Girl power hits the streets of Paris

Céline Sciamma on sex, desire and friendship.

by Richard Mowe

Girlhood break-out stars Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla
Girlhood break-out stars Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla
She has explored girls in childhood (Tomboy), adolesence (Water Lilies) and finally on the verge of adulthood in Girlhood, receiving its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival. Now French director Céline Schiamma thinks it is time to move on although she has yet to find out in which direction...

Somewhere in the far reaches of the gilded bedroom turned interview space in the Grand Hotel in Paris, Céline Sciamma hangs out of the window high above the swirling traffic, mobile clamped in one hand and a dangling cigarette in the other.

Although Girlhood (the latest of three films after Water Lilies and Tomboy, an “accidental trilogy”), was premiered in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight last year, she finds herself still talking about it as its international career kicks in at such festivals as London and last month in Sundance. Mobile and cigarette duty accomplished she sinks back in a capacious settee.

Sciamma’s look at feminine identity and friendships has given her a prowess in coming-of-age narratives although she admits the end of this particular chapter is in sight.

In Girlhood, she uses an all-black cast as her main protagonists with Karidja Touré as a quiet girl who comes out of her subdued shell after she is coaxed to join a trio of teens with their eyes on cute boys, causing mayhem in shopping centres and trouncing rival gangs.

The casting process was crucial to the film’s high-octane success. “It took ages,” she says with a weary shrug of recall. “We started off by asking agencies but they did not really have that many black girls on their books. We tried drama classes and then simply random girls on the streets. We saw more than 300 because we had to build a group with its own dynamics. Most of them came from the random process of girls we met on the streets.

Céline Sciamma: "Making films around youth has given me a certain kind of freedom because I do not have to deal with someone who is a star and all the pressure that goes with that."
Céline Sciamma: "Making films around youth has given me a certain kind of freedom because I do not have to deal with someone who is a star and all the pressure that goes with that."
“They did not know each other and came from very different backgrounds and lives. Karidja was, in a way, the most important part because she is every frame and goes through this huge physical and mental transformation. The script was 80 per cent written on the page but there were five scenes that were improvised, relying on their wit and energy.”

She was drawn to a final coming-of-age story to draw a portrait of a group, dealing with themes of friendship and society. “I wanted to make something really contemporary which was not the case for my first two films, which are more intemporal. I wanted to have black characters because they are under-represented and I wanted a classic narrative about a girl who was to live a life, fulfil her desires, confront herself and her family, and the place she lives and to discover her sense of self. It is exactly what Balzac and Jane Austen and Jane Campion have been doing. I wanted to give it a contemporary twist with new faces and reinvent the romantic heroine for our times.”

Sciamma discovered that working with non-professional actors brought its own dynamics. She said: “There is a lot of responsibility involved because you create this family which is why, partly, I feel the need to move on. We had to be a strong entourage. We did not want the girls to dream about things they may not be able to attain, but also we did not want them not to dream about things they could get. It was not so much about being a mentor, more simply being there, ready always to help and to build a bond of friendship.”

Since receiving the glare of attention from the film, which started at Cannes last year as the opening choice for the Directors’ Fortnight Assa Sylla (her character is nicknamed Lady) has starred in other films and a TV series, while Karidja Touré has been nominated in the Césars - the French equivalent of the Oscars - as Most Promising Actress, although she has continued her accountancy studies. Sciamma herself has been César-nominated as best director.

Karidja Touré - nominated for a Best Acting Newcomer award in the César awards
Karidja Touré - nominated for a Best Acting Newcomer award in the César awards
Having only worked with non-professionals, Sciamma is now curious to find out what it might be like to work with trained actors. “I guess they might bring other problems as part of the baggage. With an untrained cast, you cannot expect them to come up with solutions. For a control freak like me that kind of situation is reassuring. Finding solutions is a good way to discover what kind of director you are. Making films around youth has given me a certain kind of freedom because I do not have to deal with someone who is a star and all the pressure that goes with that. I think I know understand my filmic grammar – and that has to do with the fact that everyone was a rookie and I had to find out my own way. I’m now ready for the next step.”

Meanwhile, Sciamma has been worked as a co-screenwriter on André Techiné’s next film Quand On A 17 Ans, about two boys growing up in the Pyrenees. “Yes I know it is a bit coming of age – but it is to do with boys not girls. And the director is a 72-year-old, which gives a new slant. It has been a good experience working with him because each of us fought his own corner.”

Another bonus is that Techiné is close to the reigning queen of French cinema Catherine Deneuve, about whom Sciamma has been obsessing since a teenager. “I first became conscious of her in commercials and interviews and then she led me to films with Bunuel, Truffaut, Demy and, of course, Techiné. I have never met her. I guess I could do through André but I have not yet had the courage to ask him!” The prospect of working with Deneuve one day is just a step too far for Ciamma to contemplate (at least in front of a journalist).

Girlhood screens as part of Glasgow Film Festival on Tuesday, February 24 in GFT1 and on Wednesday, February 25 in GFT1 in the presence of Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla.

The film is scheduled to have its UK release on May 8 (to be confirmed) and is out in the US now.

Richard Mowe talked with Celine Sciamma at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris.

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