25. PARIS SUBURBS

“What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?”
Walter Benjamin – ‘Surrealism.’

What really moves you as a lover of art? And is it art’s role to move us, is there a value in being moved? What does ‘move’ mean in this context? We seem here to be turned in the direction of Aristotle and the origins of aesthetics in his theories of catharsis connected with the theatre. Of course art can do many other things than move us, but to be moved by art is certainly special, a rare experience that seems more valuable than to be made to simply grin, or nod, or walk on by without giving an artwork a second thought or a second look.

What moves you (as Kant suggested) also has a strangely doubled manifestation in that it feels deeply personal and yet it’s a safe bet that many others feel or felt or will feel a similar emotion given the same encounter, and this is what will make the work seem universally successful.

But to ‘cut to the chase’ this is a preamble to you writing about the experience of watching Girlhood (2014) a movie by Céline Sciamma, a ‘coming of age’ movie about an Afro-French teenage girl, trapped without prospects in one of the huge modernist housing estates that circle the city of Paris.

Many of us grow or grew up constricted by similar architecture and poverty, and this is certainly part of the appeal of this movie, allowing for a degree of catharsis arising from familiarity and empathy with the plight of the characters. What the director excels at however is a unique sense of sorority that seems to overcome the usual problem of the privileged class (to which a successful film director tends to belong) making a quasi-anthropological but ‘realist’ study of a very different, far-less privileged culture.

Céline Sciamma must have done some great research to give such a convincing sense of the way a gang of girls who are alienated from and disallowed any career (other than youthful baby-mom, cleaner, drug dealer, prostitute etc.) nevertheless, invariably and crucially strive to create their own ‘success’, inventing their own ‘culture’ and finding their own joys, even if they are poorly rendered imitations of already highly mediated images of happiness and achievement.

E.g. bullying, stealing and hustling a handful of cash buys the girls a train ride into Paris proper where they shoplift clothes, buy pizzas and booze and rent a cheap hotel room for one night. There they luxuriate in bubble bath, change into stolen frocks, turn up the TV and imitate pop videos that feature heightened emotions and simple aspirations. Yes, pop, fashion and make-up are all crass and commercial, kitsch and manipulative industries, the products of cold calculation and highly lucrative, and yet, despite all that, a song or a dress that excites a hopelessly trapped teenager, allowing them to momentarily experience escape from their confines or imagine being someone or somewhere else, surely has a place and a value in our relativist world view.

As well as sparkling moments of escapism, painful realism abounds in this film and provides its essential backdrop. The concrete architecture of the highly prescriptive housing project seems impossible to escape from, and it is true that many live in such environments from cradle to grave and then their children do the same. You have to ask just why this is, again and again and again, before even starting to think about how to build a more fair, dynamic and mobile society. The central character’s unsmiling, world-weary mother holds down a job as a cleaner, reminding us of the largely unseen armies of often middle-aged, black women responsible for the sparkling condition of every privileged professional’s washroom and office, all over Paris, London, NYC, you name it.

Of course, this is not the ‘future’ that the daughter, Marieme ,wants, and so, when a teacher tells her she can’t progress in her education she gets attracted by a tough gang who at least have some ‘status’ and know how to have fun. She then gradually builds her own strength in response to and often imitating the many roles that others play around her but (and this is her redeeming trait) without getting stuck in or as any one of them. In one beautifully crafted scene Marieme has been dressed up by a drugs gang, in such a way that she can acceptably enter a stylish party mainly for rich whites in a sumptuous mansion of a house. Once she has supplied the deal to the host and quickly collected the cash she swishes out again, always knowing and showing that this is not her world but just another role that herself and her peers play in servicing a distant elite.

Céline Sciamma and her cinematographer make many masterful compositions in which bodies often lay, pieta-like across the wide-screen, horizontal cinema frame (‘aaah’, you think, ‘cinema still provides the BEST and the biggest picture!’), wonderfully lit with deep tones, blues, browns and crimsons that seems to enhance and endorse the Afro-French subculture that is her object. But Sciamma manages – again, transmitting a sense of sorority, cross-class loyalty and unity that is one of the most promising, powerful and touching aspects of feminism – to avoid patronizing and instead allow another culture’s values to communicate themselves to us.

Patriarchy is of course a force that also attempts to control, beat, bully and silence the main character and all the women in the film, but ultimately the men are also seen as trapped and striving for whatever forms of dignity and ‘accomplishment’ they can find. One male character also proves the exception to the monstrous macho rule, shedding tears, becoming sexually passive, and reaching out sensitively and sincerely to Marieme’s heart.

Symbolism runs high and heady here, in the importance of hair, style, haircuts, in the ritual of fighting, the giving of new names to gang members and the way power and hierarchy are carefully organized, even though, to outsiders, all of the characters may seem ultimately, or relatively powerless. Even the synchronized moves of the latest street dance – so important to teenage girls, so unimportant elsewhere- take on powerful symbolic form as a means of mastering coded communications.

Given the busy schedule you pursue, trying not to become crushed by the expense of 21st century urban living, some judgmental internal force often makes you feel you should be attending more of London’s great museums, theatres, experiencing more of the blockbuster exhibitions there, and spending more time keeping up with the cool and emerging fine art scene, but in many ways you are quite happy to here be connected, emotionally and politically to aspects of your own past; i.e. to a suburban, council-estate culture whose fear, desperation and impossibility you know quite well; and to momentarily share in Céline Sciamma’s beautifully crafted and persistently moving celebration of the dramas, joys and ultimately Romantic journeys that inevitably emerge from and within such a scenario, reveling in a subculture that insists on its own pride, status and success, against all odds and despite the bourgeois world’s continued ignorance, indifference and habitual misapprehension.

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