Writer-director Céline Sciamma discusses Girlhood, the genesis of the film, how cinema is the only art form in which you can share someone else’s loneliness, how she created the remarkable “Rihanna” scene, and how she creates the dramatic tension that makes you want to see the face of her lead.
This is a preview of our book on Céline Sciamma’s work, Portraits of resistance. Portraits of resistance is the first book ever written about Sciamma’s work. It covers all of Sciamma’s films, including Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Find out more here.
French writer-director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies and Tomboy) specializes in making sensitive, touching, and complex portraits of young women coming-of-age. Her latest film, Girlhood, may be the most ambitious of all. It’s one of the best films of both this year’s Sundance Film Festival and last year’s festival circuit; it premiered at Cannes.
Set in the Paris suburbs, the film follows a young black woman, Marieme (Karidja Touré), with a large family and an abusive brother. The world seems to be against her: her grades aren’t high enough to allow her to pursue the academic track she wanted; her home is a pressure cooker; and every decision she makes to empower herself has unintended, painful consequences. We follow her as she becomes a part of a group of rebellious girls, the Bande des Filles of the French title, where she finds support and her voice. It’s a wholly moving and touching story that’s a useful reminder that growing up is different for girls.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with Sciamma to discuss the genesis of the film, how cinema is the only art form in which you can share someone else’s loneliness, how she created the remarkable “Rihanna” scene, and how she creates the dramatic tension that makes you want to see the face of her lead.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get the idea to make Girlhood? What got you interested in this particular story?
Céline Sciamma: I feel like it’s the kind of story I’ve been telling from film to film. This time, I really wanted it to be more contemporary. Water Lilies and Tomboy were kind of intemporal. There were no cell phones. There were no things that could actually tell you if it was [set] today or before. This time, I wanted to make a movie about friendship and also about anger. I wanted it to have a social background that was more anchored.
Both of my previous films were about a loner wanting to belong to a group, but mostly through a romantic relationship. This time, I wanted to talk about the empowerment of the group and the joy of the group. I wanted it to be kind of epic with long scenes.
For years, I was struck by the lack of black characters on screen — in France, but even in Europe, one might say. Here, it’s different: we feel like what we get from [The United States], TV shows and stuff, has a lot of black characters. I’ve been told it’s quite messy here, too, though.
I came up with this idea for a coming-of-age story with this very contemporary character. I wanted to bring her into this big fiction with a very romanesque gesture: the classic, romantic heroine but from today.
On defying genre rules just as the lead, Marieme, defies the role set out for herThis film is committed to being colourful, to cinemascope, to having frames that are composed.Click To Tweet
7R: The world almost seems against Marieme in Girlhood, but you know that she’s going to be able to fight through it. How did you approach showing us both her strength and the difficulties she faces without it becoming a depressing story?
Céline Sciamma: Well, some people find it depressing [laughs]. I really tried to work around identification — how you connect to the character. It’s a far, far away character for me. I think the balance is this intimacy and the fact that you are really living the hard bits and the comedic moments.
It’s a celebration of friendship and of the group. The group can often be linked to conformity, or to bad influence. The movie says, “No, the group actually enables you to speak up — gives you a voice.”The movie says, 'No, the group actually enables you to speak up — gives you a voice.'Click To Tweet
I think it’s also about the mise en scène, how the form of the movie refuses the stylistic assignation that those kinds of characters and those kind of places, this kind of genre — that you should film them in a certain way. The caricature would be the shaky cam on the shoulder and the grey image. But this film is committed to being colourful, to cinemascope, to having frames that are composed, to the music.
The fact that it believes so much in cinema, that it uses all the tools of cinema, actually makes it joyful. As the character refuses the destiny that is set for her, the film also refuses the form that is set, that it’s supposed to have. And I think that’s a promise. I think that’s something that lifts you up.As the character refuses the destiny that is set for her, the film also refuses the form that is set, that it’s supposed to have.Click To Tweet
7R: When you say that it’s breaking out of the form, do you just mean that it’s not a shaky, verité point of view? Or is there more to it?
Céline Sciamma: It’s the shaky camera, but it’s also what kind of music should the score be. It’s the fact that the movie is obsessed with the fact that there’s beauty everywhere: in the relationship between the characters, in the city. And it’s not stylized. Like, there’s long takes, and there’s Steadicam. When you add this up, it’s really also a political gesture, the way you look at things.The movie is obsessed with the fact that there’s beauty everywhere.Click To Tweet
Céline Sciamma on the two great scenes in Girlhood, including the Rihanna song, that are silent but for the music
7R: There are these two wonderful scenes, that are pretty much silent, with music: the girls dancing in the hotel room, to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, and the girls at that concert where you sort of pan from one girl to the next, and they’re linked together. How did you develop these scenes and pick the music?
Céline Sciamma: The hotel scene, the Rihanna scene, is the key scene, for me, in the film. It was written for the song. It was the scene I most wanted to shoot. I was obsessed with the scene. Not because it’s a clip, but because it’s really a narrative piece. It’s about the birth of a friendship — how a friendship actually rises. It’s all about that girl watching the others being beautiful together and synchronized — finally stepping in and being at the centre of something, feeling iconic and beautiful. [She] suddenly gets a voice and [is] stepping from fake diva to kids jumping on beds. They have a voice when they’re together. It’s not symbolic; it’s really narrative.I tried to think of the plot, the narrative, and the links between the characters as a choreography.Click To Tweet
I tried to think of the plot, the narrative, and the links between the characters as a choreography. Sometimes, it’s literally a choreography, because they’re dancing. Sometimes, with the other scene in one take, [where] you see all the faces, the choreography is about the camera. It’s also about watching their bodies and their attitudes. That’s a way to make a cinematic portrait.
For that other scene [at the concert], it’s the score. It’s not a song that I picked. It was composed for the scene. I really wanted the score to be electronic and symphonic. I think that electronic music really, really is cinematographic music. I was obsessed with the fact that I wanted a theme, for the first time, and a theme that would grow as the character grows.It’s about watching their bodies and their attitudes. That’s a way to make a cinematic portrait.Click To Tweet
Céline Sciamma on how TV influenced the structure of Girlhood
7R: Girlhood is divided into chapters. After each segment. we fade to black for a while, and the score plays quite loudly. Then, there’s a time jump, like the consequence of a decision she’s made. How did you develop that structure?
Céline Sciamma: This was in the process of writing, a screenwriter decision. When I made that decision, the script all came together. It was really written in the script, because I wanted to have two things: I wanted it to be very in the present, to have the urgency of the present, but also I wanted the [idea of] destiny. I wanted this very big journey. That’s why I came up with a chapter structure and decided to go with it all the way, with a kind of a credit effect inside the film.You remember the last image, and you crave for the next image.Click To Tweet
I was thinking about TV series, where you have that feeling now, when it goes to black, and you still stay with it. You remember the last image, and you crave for the next image. It’s an obsession I have: how to make a show out of a face and how to create the desire to see a face. My movies are portraits, and [they are] several portraits of the same character. You don’t know where you’re going to land, but then you know that you’re going to see a new face, and you step into their identities. You have the appetite for that face. I love that feeling.It’s an obsession I have: how to make a show out of a face and how to create the desire to see a face.Click To Tweet
On allowing the audience to share the loneliness of another person
7R: How did you create that appetite for seeing a face in Girlhood? Obviously, this is one way, with the fades to black. Is it also about the framing or the edit?
Céline Sciamma: How to frame, yes, and how to begin a scene and to end it. When I write, it’s written in the script. The appearance of the faces in every scene is really written. It’s something I really think about a lot. It’s in this chapter effect, but it’s basically everywhere.
It’s also about an obsession with the rhythm — the rhythm of the body language, of the gesture. Like, how do you say goodbye? When she [Marieme] leaves her family, she lies to her little sister and says “I’ll be back.” They will not say goodbye, but they kind of say goodbye, because the little sister gets it. These are the kinds of things I’m looking for.
It’s also a choreography — what you hide and what you show — and the fact that only the audience shares the secrets of the characters, of the character.Cinema is the only place, the only art ever, where you share somebody’s loneliness. Click To Tweet
Cinema is the only place, the only art ever, where you share somebody’s loneliness. I tried to use that a lot. People often tell me that my characters are sad. But I say, “No, it’s just that you never share the loneliness of someone!” If you read a novel, you can be in the mind of somebody. But you’re in the mind: that’s not the same. You share the loneliness [in cinema]. That’s also how I find the balance between group scenes and scenes with her alone, when you actually share the secret with the character. Sharing the loneliness with somebody: you can’t get closer to that.
7R: Are there different approaches for allowing the audience to share the loneliness of a character?
Céline Sciamma: It’s about how you compose the frame. It’s also about the sound. It’s a lot of details, like the breathing, hearing somebody breathe. I tried to capture that, or to do it after, with the actors, during post-production. There are a lot of layers to actually get the feeling you’re looking for.
I really try to work a lot with the ambience — not trying to make it real, like, “OK, there’s a neighbour watching TV.” There’s no such thing. I’m not trying to be realistic, like, “OK, in this kind of building, you’d hear this and this.” I’m really working around notes — the note of a neon, the note of a fridge, and even notes that don’t exist.
I always go to the David Lynch Sonotek — he created it — and you can use some of his buzz. Sometimes, it’s just air, but it’s a note. And it definitely creates intimacy or a feeling.
Céline Sciamma on introducing the lead character in Girlhood in an exciting way
7R: You mentioned you’re interested in the first time that we see a face. In Girlhood, there’s a long wait to see who is at the centre of the story and who is the face. The first scene is on the football field in their helmets, and then we see the group of girls walking together from behind. It’s not until after that we find Marieme.
Céline Sciamma: That’s part of the entertainment: how you’re going to elect a character, who is she going to be. You’re curious about who you’re going to follow. And she is everywhere — she’s on the football field. When you re-watch the movie, you can actually see her, obviously. It’s the camera that finally picks her, when she’s alone. Suddenly, there’s no sound. You just hear her breathe, and you hear the footsteps.
The choreography of how you pick your character — how do you finally discover the face you’re going to follow for an hour-and-a-half — is, to me, really entertaining. It’s a tension. And it’s a dramatic tension. It’s always about refusing the supposed divide between this being an arthouse film — with a reasonable economy, independent, with a social background, committed, political — versus a movie that should be entertaining, emotional, with choreography and mise en scène. I want it all. And each scene has its own design that actually fights against the rules of what you’re supposed to be doing.