The euphoria of gesture: dance in Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles
In his book Mise en Scène and Film Style, Adrian Martin writes: "If mise en scène is bodies in space, dance scenes . . . are prime candidates for pure cinema."1 Céline Sciamma's Bande de filles, released in the Anglophone world under the title Girlhood, offers an exemplary moment of pure cinema in the dance sequence filmed on the esplanade of La Défense in Paris.
The film has been described as belonging to Sciamma's "filmic project to portray the multiplicity of what it is to be female."2 It tells the story of Marieme (Karidja Touré) – subsequently christened "Vic," as in "Victory," by her new band of friends – and the formation and disintegration of her friendship with Lady (Assa Syla), the leader of the band of girls of the title. Significantly, the main protagonists are all non-professional actresses, scouted by Sciamma's production team in open casting calls in the shopping malls, train stations and working-class suburbs of Paris.
Arguably the set piece of the film, the dance sequence at La Défense encapsulates so much of what Sciamma's tale of girlhood is about. The sequence opens with a travelling shot, moving slowly from right to left, of a row of teenage girls shot from the waist up. In this shot, Sciamma achieves beautifully this aim of rendering the invisible visible: caught in broad daylight in travelling shot the girls are captured in all of their diversity. At the same time, their connectedness is rendered visible physically through touch (each girl has her arm around or her hand on the shoulder of the next). The shot is accompanied by a synthetic electro-pop soundtrack that creates a strong sense of melancholy, inviting the viewer to contemplate the unfolding sequence.
The same music punctuates other key moments in the film and functions as a leitmotif to Marieme's journey from childhood to girlhood. Most significantly is its introduction over a long shot of Marieme, almost in silhouette, standing hunched over at the kitchen sink. As the camera lingers on her she straightens her back and raises her head. Distilled into this simply framed gesture is a subtle but important change in attitude and comportment. It demonstrates Sciamma's mastery of gesture and its power to communicate in cinema. At the same time, Sciamma remains resolutely in the realm of what Martin calls the classical (expressive) as opposed to poststructual (excessive) approach to film style.3 Sciamma follows V. F. Perkins' view regarding narrative cinema that "to design an effect involves devising the means to make it credible by locating it within the film's world."4 Marieme's change in posture has a powerful, expressive effect that is completely plausible in the context of the scene.
In the following scene she emerges from the lift of her rundown apartment building in the housing estates of the Paris suburbs, her sartorial and cosmetic transformation complete. She wears skinny black jeans and a tight-fitting chambray shirt under a cropped black leather jacket: a stylish form-fitting ensemble that replaces her former loose-fitting and shapeless clothes. Gone too are her girlish braids and make-up-free face: her shoulder-length hair is straightened and worn out, framing her now made-up face. This highlights the importance not only of space and gesture in Sciamma's approach to film style but also costume, demonstrated in the dance sequence at La Défense. Clothing is, for Sciamma, clearly an indication not only of transformation but of identification, of the contradictory desire to both stand out and fit in, to both express and efface oneself. In the dance sequence, clothing is used to indicate absolute identity. Whereas Marieme previously wore clothes loosely resembling those of the other girls in her gang, in the dance sequence she is sartorially the twin of Lady. Both girls wear identical cut-off denim mini shorts, light-blue and white tie-dye tank tops, and matching name-plate necklaces. Their hair is worn out, with a front section neatly pinned back. The girls mirror each other not only physically but, in performing a dance in which they move in synchronicity, the twinning effect is complete. Here, costume and gesture work together to encapsulate the complete integration of Marieme into the group of girls, and the dance represents the peak of their bond.
The centrality of dance in Sciamma's film is also demonstrated in two preceding scenes: the first in the form of an impromptu dance class on a metro train during Marieme's first journey to the city with the eponymous bande; the second during an overnight stay in a hotel after a day spent shoplifting. Decked out in their stolen dresses with security tags still attached, the girls dance and lip sync to Rihanna's "Diamonds" while Marieme tentatively watches on, enjoying the spectacle but hesitant to join in. As the second verse builds, Marieme leaps from the bed and joins in. When the chorus erupts for the second time all four girls dance ecstatically. Despite the brevity of these sequences, dance nonetheless has an important place in Bande de filles. It is no surprise, then, to discover that Sciamma grew up with a family that had a preference for the Hollywood musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and that she discovered the films of Jacques Demy at a young age: cinema she cites as inspiring her to make films.5 The musical influence is also apparent in Sciamma's decision to shoot Bande de filles in CinemaScope.
Marieme and Lady's performance is a sublime moment in the film. Shot in a series of close-ups, we never see the choreographed dance in its full body form (in this Sciamma's approach differs to the Hollywood musical). The effect is one of intimacy rather than spectacle and suggests that dance, for these girls, is more than just performance. There is a tactility and corporeal intensity to the sequence. The camera lingers on close-up shots of their thrusting hips and the ebony of their clapping hands. It is as though the movement of the girls' bodies in perfect synchronicity can express better than words the feeling of euphoria and connectedness that their friendship offers. But the dance is fleeting (it lasts less than a minute) and the scene too dissolves just as quickly. As the applause and cheers of the other girls die away, Marieme is returned to the pressures and responsibilities of real life. She sees her younger sister in a gang of girls and drags her home.
In his review of Sciamma's film for Positif, Jean-Christophe Ferrari points out:
It's the melancholic fact of the film: one cannot stay long in one's group, in the centrifugal plenitude of the group, in this state where all movements converge to celebrate the harmony and complicity of the group. Sooner or later the look is driven to displace itself, the body to make a centripetal movement.6
Yet, if Bande de filles is ultimately about the transient nature of female teenage friendships in particular and youth more generally, what remains is the memory of those brief but intense and exhilarating moments of euphoria expressed through the movement of bodies in space deftly filmed in an everyday context. The dance scene at La Défense combines the beauty, transience and danger of girlhood in the Parisian housing estates into a moment as sublime for the viewer as it is for the protagonists.