Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait six more than six months for a UK release. Phoenix was one of those films and Girlhood is the other. The title ‘Girlhood’ refers both to that period of a young woman’s life and to the concept of girls controlling their ‘hood – moving in on a genre previously seen as male. The English title, unusually, is better than the French – Bande de filles which suggests ‘Gang Girls’ or ‘Girl Gangs’. Girlhood is set in les banlieues – or les cités, those giant housing estates on the outskirts of Paris made famous in global cinema by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (France 1995). Director Céline Sciamma (known for Water Lillies 2007 and Tomboy 2011) states quite clearly in the Press Pack that she is aiming for something different than La haine. She argues that CinemaScope is the best screen ratio to show gangs and although she shoots on the estates, all the interiors are shot on studio sets so that she can control the colours/décor etc.
“We used static shots with a very deliberate perspective as opposed to the Steadicam’s predictable energy. We relied on travelling shots and often used sequence shots. It’s an episodic narrative, with dramatic accelerations.” (Sciamma in the Press Pack)
The writer-director goes on to suggest that this is a new kind of narrative, a ‘fictional manifesto’ for a group of girls discovered through public casting sessions. It certainly does have a new kind of energy and it challenges representations of young women and in particular young African-Caribbean French women. Unlike many of the films set in les cités, this film is not dominated by North African French characters. The narrative seeks credibility rather than the ‘authenticity’ of social realism. Even so the resolution of the narrative is ‘open’ but not triumphant. This is a start – there is a long way to go before these girls achieve complete social freedom.
The central character is Marieme who we first meet as she comes back to le cité with a group of young women. The opening scene suggests that all the young women have been playing for a team in a game of ‘American Football’. I wondered if this might be a fantasy sequence (it seems an expensive sport to play because of all the equipment) but I would be grateful for any confirmation that such things happen in Paris. Perhaps it signifies an aspiration towards American culture among French African-Caribbeans that mirrors earlier French interest in American popular culture? Marieme has a difficult home life. Her father is absent and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel, working long hours. Marieme looks out for her two younger sisters – and tries to avoid her big brother Djibril, a dangerous character who abuses his sisters in taking control of the household and attempting to restrict their social behaviour.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening section of the narrative is when a dejected Marieme, learning that her only future after the summer is to go to vocational school (which she doesn’t want to do), meets a trio of seemingly tough ‘gang girls’. The leader of the trio sees something in Marieme and eventually invites her to join the group. Marieme changes her hair, her taste in clothes and her name. She gets out of the summer job her mother has organised in a hotel. Now she is ‘Vic’ (for victoire/victory), named by the gang leader, ‘Lady’. Collectively the girls have fun – even if it involves petty crime and fights and shows of bravado – before Marieme/Vic is forced to make decisions. These inevitably involve young men – the boy she has a relationship with, her controlling older brother and the local ‘boss’ for whom she works and who affords her ‘protection’ once she has become ‘known’ in the male world. The film has an open ending. We don’t know what will happen to Vic, but we have learned a great deal about the life that she and her sisters face in les cités.
I found the whole film captivating and in particular Marieme/Vic as played by Karidja Touré. Seemingly without prior experience, Touré is a strong presence, moving from being quiet and withdrawn to fierce and commanding as required. When she smiles, her personality fills the screen. The other three young women are equally striking in different ways. ‘Lady’ is a clear leader, Adiatou is street-smart and Fily is the quiet one, sometimes the butt of jokes but a strong physical presence.
There isn’t much ‘plot’ in the film. The narrative structure is in some ways unusual and I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the pleasure of an unfolding story. Watching it a second time I realised that I had been so taken with my first viewing that I hadn’t really noticed how the narrative divides into sections and that the final section – when Vic moves to another estate – is longer than I thought. In fact this is quite a long film for the genre. The power of the film resides in the relationships of Vic with the other three girls, with the boy she is attracted to and in perhaps the most moving scenes of all, with her younger sister who appears to be following, quite literally, in her footsteps.
Girlhood has been successful and I was pleased to see reports that in France it has been shown in multiplexes in les banlieues, reaching the audience who are represented in it. In the UK it has been generally very well received but their have been gainsayers, in particular on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I found the discussion about the film on this show both annoying and disturbing. It was annoying because of the obvious contradiction. We were told that films like Girlhood were very unusual because there are very few other representations of young Black women in French cinema (certainly that is true of the French cinema that makes it to the UK). But at the same time the young women in Girlhood were ‘stereotypical’ and their behaviour/representation was ‘clichéd’. How can they be stereotypes if we haven’t seen them on screen before? This is sloppy thinking – it suggests that the audience is reading these young women as if they were in a British or American film. In fact, they are shown in quite distinctive ways that sometimes demonstrate connections to American culture and sometimes seem unique (an entertaining game of Crazy Golf or a dance contest in a city centre square). On the Saturday Review panel was Bim Adewunmi, a Guardian columnist and herself a young woman of West African heritage. She complained that for her this was a film utilising a ‘white gaze’ on young Black women. Obviously I can’t argue against this but also I can’t see it in the film. Céline Sciamma in interviews has said (see the Jonathan Romney interview below) that she herself grew up (as a middle-class white girl) in or close to one of the new estates outside Paris. Much has been made of the fact that only one of the four leads is actually from an estate like the ones in the film (the other three were non-professionals from other parts of Paris). But is this really important? As the young women themselves pointed out, seeing themselves as four young Black female faces on posters all over Paris was an exciting new experience. A girlhood that was invisible in mainstream media in France has been give exposure.
For more background on the film and the young actors see the very useful Jonathan Romney piece in the Observer. This one of many pieces in the Guardian/Observer and the film seems to have made a significant impact on the ‘liberal left’ in the UK. I’m hoping it will be possible to use Girlhood extensively in UK film education. I’ve watched it twice but I think it will need several more viewings before I discover all its riches. I need to explore both its cinematography and the music soundtrack by Para One – also responsible for Sciamma’s earlier two films.
The UK trailer:
I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.
The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.
Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.
Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.
Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.
A good trailer:
Here is the French ‘big budget’ response to the Hollywood ‘French Connection’ films about the drugs trade in Marseilles in the 1970s and the city’s important role as the ‘processing’ centre for heroin on its way from Turkey to New York. A less high-profile French take on the story which sounds intriguing was released as Le Juge (The Judge) in France in 1984. The budget for La French is quoted by Variety as $26 million. This is modest by US standards but substantial for a European production (i.e. in a European language). French films tend to be the most expensive in Europe. La French is a mainstream crime thriller/action picture directed by Cédric Jimenez, born in Marseilles in 1976.
La French might not have made it into international distribution without the high profile of its two stars. Gilles Lelouche and Jean Dujardin are both major stars in France but Dujardin has recently begun to appear in Hollywood films following his success in The Artist (France 2011) with all its Oscar wins. Both actors, as well as Benoît Magimel (third in the credits for La French), also appeared in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (France 2010) – a film I didn’t like very much, but which was technically well-made with a very starry cast. In a sense, La French is the same. It is well-made and the money spent ends up on screen with period motors and costumes. It also has a long running time (135 mins), lots of songs on the soundtrack and action sequences breaking up more dialogue heavy scenes. Because it is a polar – a crime thriller – there is more discipline in the narrative and it seems less indulgent than Little White Lies. I was engaged for the whole running time and I enjoyed watching the film and thinking about it as a polar, but afterwards I realised that it didn’t really offer anything particularly memorable. Certainly it didn’t have the intensity of Gene Hackman’s performances or the chase sequences in either of the French Connection films.
La French approaches the drugs racket in Marseilles from a different angle. Dujardin plays the ‘investigating magistrate’ Pierre Michel who takes on the task of cleaning up organised crime in Marseilles and in particular the heroin processing controlled by Gaëtan (‘Tany’) Zampa – the Lelouche part. This ‘head-to-head’ struggle is emphasised with a direct meeting between the two in a scene reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. But the personal battle (usually between the police inspector and the gang boss) is also a strong conventional feature of the polar going back to the Jean-Pierre Melville classics of the 1960s. By personalising the struggle in this way it also opens up the possibility of roles for the wives and families of the two men. The two wives – and the wife/girlfriend of a third character, a potential ‘grass’ – at least have speaking roles in the film. However they don’t have any ‘agency’ as such and several French reviewers have bemoaned the lack of scope in the role of the magistrate’s wife Jacqueline played by the accomplished Céline Sallette. Every time I saw Jacqueline with her two small girls I thought of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (US 1953) in which Glenn Ford’s policeman’s family is attacked by gangsters. I won’t spoil La French by telling you what does happen to Jacqueline. It is important, however, that aspects of the family melodrama come into play in the film – alongside a focus on the film policier, the ‘procedural’. This latter includes the drama of the magistrate’s lonely position – something familiar to the viewers of Engrenages, but exaggerated here with the magistrate becoming much more active in initiating police activity.
Both the family melodrama and the police procedural ‘slow down’ the action film. Elements of the procedural pop up in the French Connection films but the characters in those films have relatively little family background as such. It is the concept of ‘family’ which eventually leads La French into the discourse of police corruption that is present but less visible in the French Connection films. Zampa appears to be a Neapolitan migrant in France who deals with the Sicilian Mafia in New York. But his position in Marseilles is always threatened by the Corsicans – the ‘Union Corse’ – who otherwise control every aspect of organised crime in Marseilles. The story and the characters in the film are based on ‘real people and real events’. It is the Union Corse that in the film infiltrates the Marseilles police. I confess that I didn’t completely follow Zampa’s connection to the Corsicans. What I do know, however, is that organised crime in the polar often involves Corsican characters.
Why doesn’t the film make more impact? I think it may be that it attempts to do too much overall so that what might be interesting sequences tend to be somewhat perfunctory as the narrative has to rush through them to get to the next. There are many characters but we don’t really get ‘into’ them. Instead, we are asked to ‘stitch together’ separate small scenes in order to understand the central characters. I’m prepared to admit that lack of language fluency and cultural knowledge means that I might have missed the significance of some scenes – and possibly the use of popular music. I recognised songs but not the singers and was then taken aback to hear Townes Van Zandt over the closing credits.
Slightly disappointing in terms of what might have been, La French is nonetheless entertaining and worth the price of a ticket. Certainly it is more entertaining than most of the mainstream fare at the multiplex these days.
French polars were often made as co-productions with Italy. As a kind of tribute here’s an Italian-dubbed trailer for La French.
The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.
The Movie Brats
I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.
There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.
But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.
France and America – partners in organised crime
The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.
Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style: