Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2015

Girlhood; Mustang

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:16 pm

Among the dozens of screeners I received from film studio publicity machines in conjunction with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December were two that dealt in one way or another with teen girls struggling to define themselves against social constraints imposed by poverty and religion respectively. Both are serious works and have outstanding performances but ultimately fail as statements about the social conditions they seek to explain and dramatize. Despite the critical remarks I will be making about the films, they will both be categorized as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes since I would prefer to reserve a “rotten” for the likes of “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

Set in Paris’s banlieues, “Girlhood” is about the struggles of Marieme, a sixteen-year old high school student and immigrant from some unnamed African nation, to escape following in the footsteps of her single mom who works as a cleaning lady. At home she is bullied by her older brother Djibril who whiles away his day playing video games or hanging out with other young men on the sidewalk beneath their public housing. It is left up to Marieme to cook, clean and care for her two younger sisters when her mother is at work.

Her only exit from banlieue life would be acceptance into a high school that would prepare her for college or an office job but the school adviser tells her that her grades are only good enough to qualify her for vocational school, an option that Marieme considers beneath her. She wants to be “normal”, which means enjoying a middle-class life.

Since there is little chance of her becoming eligible for the “A group” as we used to put it in the 1950s, she is lured into the gangsta life that flourishes in the banlieue. On her way from the school one day, she runs into a group of three girls from the neighborhood who are African immigrants like her. For them, the only purpose in life is to “get over”, which means smoking dope, getting drunk, and roaming around shopping centers. Their lives are described more accurately in the original title of the film “Bande de filles” that evokes Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” after a fashion.

After scoring some cash through petty thefts, they cut class and rent a room in an upscale hotel where they can escape their dreary lives for a day. They take baths and enjoy the other temporary luxuries a hotel can offer. The climax of the scene has them dancing to Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond”, a song that expresses their fantasies about another way of living:

You’re a shooting star I see
A vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I’m alive
We’re like diamonds in the sky

I knew that we’d become one right away
Oh, right away
At first sight I left the energy of sun rays
I saw the life inside your eyes

The insouciance of Marieme and her three gangsta pals might remind you of this famous scene from “Band of Outsiders”:

To put it succinctly, this is the tradition that director Céline Sciamma belongs to, which is fairly far removed from social protest films. Despite the grim outcome that befalls Marieme, Sciamma is far more interested in depicting female bonding than decrying a wasted life. She studied under Xavier Beauvois at La Fémis, which is one of the most prestigious film schools in the world. Beauvois was a student in turn of Jean Douchet, who was a staff writer at Cahiers du cinema, the journal associated with the New Wave.

Despite the high-powered artistic prowess of “Girlhood”, the film left me with the same feeling I had watching “New Jack City” in 1991, an early film about gansta life in New York. I went to see it with a friend from London and her nephew. Although it was supposed to be a cautionary tale, the nephew who was of mixed race considered it to be a life-style guide. What impact it had on French audiences, it is difficult to know but it seems likely that its art house audiences were not likely to go out and mug people afterwards.

“Mustang” is a Turkish film that incorporates a lot of French art film elements, thanks to director Deniz Gamze Ergüven having been raised in France and attending the same prestigious film school as Céline Sciamma.

It tells the story of five orphaned sisters who are being raised by their grandmother and uncle in a village on the Black Sea that like most of Anatolia is ruled by deeply conservative and sexist codes of behavior.

In the opening scene, several of the girls have just been let out of school for summer vacation and they join the boys for a romp on the beach in their school uniforms. Clearly high-spirited (the title of the film is an analogy to the untamed horses of the West), they ride on the shoulders of the boys in a game to see who will be knocked into the water first.

When they return home, they discover that by simply having their legs wrapped around the shoulders of their male classmates, they are considered little more than whores and taken by their uncle to the local doctor who checks to see if their hymens are intact.

No matter how determined their caregivers are to rein them in, the girls find ways to break the rules, which means late night trysts with different boys that are made possible by sneaking out a second story window and down a drainpipe. There is also passive resistance. When a group of village elders come by the house to talk about an arranged marriage, one of the girls spits in the coffee before she takes it out to them in the living room.

The problem with the film is that cannot make up its mind whether to be a study in victimology or resistance. One after another the girls are handed off to one young man or another without a peep. These rituals are punctuated by acts of rebellion, including them sneaking off to see a football game in a nearby city that their uncle has forbidden them to see. Clearly, this is a nod to the Iranian film “Offside” by the irrepressible Jafar Pahani who is both more political than Ergüven and more skilled at creating distinct personalities in his screenplays. Since there was something formulaic about “Mustang”, I found it difficult to keep track of which sister was which as the film unfolded.

Despite my criticisms of both films, they got “fresh” ratings in the high nineties on Rotten Tomatoes and will probably be worth your time if they show up on Netflix. “Girlhood” can now be seen on Amazon streaming and “Mustang” will likely appear there as well before long.

1 Comment »

  1. Good comparisons to similar films. Kudos for citing NYFCO.

    Comment by Harvey — December 31, 2015 @ 12:16 am


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