Diamonds Ring

Céline Sciamma, Bande de Filles (Girlhood), 2014, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.

THOUGH IT MAY NOT BE THE BEST TRANSLATION, Girlhood, the US title affixed to Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles—which would more accurately be rendered as “Girl Group” or “Girl Crew”—nonetheless aptly sums up this perceptive writer-director’s abiding interest. Water Lilies, Sciamma’s 2007 debut, centers on the erupting desire among a trio of fifteen-year-old female adolescents during a languorous summer; Tomboy (2010), her even more accomplished second feature, highlights a pubescent untethered to the rule-bound world of gender codes. Girlhood continues to probe the developmental stage when bodies and identities are still in flux, yet in a milieu much different from those of its predecessors: the impoverished banlieues that ring Paris and are home to many of its French-African denizens.

Sciamma has a particular gift for spectacular opening scenes. As in Water Lilies, which begins with the crazy pageantry of a synchronized-swimming completion, Girlhood also kicks off with a surprising display of athletics: the slo-mo tosses and tackles between two teams in an all-female, multiracial American-football league. Among those returning home from the game to a grim tower block is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sixteen-year-old who assumes responsibility for her two beloved younger sisters while their mother works the night shift as an office cleaner; the teenager must also frequently absorb the wrath of her tyrannical slightly older brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy). School provides no haven from these hardships: Having already repeated a grade twice, Marieme is told by a teacher—heard but never seen—that vocational training is her only option. Rather than accept this indignity, she falls in with a triad of tough girls, abandoning her braids for straightened hair, her hoodie for a leather jacket—and learning the pleasures of raising hell at malls in Les Halles, smack-talking, and impromptu dance-offs on the Métro.

Led by the swaggering alpha Lady (Assa Sylla), this foursome—whose members are all played by charismatic first-time performers—pools their (mostly pilfered) resources together for a one-night hotel stay, an occasion for pizza partying, bong hits, bubble baths, and, most rapturously, a lip-synched/sing-along performance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Bathed in blue light, intoxicated by their own freedom, however temporary, the young women are, just as RiRi sings, “a vision of ecstasy.” (Sciamma, working with her regular cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, shot Girlhood in CinemaScope, its ample width ensuring that this quartet never feels crowded out or confined.) “You have to do what you want. Say it,” Lady, soaking in the tub, demands of Marieme, whom she has renamed Vic (“as in victory”). Although boosted by this hedonist mantra—the slogan of adolescence, really, and one touchingly put to practice during the shy teenager’s clandestine romance with her neighbor Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté)—Vic will repeatedly be reminded of her severely limited options.

Yet if her opportunities are circumscribed, Vic’s chances for physical reinvention seem unlimited, especially in the film’s last quarter: Working for a drug kingpin in a nearby cité, she assumes a butch persona with bound breasts, then dons a high-femme ruby minidress and blond wig when making deliveries. Both times that I’ve seen Girlhood, this has struck me as one reincarnation too many, at odds with Sciamma’s otherwise at once loose and assured approach. These doubts dissolve, however, with the perfect, simple choreography of the final shot—when exiting the frame becomes the most radical instance of “doing what you want.”

Girlhood opens in New York on January 30 and will be released in other US cities throughout the year.