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Girlhood

Did I say I live in the middle of a raucous urban herring gull colony? Maybe not. It's nesting season and the gang is not here. They're loud and far from clean bandits, but admirable in many ways and really rather amazing. I miss them. I wake early and listen to the quiet. I look out of my window, and see just one or two lonely sentinels on the rooftops. We've been told for years that herring gull population is in steep decline, and seen the opposite: but you never expect the inevitable to hit you until it does. Maybe it's natural variation. Maybe they'll be be back next year, loud as ever, but that isn't the way it goes, these days. Every population of living things dwindles, except mass market corporate-enslaved humanity in all its guises. Every variety of life on earth fades away, and doesn't come back (except mass market corporate-enslaved humans**). The RSPB and Sussex Wildlif Trust keep asking me to "Celebrate Nature", and I try, but so often, all I seem to have to report is loss. Oh well. Maybe if the gulls have gone, starlings will nest in our empty swifts' nesting box.

Girlhood

Last year I refused to go and see that epic, profoundly humanist, Oscar nomination-laden study of modern life Boyhood; to my son's consternation. My dog in the manger reason? I was pretty damn sure a movie called Girlhood would never be described in those terms, whatever its content; or get anything like the same attention. (Also I was soured by the fact that I'd tried in vain to get the Duke's to screen Girl Rising, a documentary about global girlhood, endorsed by a slew of Hollywood stars giving their services for free. Nothing doing. Not of general interest).

Huh. Always the Jumble Sale funding for girls. The universal importance and the Oscar nominations for boys . . . I'm not proud of this attitude, by the way. Just can't help it, sometimes.

Anyway, I went to see Celine Sciamma's Bande des Filles as soon as I got the chance, and despite the fact that it seemed to be mainly notable (in the media) for a heartwarming scene where beautiful teen bad girls bond with each other by dressing up in shoplifted pretty clothes, and karaokeing around to Rhianna's Diamonds, which did not sound very revolutionary. (Such a shame about Rhianna, I remember her when she was just a kid, and I used to watch her on the music-tv screens at my gym. She had such music in her, still does, why did she have to get addicted to being smacked around? Worse than heroin, in my opinion. And, crucially, far more infectious. I just hope one day she really gets sober. And tells the world). But I take it back, the Diamonds scene was justified, and the movie is something out of the ordinary. To start with, & refreshingly, this isn't all about how different girls are from boys. It's about how boys and girls on a sink estate outside Paris (the notorious banlieuses) are exactly the same. Same rituals, same fierce codes of behaviour; same worship of physical prowess; same fragile egotism. Same longing for greatness, same passion for personal adornment. Except the boys are bigger, the boys are stronger, and the parental culture, such as it is, gives them authority. So the girls, like small predators meeting big predators, always have to give way. The opening night scene, tracking a laughing, yelling, intimidating band of girls into their home environment, of shadowy walkways and bleak tower blocks, until they suddenly fall silent, and for a moment you don't know why, then you see it: they've hit the boys' territory; this sets the tone. And tells the whole story. Girls, however tough and however cool, are subalterns* for life. This is the fate they must accept.

At first it's hard to tell what's going on with Marieme, our protagonist. At her abortive careers interview she doesn't deign to explain to the unseen careers teacher, why she hasn't got the results she needs. She wants to go to high school, she doesn't want to learn a trade, and that's all she has to say. Presumably she wants to go to high school because it's the way out. Presumably she can't get there because she's had to care for her little sisters; because her older brother is idle and abusive (there's no father around); because her mum can't see anything beyond her own life of menial drudgery. But Marieme doesn't plead her own cause & neither does the movie. You have to make out these underlying factors for yourself. It looks sudden, it looks arbitrary when Lady, Adiatou and Fily recruit her to replace the missing fourth of their bande des filles. What do the established bad girls on the block see in this tall, taciturn, sober-looking teen? In retrospect, I think they've had their eye on Marieme.They know who she is: but I didn't. I only saw her timidly allowing herself to be drawn into "trouble". Cautiously opening up, beginning to smile: embracing this other possibility, this chance to shine. The shoplifting, the Diamonds session; the girl-gang intrigues that will lead to a famous cat-fight victory . . . all seem, almost, like a struggling good girl's "fall". I didn't understand Marieme until (in the locker room of the hotel where her mother drudges as a cleaner), she gets told that, as a big favour, she can have the same job for the summer. I expected her to buckle down, to accept she has to pick up some of the eternal female breadwinning burden. Either buckle down or run away crying: throw a tantrum at home, and get her mum to let her off. What I did not expect, and neither did the supervisor, was the moment when Marieme's handshake (apparently accepting the job offer) suddenly becomes a menacing grip. I did not expect Marieme, all coiled and understated violence, softly making her wishes known. tomorrow, you tell my mum there isn't a job after all. . Wow.

This was the thrilling moment, for me: almost eclipsing the other thrilling moment when (fired up by that famous cat-fight victory) she invades her boyfriend's bedroom, and unilaterally decides they are going to have unmarried sex. Oh, this is bad! Her scary brother will be humiliated! Shame and sorrow on the family! There's no way back from this step, but once again, Marieme has silently, adamantly, made up her mind. If the bac and Normale Superieure route out of misery is forever beyond her reach, then she will pursue a criminal career. It's the best shot she has. She'll leave home, and won't have to care what the neighbours think. She's not going to be a whore. She has no intention of dishonouring herself: she'll be the dealer not the goods, and rise through the ranks in the employ of the local drug baron, whose patronage she trusts . . . & so Marieme emerges as this very French antihero, the righteous criminal, bound for glory and popular admiration. Except this time she's female, and try as she may to disguise her lovely figure, she's not going to get away with being a girl who wants to be treated as a juvenile female man. Not for very long.

As far as I can make out Girlhood is nothing like Boyhood 2014. On the other hand it's quite a lot like Francois Truffaut's 1959 Nouvelle Vague boyhood movie, Les Quatre Cents Coups (Roughly translated: "Raising Hell"). Marieme's case is far more nuanced (how much do her choices owe to her scary brother?is one question I asked myself). But like Antoine Doinel, the hapless little rebel without a cause in the Truffaut movie**, she is far more naive than she thinks she is. She's not and never was a genuine hardnut sociopath; just a thwarted, ambitious kid, and the further she ventures into her break-out, the further she spirals into the freedom of criminality, the more resistance she will find to that decision not to be the subaltern. But go and see the movie. I thought it was terrific, and the off-the-street cast uniformly amazing.

Also, if you don't know it already, get hold of Les Quatre Cents Coups.

But all this still leaves "Girlhood" an outsider movie. Minority interest. Huh.

* subaltern: a subordinate; in critical theory a population outside the power structures of a society. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subaltern_postcolonialism

** Les Quatre Cent Coups has sequels, all about the same character btw. The first is the best though, in my opinion.

**strikethrough, and "corporate" substitute added todayon learning of Monsanto/Sygenta's imminent monopoly on the world's seeds







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