Director Céline Sciamma returned to the Cannes Film Festival last year with Girlhood, following TomBoy (2011) and Waterlillies (2007). Now on release in the UK, it is about troubled teens and friendships in the Parisian banlieues.
If you watch the trailer, Girlhood (rated 15) seems like any other ‘girl movie’ of its genre, inviting the audience to take part in its little gang’s daily activities. Yet the fakeness of this documentary realism is flagrant, turning it into a grim postcard with no real sociological intent.
The narrative is surprisingly predictable: all the cheap clichés are there. Marieme (Karidja Touré), a poor young black girl, fails to enter high school and because she doesn’t want to end up working like her mother, as a cleaner in a hospital – her only legal job prospect shown throughout the film – she falls in with a female gang, stealing little girls’ pocket money and fighting with others in teenage ‘cockfights’.
The issue with Girlhood is similar to those of most acclaimed French militant social films which tend to feature copy-and-paste narratives. Whether it’s La Haine, All That Glitters, The Intouchables or Girlhood, the ‘have a poverty stricken banlieue experience’ is overrated yet still in the mainstream.
The mise-en-scene turns the lives of these segregated kids into something trendy enough for the audience to watch. Sciamma tirelessly uses world cinema aesthetics to make scenes tragic and cool, with close-up shots in plain background with a Para One soundtrack (like an Urban Outfitters ad campaign ad with coloured faces).
The film tells us that it’s okay to be that doomed black girl as long as the academic visuals and the modish French electronic music are there. Yet the only scene where Marieme enters the world of Parisian bobo kids (the ones who actually listen to Para One) is when she sells them drugs at a house party.
In short, the main characters embody stereotypes, from the brutal and sexist brother to the ex-gang member who tells the girls she is now a 16 & Pregnant MTV-like persona.
The few interactions with the non-indigenous people are ludicrous– an example being the scene where a sales assistant follows Marieme because she is black, or the one when her younger sister pickpockets the only white girl present during a street-dance near La Défence.
The pathetic anthropological approach lays in a similar road to hell for the protagonist as the one in Ozon’s Young & Beautiful: the petit bourgeois orgasmic fantasy to unite with their own representation of the ‘other’ through a film screening, in an empathetic but distant frame.
There are no ways to escape: Marieme becomes a drug dealer. The clichés used by the film director expose the immense distance between the so-called French modern art cinema desperately trying to transcend the social barriers in an ‘imagined community’ with the banlieues and their youth.