I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.
Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.
What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!
Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.
Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.
I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.
Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.
Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait 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 there 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:
The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.
Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).
Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In an interview (now not accessible) Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).
Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.
The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too:
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.