. For him he’s average middle class, average white boy, average dream, average family life–that’s universal. He’s telling a lot about who’s in the middle of everything. But I’m picking someone on the margin of representation.”
And that someone at the margin is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a teenage girl living in the projects outside Paris with zero high school prospects, an ineffectual mother, and a tyrannical older brother. Marieme’s world couldn’t be more suffocating until she joins a band of recklessly confident girls whose bravado and swagger become Marieme’s catalyst to a twisting path toward self-discovery.
It’s a coming-of-age story stripped to a raw honesty that’s become Sciamma’s calling card. Her two previous films Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011) explore similar ideas identity and sexual awakening but Girlhood is markedly different: Sciamma has pushed herself past the limit of a genre she’s mastered to achieve her most nuanced portrait of a teenage girl–and not just a black teenage girl. Though themes of race and class are certainly present, they’re support structures for a larger narrative of breaking past pre-set identities and into one’s own.
Girlhood is different than your previous films–where did the idea come about?
It’s been a dialogue from film to film, thinking about coming of age stories set in the suburbs. This time I wanted to have more contemporary anchorage and set the movie in the present because the two previous ones were more intemporal. I wanted to go further in each direction: further in fiction with this big, Romanesque journey, further in the portrayal of the social pressure around women who are struggling with finding their identity. It was basically to be more radical everywhere–more radical in fiction, more radical in the entertainment and the mise-en-scene. There’s also a departure in the fact that even though it’s driven by one character, I wanted to talk about the group and to really unfold what friendship is between women and how it actually enables you to find your voice.
The coming-of-age drama clearly appeals to you. What about this genre entices you?
It’s a genre where everything is: You can have a love story, you can have a friendship story, you can have this body transformation that evokes the fantastic cinema. It’s a place for really strong feelings because you’re doing everything for the first time, so everything is an event. It’s really rich–you can explore so many things. Also, it’s a way to show new faces, new actors. You create your world when you make coming of age stories–you invent actors and you can connect with the audience who likes to go back and dip into these strong emotions everyone went through.
There’s an intense level of honesty in your films: How do you stay true to characters who are inherently complex?
There are many different ways to make it honest. In the process of writing I’m trying to be honest with what I want to say and to craft a story with the most contrast. A film has to think something. It’s not about how you build a strong narrative. You have the vision of what you want to write: of course you want to make it appealing–you want it to find the right rhythm, but also there has to be something you think. I don’t see a lot of people saying that! You have to think about how the story was told before you. And it’s mostly the relationship you build with your cast.
On the subject on your cast, you’re known for working with brand-new, inexperienced actors: How do you pull out such powerful performances from them as a director?
It’s about knowing what they can and can’t do–that’s how you get the good performances. When you meet them, you see their limits.It’s not about being obsessed with getting what you want–it’s about finding the way. You have to be creative because their limits are your qualities. They have to rely on you, always. I talk to them all the time during the takes. I’m right next to them and we build the rhythm of the sequence together. It’s trust, really. It’s kind of a romantic thing but it’s true. It’s also playing with them. They know you’re there to lead but it’s not about the hierarchy. If they dance, I dance. If they sing, I sing. You have to be one of the group. I’m the fifth one of the bunch of girls.
Speaking of the girls, Girlhood could have been a parachute job into the projects by a white director, but you’ve managed to present something that transcends race in an authentic way.
I try not to think of it as a strange world that I should read about and conquer. People would ask me, “how did you document it?” It’s the story of a girl–the feelings of a girl. You don’t get that in sociology books. It’s about believing in fiction, believing in building beautiful characters. It’s not about what she represents, it’s about what she experiences–that’s how the movie stays honest. It’s not trying to state points about what it’s like to be a black girl or what’s like to live in the projects. It believes in its character and tries to create the intimacy of a feeling and to stay true to that.
Something interesting happens at five points in the film: a synth-y melody comes in as the screen fades to black whenever Marieme reaches a pivotal moment in her journey. Can you give us more details?
That a decision I took in the process of writing and it’s the moment for me when I found the architecture of the script. I wanted this episode structure. The 10-second blackouts between each segment are like a credit effect for me. I was thinking about a TV series because I was looking at what they have and that is a strong feeling of chronicle. Yet when you add up the episodes, there’s this great journey. So I wanted to have both, looking at the present of the character, really being in the beat of the moment, but also that very intense journey with a lot of time.
They’re all about these new identities–each chapter she has this new look. It’s also about the audience craving to discover a new face. I like to work around the appetite of the audience for seeing a face–that’s what cinema is all about especially when you’re making films that are a portrait of a character. A TV series, it’s a friendship. It’s about meeting up with a character every week. I’m trying to work around friendship between the audience and the character–I want you to care. A film is a love story.