One of the standout films of this year’s French Film Festival is Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, a coming-of-age drama about a group of girls on the outskirts of Paris, which happily, bucks all of the dreary clichés that you might expect from a 'gang girl' social drama.
Sciamma is well known to SBS audiences for her previous films Water Lillies and Tomboy, which speak to her fascination for stories about complicated times in young girls’ lives. Girlhood is a more upbeat continuation of that same theme, as Sciamma explores the bonds of teen friendship.
“It was a strong objective of mine to look at what friendship is,” she says. “What is the choreography of friendship? How it is born? How does it empower you? We all have this of idea of uniformity about groups of teenagers, that they could be a bad influence; I wanted to show how they can help empower you to express yourself and reinvent yourself, as a result of being together.
“I wrote a little letter to Rihanna.”
“These groups are often assigned a single energy, a single language. You know, ‘If you live there you speak like that’. I wanted to show that those characters can of course be strong women, really talkative and funny, but they can also be little girls.
“I wanted to unfold those characters, and make them come alive with all their contradictions.”
A pivotal scene, shot like a music video, has the girls dress up in their best new frocks (with store security tags still intact) for a sleepover in a hotel room. A typical depiction of ‘disaffected youth’ would have the girls leaving the hotel and finding/causing trouble in a nearby nightclub somewhere. But no, Sciamma’s girls stay in, giggle a lot and crank up their smartphone speakers to belt out a hearty rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’.
It’s a gorgeous movie moment, in a film of quite a few (a competitive round of putt putt is another personal highlight), so I asked her to talk us through exactly how the Rihanna scene came to be.
In the clip above, Sciamma recalls how it took a personal appeal to the superstar to overcome a licensing hiccup. It’s better to hear Sciamma explain it herself in the clip because obviously, “I wrote a little letter to Rihanna” is a pretty great way to start an anecdote.
If the English title of the film sounds a tad opportunistic, Sciamma swears it’s a coincidence. In French, the title is Bande de filles, which translates to ‘a bunch of girls’.
“I really like the international title,” she says. “Boyhood wasn’t released at the time – I didn’t know it existed! But I’m actually quite happy now that the two films exist at the same time. I like ‘Girlhood’ because it has this universal feeling, and that’s also the project of the film, to bring very contemporaneous characters into the big fiction, and the classical idea of a heroine’s emancipation.
“It’s really interesting that ‘Boyhood’ suggest a universality too – it’s about a middle-class white boy with middle class dreams that are average, everything is kind of average. The feminine side of ‘universal’ in Girlhood is a black young girl from the suburbs in Paris. I think that’s interesting and I do think that the movies have a great dialogue, actually.
"They’re both all about looking at somebody grow. In Boyhood you’re looking at him grow for real during 12 years, and in Girlhood, you look at her growing for real, but in seven weeks with all of the artifacts. The two have a strong dialogue about how you make cinema, and what do you believe in. It’s really cool.”
Girlhood is screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival this month, ahead of a cinema release later this year through Palace Films. Fiona Williams travelled to Paris to interview Céline Sciamma as a guest of Unifrance.