Gang of girls (Bande des Filles) is Girlhood‘s French title, but for its English-speaking release the film’s team cleverly decided to position this as a riposte to 2014’s Boyhood. While I haven’t seen that film, I’m now more curious about how it compares to Girlhood given the wildly different worlds they create.
Refreshingly for a girl’s coming-of-age story, Céline Sciamma‘s film keeps men mostly to the margins, rather than charting protagonist Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) growth through the lens of her relationships with men. Of course, men are present—and in strong (often violent) roles—but the film does not privilege their experiences or the relationships the female characters have with them.
Instead, men represent a menacing force that is ever-present, except in moments of need. Marieme’s father is absent; her brother inhabits the worlds of his video games, never helping with domestic work; and the original ‘fourth member’ of the girl gang appears briefly with a baby boy whose father is not mentioned.
The men that female characters do encounter are by turns dismissive, possessive, aggressive and taunting. Many of them are teenagers like the girls but others, like drug dealer Abou and Marieme’s older brother Djibril, hold a powerful sway over women’s lives. It’s unsurprising that Marieme is so suspicious of the prospect of marriage.
But before she reaches that conclusion there is a good deal of learning and heartache to happen. There is her girlhood.
Sixteen, living on the outskirts of Paris, caring for her two sisters and seemingly worried all the time, Marieme looks and is miserable. Her furrowed brow and downturned mouth are almost permanent in the early scenes of the film. Her frustration at not yet having ‘arrived’ is visible and familiar: the hurry to catch up and figure it out defines the feeling of being young I think.
One day, she gets her ticket to wherever it is she thinks everyone already is in the form of three intimidatingly self-assured girls: Lady, Fily and Adiatou. The ticket is literal: the trio invite her to come to Paris with them, where they wander aimlessly through the shopping mall attached to Chatelet-Les Halles train station. This station was built in the 1970s as a major hub of Paris’ suburban train network; before this it was the site of Les Halles fresh food market. In Girlhood, the station, located in the middle of the city, is a proxy for the housing projects that dot the suburbs where these girls live. It is one of the few places where their lives intersect temporarily with those of the wealthier city-dwellers.
While the four girls are in the mall, they call out a white shopgirl for racially profiling Marieme while she wanders through clothing racks. Later, they face off with some girls standing on the opposite train platform, who are their reflection in every way.
This mirroring and mimicking, so central to creating an identity when you’re a teen, is understood completely by Sciamma. All the female characters straighten their hair, sweeping it across their forehead to create the appearance of a weave. All wear skinny jeans and cropped black leather jackets, interspersed with the occasional sweat pant or pair of leggings. Docs, Air Jordans and eyeliner feature heavily. Dressed in this way, they do literally seem like a gang, with rival gangs in similar uniforms all around them.
After the day in Paris, Marieme starts dressing in the ‘gang colours’, but the ultimate sign of belonging is receiving her own namesake chain, like those worn by Lady, Fily and Adiatou. The four girls have rented a hotel room with money they stole from their classmates. While they drink, dance and hang out, Marieme’s brother keeps calling to find out where she is. At this point, Lady tells Marieme to turn off her phone and gives her some tough advice that will set her on a new trajectory: ‘Enjoy this. You have to do what you want.’ After making Marieme repeat this, Lady presents her with a chain that reads ‘Vic’, short for Victory.
Soon after, Marieme’s new identity and mantra of doing what she wants take firm hold and she begins to triumph: over other girls, her crush Ismael, her mother and even her brother. The fourth chapter of the film is Vic’s. We see her feeling indestructible after she fights another girl and wins back her neighbourhood’s honour. This prompts her to go to Ismael’s house in the middle of the night and sleep with him, knowing that her brother’s friendship with Ismael and general disapproval of girls’ sexual activity will land her in trouble if he finds out. Again, Sciamma shows a nuanced understanding of the psychology of teenagers, particularly risk-taking and invincibility. For adult viewers these scenes are, naturally, undercut with the retrospective knowledge that things can never go smoothly forever.
I want to pause here to talk about the visual code of the film in which the colour blue is central, appearing frequently and in so many different guises, it has become the thing I associate most strongly with Girlhood.
Most often the blue appears as an inky blue light in bedrooms, hotel rooms or in the high-rise walkways at night. But during the day we also see the colour on clothing, on Djibril’s mattress in his room and on the blue dress that Marieme stole. Red, meanwhile, is seen as a colour of weakness. It’s the colour of the bra Vic’s opponent is wearing when she loses the fight; this bra later becomes Vic’s souvenir of her victory.
Again, Sciamma is turning expectations upside-down here, choosing to use a stereotypically masculine colour as the most common visual trope for her film about young women. It’s also a reminder of the male codes and rules that lurk in the shadows of these women’s lives, despite their successful efforts to carve out their own space and identity.
Blue is, of course, also on the French flag—and it’s France, ‘always France’, that Marieme chooses as her team when she’s playing football video games. It’s a cruel irony that this child of migrants has developed a strong affinity for a country that has shown disregard for those like her living on the margins.
In the fourth ‘chapter’ of the film, we again return to Paris—one of the few glimpses of the city that we see in this story—this time to La Défense, where an even larger ‘gang of girls’ go to dance. The Grande Arche, a cube-like structure constructed as both echo and revision of the Arc de Triomphe, features prominently in these scenes. The ideals and day-to-day of La Défense, Paris’ financial district, are so foreign to the concerns of the film’s characters, it’s a fantastic juxtaposition to have them dancing with one another there, inserting themselves into that space. The Grande Arche claims to be a celebration of humanity; Sciamma’s use of it in this scene could be a subtle challenge to the humanity the French state has shown towards people of colour.
This is one of the film’s last celebratory moments of female solidarity; the later portion of the film becomes much darker as Marieme grows more isolated, perhaps a hint at the harsh realities of adulthood. Before breaking away from home (particularly Djibril) and the quartet of women who have become like family, Marieme gives her own speech in the vein of Lady’s earlier moment of tough love.
The four of them return to the hotel room to learn that Marieme is leaving the neighbourhood to work for Abou delivering drugs in the centre of Paris. Seeing her friends’ dismay, she asks bitterly ‘Where’s the dream?’ before talking about her limited prospects, a future that her friends know probably lays ahead of them too. There is great tenderness in this moment as the girls gather together one last time. Marieme reminisces about a day they went to Disneyland together (whether it’s dream or reality is unclear), revealing that ‘I told myself that was a perfect moment. And I’d never forget it,’ in one of her rare moments of vulnerability. They sleep sprawled out over the bed like small children; Marieme is gone before the others wake.
Her new life with Abou reflects many of the film’s opening tropes, including a return to her tomboyish looks, her in a maternal role to those around her, the presence of domineering male figures, and a confused Marieme gazing at the distant city lights wondering what her place in it will be. While things with Abou (and perhaps Ismael) don’t hold the promise she expected, this redoubles Marieme’s determination to continue doing things outside of the pervasive masculine codes of the life she’s known to date.
She might be alone in the film’s final scene but the moments she shared with her sisters and the gang of Lady, Fily and Adiatou were enough to convince Marieme that she’s right to pursue her own choices, without the binds of marriage and other male codes. At the film’s end, I felt optimistic, with a firm belief that Marieme’s life would consist of many more girl gangs of sorts that would shore up her self-esteem and independence.
All images by Emma Breheny