Céline Sciamma is about to become much better known as her new film Bande de filles (Girlhood) is currently drawing enthusiastic audiences and critical attention in Paris. Before I review that film, after it appeared at the London Film Festival, I thought it might be useful to look at Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy.
All three of Sciamma’s features involve questions about gender roles – the first, Water Babies (France 2007) focused on 15 year-old girls at a swimming pool. The ‘tomboy’ of the title in her second film is Laure (Zoé Héran) a skinny 10 year-old whose family is moving to a new flat somewhere in the Île-de-France region. It’s summer and the area is a fantastic playground for the local children with woods and a lake as well as a tarmac football pitch. Laure quickly meets Lisa – a girl possibly a year or two older but certainly much more developed in her progress through puberty. Laure tells Lisa that her name is Mikael and allows her to think that her new friend is a boy. At home, Laure’s mother is heavily pregnant with her third child (a boy) and Laure’s younger sister, 6 year-old Jeanne, wants to join the gang of children playing outside. At first Laure refuses to take her along – she might accidentally reveal the deception about Laure’s gender identity. But of course Laure will be ‘exposed’ at some point anyway . . .
I spent an interesting time on IMDB and other sites looking at reactions to the film. Although most were very positive, there were one or two angry commentators from LGBTQ communities who accuse Sciamma of not knowing what she is doing or misrepresenting transgendered people. I don’t know anything about Ms Sciamma’s gender orientation but I do think that she’s been extremely careful not to present a polemic or a campaign or to take a moral stance on anything in particular. (As an aside, Tomboy was distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures which specialises in LGBT films and ‘World Cinema’ more generally.) Audiences are entitled to ‘read’ Laure/Mikael’s behaviour in whatever way they wish. My take is that the reaction of Laure to Lisa’s opening question (implying that Laure is a boy) is to simply run with the mistake because it gives her a chance to experience being a boy as a gender role.
There are a couple of interesting observations to make, however. The imminent arrival of a baby brother, who will be able to do the things that Laure thinks she is prevented from doing (e.g. playing football) must cause her some distress/pressure. As one of the IMDB users points out, it might be that Laure has been encouraged by her father to do ‘masculine’ things like drink beer and steer the family car. The scenes that seem to have caused the most offence refer to the actions of the mother (who is faced with the consequences of Laure’s actions and worries what will happen when she starts at her new school at the end of the holidays). Earlier in the film there is a gnomic reference to the family always being on the move. Has Laure done this before? There is no explanation (unless I missed it) as to why they have moved so often.
Whatever we make of these controversies, it is clear that Céline Sciamma is a talented filmmaker. Tomboy is a short feature (82 mins) but it is beautifully-paced. The children’s play is handled very well and they all perform in a natural way. The little sister is perhaps a tad precocious, but such children exist and she is actually quite charming. This is an example of using a small budget wisely and with good imagination, taking a simple story idea and following it through with wit and humour and compassion. I’ve got to go and find Water Lilies now. If you haven’t seen Tomboy it has been on BBC4 (so may reappear) and it is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Peccadillo.