Bande de filles, dir/wr. Céline Sciamma, st. Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré
There are two gloriously realised things that help anchor Sciamma's free-verse exploration of adolescent longing, transforming what might have been meandering ennui into something potent and startlingly perceptive: The first is the film's chill-wave, M83-esque score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, or Para One as his nom de plume goes, which tremoloes and oscillates with shifting electro-patter like Brian Eno doing Steve Reich's Different Trains. It's a jarringly warm and beguiling construction that softens Sciamma's deliberately sparse signposting and lends Bande de filles its emotional focus. The second is the quite extraordinary performance from Karidja Touré who plays the film's protagonist Marieme. Touré, whose stellar trajectory has gone from from student to César Award nominee, was scouted by Sciamma's casting agent in an amusement park. "I think they did this because there aren't a lot of black actors in Paris and that's how you find them." she recalls. Even more incredibly, Touré is part of a whole ensemble of first time actors who make up Bande de fille's central cohort. "(The first day of filming) we felt very comfortable shooting because Assa, Lindsay, Mariétou and I were all in the same position as actors. It was new to all of us and it was scary for everyone. Nobody was above somebody else." Sciamma's film has been widely celebrated for depicting a) teenagers defiantly and painfully carving out their own place in their society in an empowering and respectful manner, b) in the tower blocks and estates of the Parisian banlieues, c) who are black, and d) female. In other words, a rarity, and one that not only surpasses Alison Bechdel's oft-impractical yet meaningful test by a country mile (it requires a film to satisfy gender equality by having at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man), but does so without any hint of smug agenda-ising.
The film follows Marieme, a sixteen year old who lives with her two younger sisters, older brother, and mother in the Parisian suburbs, who falls in with an all-female gang led by the charismatic Lady (Sylla). The group drink, dance, fight, and shoplift their way to friendship, the existing three members having found in Marieme a replacement for their fourth, who it transpires fell pregnant and, in more ways than one, moved on. In turn, Marieme, looking to assert herself in a fatherless world in which she plays mother to her two siblings and daughter to her strict and controlling brother, welcomes and endures a brief initiation period as the girls initially test her mettle, before taking her earned place by their sides, and winning the special favour of Lady. Sylla too is great here as their de facto leader, persuasively able as she is to wither and disarm with a mere glance one moment, and be awkwardly shy and embarrassed the next. One early scene has her barking questions at Marieme with that recognisably hateful and impressive swagger of a playground bully, while a later scene has her the bashfully smiling object of a gentle ribbing from her pals as they reveal Lady's real name as the more gentle, unassuming and feminine Sophia.
But Bande de filles is most concerned about transformation, and the film is remarkably and refreshingly unconcerned with judging Marieme. When her hotel-maid mother's boss suggests Marieme take up some Summer work, we see the previously submissive teenager apply the aggression she's learned from Lady, using it as simply as a key to access what she wants, and full-on threaten her into withdrawing her offer. Kids' foolhardy decisions are one of life's inalienable certainties, but to see the fragility of a young girl maplessly navigating her way through life up close is indeed shocking and not a little sad. But the affecting complexity of enduring friendship and loyalty, as depicted in what is undoubtedly the film's centrepiece - all four girls dancing and lip-synching through the entirety of Rihanna's Diamonds, bathed in Besson neon-blue as the girls successively join one another in the middle of their hotel room - is movingly and sensitively retold by Sciamma, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Crystal Fournier, and delivered through convincing, note-perfect performances by its inexperienced yet exceedingly talented young cast.