French writer-director Céline Sciamma has a small but sturdy body of work that addresses how girls navigate a culture that can be incredibly hostile to them. She does it with nuance, intelligence, and a ton of bravery. Her third film, Girlhood, focuses on a teenage girl on the margins who is looking for a place to fit in. This story, just like the Oscar-nominated film Boyhood, is universal. Make sure to check out her first two films, Water Lillies and Tomboy, and read our previous interviews with Sciamma here and here.
W&H: How did you come up with the story for Girlhood?
CS: After my last movie, Tomboy, I wanted to go with another coming-of-age story. This time I wanted an epic narrative with a very Romanesque journey and build it around a classical plot: a young girl wanting to live a life and find out who she is and what she desires. She wants to free herself from control from her family and the place she lives in.
This is like Jane Austen. [But] I also wanted to [include in] that fiction a very contemporary setting and a very contemporary heroine, giving a new identity and face to the romantic heroine of today. That was the project. I also wanted to make a movie about friendships and [sisterhood] this time, which is quite different from my two previous films, where it was mostly about couples and trios. I wanted to talk about group dynamics, and how it’s often linked with uniformity and a negative influence, [but] how I [also] believe it is, especially for girls, a way to find a voice. Through this complex and intense relationship, you can actually find out who you are. That was basically it.
W&H: In the press notes you wrote that you’re intrigued by the construction of feminine identity within the framework of social pressure. I think that’s an important commentary on girls and girls' lives -- we are deeply affected by how society sees us. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s so important for you, and why that’s important for movies to show?
CS: Well, it’s an important social issue. [These days], it’s not like we feel we have a lot of input in changing society. It’s not as though we see different models. Equality for women is a real social change -- the last one we can maybe achieve that will matter, that will actually change things.
W&H: That would change our whole world.
CS: Yeah, basically. When feminism is talked about, it is always presented as women getting revenge or women getting privilege -- as though it only concerns women, or women in countries where they’d be oppressed. Feminism isn’t that. It concerns us all. It’d be a great improvement for men too, actually. The movie’s plot is really about trying out the identity that has been set for you. Society tells the character [Marieme] she can’t be normal -- that’s what she says when she’s facing the school advisor, “I want to be normal,” and [is told,] “You should have thought of that before.”
W&H: Everyone’s talking about Boyhood, Boyhood, Boyhood, and asking “Where’s Girlhood?” I’m like, "It’s here. You just need to go and see it." I was wondering if people have been comparing the movies, and if you have any thoughts about that. Have people been mentioning it a lot to you?
CS: Yeah, a lot here in the U.S. -- not in France [where it has a different title]. I chose the title of the film before knowing Boyhood existed. I saw the film, and all of the attention it got, and I like that the two movies have been compared and mirrored. I see here that the press is doing that a lot -- at Q&A's at Sundance I’ve had that a lot. I think it’s really interesting.
They both believe the same thing: Watching someone grow is cinema, and interesting, and tells us a lot. But they use totally different perspectives. Richard Linklater actually shows someone grow for 12 years, and I watch someone grow in 37 days with special effects – meaning costumes and decisions.
The two [approaches] are so opposite, but they are starting from the same belief, which I think is really interesting. With these titles, both movies are deciding that they are saying what is universal. Linklater is saying, and he’s right, that what is average is a middle-class white boy's parents' divorce, college, average student, average dreams, and he’s telling a lot about today with that [kind] of character. I’m deciding that "universal" is actually something that is not -- it’s actually the margin; I’m putting the margin at the center. He’s looking at someone in the center, the middle.
W&H: Building on that, you decided you want to show people on the margins and bodies we haven’t seen before. Talk more about what you were interested in showing, "the margin."
CS: I picked black girls because I was struck by the lack of representation of black women, and characters, onscreen in France, and Europe also. Especially in Paris, where I live, [it's] actually a very mixed society. I wanted to go for it, but not saying, “Oh, I’m going to depict what it’s like to be a black girl,” but actually saying, “I’m going to depict what it’s like to be a girl,” and why can’t that be with a black character?
It was a strong decision mostly because I decided to go with an all-black cast, which is quite unusual; I think it’s the first time ever in France. We have that diversity obsession in French society and the French representation of society -- if there was a black character, there’d be a white character to "even things out." I think this is a sign of the times -- trying to find the balance [ends up] producing the opposite.
W&H: So you don’t always need a balance? Sometimes you just want to tell a particular story?
W&H: I want to talk about the opening. I thought it was so amazing that these girls are so free and alive, and then as they put back on their masks in some ways, the roles they have to perform, the silence becomes overwhelming. Could you talk about that opening sequence?
CS: Yeah, it’s a two-step opening sequence. The first moment is American football. I really wanted to open the movie with an epic sequence and a kind of disconnect from the rest, actually, because then you forget all about American football for the rest of the film. I felt like that sport, when they had the helmets on, you’d think they were boys, and then you discover they are girls -- that was something I really wanted.
It was kind of emblematic of the film -- it’s about girls in a team, empowered, being violent, and getting touchdowns. Being joyful and full of energy. That was the program of the film, and also the aesthetic program, because it’s definitely not what you expect of a French arthouse film set in the banlieues.
You wouldn’t expect that kind of sequence, and we’re opening with it -- there’s a strong contrast. I feel that the movie is not talkative; it’s using the tools of cinema, sound and score. The idea was to give an impressionist feeling, a sensual feeling, of what it’s like to be a girl. That’s always what I’m trying to reach. That’s why it’s cinema; that’s why I’m not writing books. Actually using those tools makes it a very immersive experience in the characters’ lives.
W&H: Talk about how things are in Paris since the terrorist attacks. How do you feel as an artist?
CS: Well, it didn’t affect me as an artist, I must say. It really affected me as a citizen. As the weeks go by, we feel something is different. Something is in the air. It’s kind of ambiguous what is in the air. There’s been such a strong response regarding this march that took place with so many people in the streets -- more than when we won the World Cup in soccer, and when Paris was liberated after World War II. There’s a feeling that people are willing to be together, and to stand.
In the meantime, we feel fear -- the fact that racism or Islamophobia could rise is something that I fear the most right now. This has been rising in France for the past 30 years, and what’s rising is not religion. That’s where you end up when you find nothing else.
W&H: What do you think happens to Marieme, the main character, after the movie ends?
CS: I don’t know. I left it open because I felt it wasn’t a way of escaping from the subject, but rather staying true to what I feel is her age and where she’s at. Life is ahead of us. People can be confused by open endings because they feel like movies usually give the answer, but I’m not making movies with messages or answers.
I think I’m making movies that ask questions and that make you care for the character. I think that’s more powerful than actually knowing they’ll be alright. With such an ending, you can’t leave the film in the room -- you have to take it back home with you. I believe the last shot actually tells it all. Getting back in the frame [shot] when you’re not expected to go back there and leaving with that same energy -- I think she’s going to be alright.