Widely praised at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles lives up to expectations with an emotionally-charged, vibrant tale of four young women living in one of France’s notorious housing estates just to the north of Paris. Sciamma brings an authenticity to her film by avoiding cliché and caricature and searching beyond the headlines of drugs, violence and crime to portray the struggle for identity and purpose in a hostile, male-dominated world. Although there are some lighter moments, the overall message is bleak and Bande de Filles is one of the most heartbreaking French films to hit the big screen this year.
Sixteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) looks after her two younger sisters while their mother works evenings cleaning offices. She wants to continue her education and obtain the Baccalaureate (the minimum qualification for anyone seeking a decent job in France), but is told her grades aren’t good enough. She soon falls in with a group of young women who spend their days hanging around shopping malls, engaging in petty crime and generally out to have a good time. With these women, Marieme finds the validation missing from home and school and her self-confidence begins to grow. She starts to rebel against her background, but her options for change are severely limited.
‘Girl gang’ would have been a better English title for the film, embracing the notion of female solidarity expressed in the original title. Sciamma portrays an overtly macho world where men call the shots and women are often forced physically to obey. The gang is a way for the four women to express themselves in a non-judgemental environment. And nowhere is this reality more poignantly demonstrated than in a scene in a hotel where they get drunk, smoke pot and lip-synch to Rihanna’s hit song Diamonds in the Sky. As they sing along with joyous abandonment to the song, each young woman knows the chances of realising any potential is slim and in truth their lives are unlikely to shine.
All credit to the four female leads. Touré in particular has an intensity and conviction rarely found in such a young actor. She handles Marieme’s changing character in a powerfully unsentimental, convincing fashion. Assa Sylla as gang leader Lady, Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou and Marietou Touré as Fily are equally competent although lacking quite the same force as Karidja Touré.
It’s interesting to compare Bande de Filles
with Sylvie Ohayon’s Papa was not a Rolling Stone
which came out in France in October. Both directed by women, both with strong female leads and both set in the same social context albeit 30 years apart. And therein lies the problem – decades later and it appears nothing has changed those for young people, male and female, living in these communities.