Berlinale correspondent Elena Lazic reviews and praises Being 17. Although it was written by Céline Sciamma and directed by André Techiné, it’s got Sciamma’s fingerprints all over it.
Céline Sciamma, the celebrated writer-director of Girlhood, is also behind one of the best films of this year’s Berlinale: Being 17. Although her previous films were female-centric coming-of-age stories, Sciamma’s script for Being 17 focuses on two 17-year-old boys from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), who attend the same school. This time, Téchiné is in the director’s chair, and he seems to be following his writer’s instructions. In an interview with Seventh Row last year, Sciamma explained that she integrates detailed descriptions of framing and camera movement into her screenplays. Like Girlhood, Being 17 uses the most appropriate visual style for the story, which makes me think Sciamma is the primary auteur behind Being 17.
Visually, Girlhood and Being 17 are almost polar opposites, but so is their subject matter. Girlhood was about how one’s appearance is a means of self-expression: the girls affirm their power and identity through the display of their femininity. But in Being 17, first impressions are unreliable, and appearances are disguises. The characters are always hiding who they really are.
What goes unsaid is crucial in Sciamma’s films. In Girlhood, we get to know the protagonist Marieme through her actions and the way she looks at people. For example, it’s through images alone that we discover, in the final section of the film, that she is now selling drugs. We see her put on a red dress and go to a Parisian apartment to give someone drugs in exchange of money. As Sciamma doesn’t use words to introduce or explain this development, she leaves room for interpretation regarding why Marieme chooses to do this. Similarly, we understand she is attracted to a boy in her school because close ups show her smiling at him timidly: the moment when they finally and declare their love to each other is made all the more powerful because it follows these sequences of silent flirtation.
In Being 17, Damien and Thomas are almost mute when they are together. We must rely even more on Sciamma’s impressive ability to develop characters through actions than in Girlhood. Many scenes feature the pair alone, either physically fighting or staring at each other. In Girlhood, the filmmaking was very stylised because it was concerned with revealing something of its characters that wouldn’t be visible otherwise. But in Being 17, the almost documentary-like filmmaking is at the service of heightening the ambiguity about what these two characters feel towards one another, why they fight, and why they stare at each other.
It’s not until about halfway through the film that we get any real answers, and this keeps us on our toes.The only thing we know from the start is that these two boys are uncomfortable in heteronormative roles. Isolated during gym class, neither seem to have any friends, and both are only really close to their mothers. Thomas prefers the isolation of the mountains and working on the farm. Damien seems to spend all his free time with his mother; his dad is away on a mission as a pilot for the army.
The shakier, less polished filmmaking in Being 17 fits its angry characters just as Sciamma’s camera in Girlhood was as calm and assured as Marieme. It was an important counterpoint to the wilderness of the streets and school. Sciamma also saw this aesthetic choice as a political gesture against the cliched and pejorative representation often reserved for the crime and poverty in the banlieues of Paris, where Girlhood is set: her film focused on characters determined to show that “there’s beauty everywhere”.
In Being 17, the two boys evolve on the margins of heteronormative middle-to-upper class society. But they do not seem to have the kind of serious financial or family-related problems that Marieme did. The grittier, hand-held camera in Being 17 gives us the sense that the characters want to break out of this ‘normality’ with a certain primal rage.
This violence in the film is felt from the very first scene, which depicts the the boys spontaneously fighting. It’s a very unexpected moment that seems completely unjustified. What makes the film both intriguing and amusing is that although they visibly hate each other — they’re always glaring at each other and attempting to fight in public — they never give an explanation for why and never get off each other’s back.
Being 17 cleverly embraces its own silliness in a way that is both reassuring and endlessly pleasurable. Many turning points in the story have the hilariously fortuitous, almost unrealistic, quality of bad melodramas, but the characters themselves are aware of this. Eventually, several (almost ridiculously heavy-handed) hints make clear what is actually going on between the two boys. But Damien and Thomas also realise the silliness of their little game, and how ridiculous it is for them to pretend not to see what is happening. It’s a fun moment of unexpected relief for the audience.
Sandrine Kiberlain plays Damien’s mother Marianne, an eccentric who is always willing to lend a hand. Although she provides much comic relief, she’s a fully realised three-dimensional character. Kiberlain’s signature acting style — realistic but always with a touch of humour and naivete that is a bit off the mark and strange — helps to make the film’s unrealistic narrative turns seem fitting. For example, it seems excessively generous that as a doctor and mother, she would offer to host Thomas in her house when his mother is sick. But when Marianne is faced with difficulties that test her generosity, Sciamma reveals that her kindness is a means of coping with very real worries and pains.
The two boys benefit from a similarly empathetic treatment from Sciamma. Damien is a privileged, white, middle-class boy whose mother drives him to school every day. By contrast, Thomas is mixed race, adopted, lives on a farm, and has to walk three hours across the mountains to go to and get back from class. Yet both characters are very isolated, and the film never suggests that their shared isolation and irrational anger are related to privilege.
As Thomas is one of the few mixed-race characters in the school, it’s a bit unrealistic that race is never mentioned on screen — especially when considering how much Girlhood was about race. Being 17 seems to be set in a town where racism does not exist. Yet this apparent utopia is consistent with the film’s concluding message: like many kids their age, both Damien and Thomas think that the entire world is against them, but as Kiberlain’s character tells her son near the end of the film, “You have to have a little more faith in life… a little more faith in people.”