"I just had seven speed-dates with journalists, and so far I've slept with no one," says Céline Sciamma, shrugging as she blows smoke out of the window.
The French director and screenwriter is here to talk about her latest film, Girlhood, the story of Vic (played by first-time actress Karidja Touré), a young black girl living in the Paris banlieues. Vic is a teenager enduring an abusive relationship with her older brother while navigating the rites of joining a gang – first a girl gang with three other girls, and later a mostly male gang for whom she becomes a drug runner. Vic struggles to come to terms with what exactly her identity is, and it shifts dramatically from childlike to sexualised to sometimes-lost throughout the film's three acts.
"Mentored" at film school by director Xavier Beauvois, Sciamma's films strike a distinct aesthetic of their own – clean compositions, block colours and wide angles. Almost every shot looks like a photograph. Although her films are somewhat comparable to Xavier Dolan or Lucía Puenzo in look or subject matter, they're pretty unique for queer art-house films, in that they're neither cringe-inducing nor pretentious.
Girlhood is Sciamma's third feature film, her third coming of age story and her third film set in the suburbs. This is all deliberate: she considers Girlhood the last in a trilogy. The theme throughout her films, says the director, is "the search for identity; the game around trying different ones out", and, of course, "the consequences".
First there was 2007's Water Lilies, the story of two 15-year-old girls who find themselves mutually attracted after meeting on a synchronised swimming team. The bad swimming costumes, coloured light filters and soundtrack by French electro producer Para One give it a distinctly 80s feel, all without submitting to cheap sentimentality. Sciamma tells me this is the film she feels closest to personally in terms of plot, although she never got around to synchronised swimming herself.
Her second movie was Tomboy (2011), the story of 10-year-old Laure, who, after moving to a new area, decides to reinvent herself as a boy. In an attempt to convince the other kids she is "Mikäel", Laure goes makes herself a fake penis out of plasticine, which she later tucks into her swim shorts. The film unfolds through snapshot moments that are innocent but powerfully deconstructive of binary gender codes.
This time, with Girlhood, Sciamma places the search for sexual and gender identity within the wider context of Vic's racial identity. "I thought, 'If I'm gonna go for it for one last time, I want it to be more contemporary, to be more political,'" she tells me. "So I decided to go for that very classic coming of age story: a young girl wanting to live her life, having to put up with society, the place she lives in, her family… Very Jane Austen-like, but I wanted a young face and a black character to be the Romantic heroine of the 21st century."
This decision was very much about giving screen time to vastly underrepresented faces. "I was struck by the lack of representation of women – of black women – and I thought, 'Okay, I wanna film these girls.' So I decided to go all the way for it," says Sciamma. "I could have balanced things out – that's usually how you do it. But I decided to go for a 'full black' casting. Because I feel like this balance that's supposed to give us good conscience actually doesn't give us anything."
Girlhood isn't about a particularly French kind of black youth culture – although the film's setting harks back to La Haine (which, incidentally, is turning 20 this year). No, Vic and her all black girl gang could really be anywhere: they fight and pull each other's hair extensions, they get drunk on vodka-and-cokes, they rent cheap hotel rooms, they take selfies on the metro and sing along to Rihanna. "I didn't come across a story for Girlhood," says Sciamma, "because there is no story to come across. It's an eternal story, just with a new character."
During the film, Vic's gender identity gradually adapts to her environments; downplayed at her Senegalese family home, super-girly with her heterosexual and all-female friendship group, masculine and tough when she starts working for the local crime boss. I ask Sciamma if she intentionally kept the changes subtle, to mirror reality's subtleties. "It's about ambiguity," she tells me. "The gender changes Vic goes through are really a performance she is putting on. She is trying out identities as costumes. It's like a super-hero: she sees what sort of power each costume gives you."
Sciamma continues: "These are really identities that society designed for her. It's not something she invented. She's just experiencing it. It's not like in Tomboy, where it's all inherent. Mikäel's projecting fantasy in the world, whereas Vic is endorsing the fantasies that exist in the world, trying them out. It's more like a performance. So in that way, the film is kind of queer. But it's not about expressing a freedom."
The only moment of freedom, says Sciamma, comes at the end of the film, which it does admittedly take a while to get to, given the meandering of the plot. This is a reflection of Sciamma's contrarian nature: "Of course I didn't want to leave Vic at the moment that was expected! That would have made everybody happy. I wanted to go all the way to adulthood."
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In the last shot we're left with a lot of questions, as we see Vic with "the braids of childhood, the make-up of a young girl and the clothing of a boy", unsure of what to do next. In this moment, says Sciamma, Vic is everything, and at the same time sheds the stylised identities she's been experimenting with. "She'll become an adult. It's not a game any more." Sciamma acknowledges that some of her audience will be left feeling pessimistic; others, hopefully optimistic.
What about Sciamma, though? What's next for her? "I want to look at another genre now. More and more, I'm trying to stress the fact that movies shouldn't be what they are expected to be stylistically," she says. "It could be horror, it could be anything – I just wanna do something completely different."
She tells me that all three of her stories say something about who she was when she was making them, but – like Vic – she's happy moving onto the next thing. And for now, at least, that's speed-date number nine.