Adolescence is an important time for all of us. It’s a rollercoaster of unexplainable emotions – emotions that often cannot be accurately captured in words. It’s the first time we feel attraction, discover sexuality, and explore romantic relationships. It’s a crossroads for all, but it can be especially painful for LGBTQ+ youth. While heterosexual and cisgender teenagers will see their own desires reflected in the rest of their community, their trans and same gender attracted counterparts can often experience the throes of adolescence in complete loneliness.
Much of French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s work focuses on the unique conflicts of adolescent life. Her camera juxtaposes the joy of new maturity with a fear of the unknown, calmly recounting the stories of strikingly individual characters. Her work is best watched collectively, for maximum appreciation of her minimal style, but if you’re looking for somewhere to start, take a look at the summaries below.
Youth, Sexuality & ‘Water Lilies’
‘Water Lilies’ concentrates on three teenage girls with three different struggles: awkward early-developer Anne, conventionally attractive “slut” Floriane, and small, sexually confused Marie. Anne seeks attention from Floriane’s boyfriend François. Floriane, meanwhile, has the attention of François and every man she ever encounters. She is objectified and (as we later discover) sexually harassed due to her appearance. Marie, on the other hand, seeks Floriane’s approval in a mix of envy and obvious sapphic attraction. It’s a kind of love quadrangle – but not really, because the high point of this film isn’t the romantic relationships between these characters, but rather, the intricacies of the characters themselves.
The film, shot in Sciamma’s characteristic minimalist style, captures the essence of female adolescence regardless of popularity, attractiveness, or even sexuality. Anne, Marie and Floriane each have their individual burdens to bear as young women, and all three girls have journeys to make over the course of the film, as they mature and discover themselves with the help of each other.
Though I enjoyed all three arcs, and I think films about girls, in general, need to be highlighted, Marie’s story stood out as the centrepiece. Marie is every young lesbian at fourteen. Her gaze is tentative, a mix of curiosity, jealousy, and lust for a body she herself does not have. The use of a synchronised swimming theme demonstrates this well, as it is within the locker/changing rooms that many girls begin to realize their sexuality and the differences between themselves and others. Marie hides her own small body but relishes the opportunity to stare upon Floriane’s perfect form. The camera follows her gaze often, providing a refreshing alternative to masculine scrutiny. ‘Water Lilies’ concerns itself solely with feminine sexuality, marking the film out as a must-see for all who have experienced the loneliness of young lesbianism.
Youth, Identity, & ‘Tomboy’
‘Tomboy’ is Sciamma’s masterpiece. Gentle and authentic, ‘Tomboy’ provides a coming-of-age story for children that may not feel comfortable with their assigned gender, or the restrictions that come with these labels. The film wraps the complex discourse of gender up in a comfort blanket of childhood innocence through the character of Laure, a child who was designated female at birth, but does not appear to be entirely accepting of it.
Laure’s life is fairly similar to the lives of many other middle-class eleven-year olds: they get on well with their parents, have a younger sister whom they would protect at all costs, and they spend their summers messing around with friends. Laure, however, is a tomboy. To the outside world, they look like a “boy,” to their parents, they are a “girl,” and to Laure… well, it’s not that simple.
When Laure moves to the country with their family, the rest of the children assume that this new child with short hair and a flat chest is a boy. Laure runs with this, introducing themselves as Mikael and growing especially close to a young girl named Lisa – Laure’s first girlfriend. It’s all very sweet and natural, an element emphasised beautifully by the surrounding French countryside. The lightness of the plot is perfectly matched by the natural landscape, as well as the consistent well-lit interior shots.
One of the real highlights of the film is the relationship between Laure and their younger sister Jeanne. Though many sibling relationships can be wrought with conflict, Laure and Jeanne rarely fight, and instead, spend most of their time together. Much of the film is devoted to careful observation of their playtime, highlighting both Laure’s childishness and their gentle, loving nature – regardless of any gender dynamic. Their innocent affection for each other has no gender, after all, and Sciamma’s choice not to spend the entire film focusing on this topic is a great one. In the end, Jeanne is the first person to find out about Laure’s “secret identity”, and though she reacts with shock at first, she adapts rapidly and has no qualms about telling people how much she adores having a brother. These moments are truly touching, and detail the fact that we are not born with prejudice, but taught it.
Not all can be happiness and light, however, and as the film continues, Laure’s secret is exposed, as it must be, as the school term is coming and they cannot maintain their new identity for much longer. Sciamma does not shy away from the cruelty on Laure’s horizon: her realist roots remain strong despite the film’s delicate, childlike exterior. Ultimately, there can be no happy or sad ending for Laure, young as they are. Their story is just starting, and we are witnessing only to their hesitant first steps.
Youth, Friendship & ‘Girlhood’
If ‘Water Lilies’ is an ode to sexuality, and ‘Tomboy’ is an ode to identity, then ‘Girlhood’ is an ode to a third vital component of life – friendship.
Marieme is an African-French teenager living in a poor suburb of Paris. Though she begins the film as a lone wolf, she quickly falls into a girl gang, made up of three restless girls: Fily, Adiatou, and Lady. The three are obsessed with their tough demeanour, and bully Marieme initially. It’s not long, however, before she’s stealing, drinking, and smoking alongside them. They’re fighting with rival gangs one moment, and giggling through games of crazy golf the next; a turbulent blend of boredom, societal pressure, and unending loyalty.
Overall, it’s difficult not to love these girls as they fight their way through life. A dance scene set to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ perfectly illustrates the fun, childish side of the four as they’re provided with an isolated chance to simply enjoy each other’s company. It’s delightful, with a blue-toned setting reminiscent of a carefully shot music video, allowing the girls to truly shine in their confidence and love for each other. But the necessities of poverty, as always, have a way of returning, and it isn’t long before Marieme is making choices she will come to regret. Once more, she seeks reassurance from her friends, caught between a life of crime and a life of nothingness.
“Make me laugh,” Marieme instructs quietly, shortly after an outburst. The girls stop for a moment, then immediately launch into activity, recounting embarrassing stories of one another. These moments are an oasis of comfort in an otherwise fraught life for our protagonist: abuse at home, difficulty in school, exclusion from wide society. The scenes are captivating to behold and, indeed, relatable to all that have sought stability in the unique selflessness of good friendship.
Everything in this film comes together perfectly. Each young actress exudes likability, even in their most frustrating moments – they’re the little sisters you want to hug one moment, and slap the next. Sciamma knows exactly how to balance the acerbity of Myriam’s situation with the poignancy of her relationship with the girl gang, delivering a final piece that is emotionally afflictive, but never tips into melodrama.
Unfortunately, Sciamma doesn’t seem to have any new projects in the pipeline. As a filmmaker, her auteur work is few and far between – though with four years between ‘Water Lilies’ and ‘Tomboy’, and a further three between ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Girlhood’, it seems we are due another feature from her soon. Her next film, however, will not continue with her current trend of coming-of-age cinema; Sciamma has stated in interviews that ‘Girlhood’ was the last of these movies for her. Considering the quality of her work thus far, we’re sure that Sciamma will continue to deliver realism with her own unique style, wherever she may choose to go in the future.