In Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), nothing is as simple as it seems. “I’m going to high school,” Marieme (Karidja Touré), our careful, introspective protagonist says to her mother one evening. In truth, she has dropped out of school after being told – despite her protestations – that her only real educational future lies in learning a trade at a technical school. Instead, she has joined up with three other neighborhood girls, who soon become her sisters-in-arm as she navigates life in the banlieues of Paris. We know she is lying and, we suspect, so does her mother, though she doesn’t come out and say it. Some of the film’s most effective exchanges have no dialogue. Every gesture, every facial expression is charged with a sense of urgency that feels eminently appropriate.
This is especially evident in Marieme’s second outing with the girls – that is, the second outing we see on screen. It is immediately clear that in the time between trips, she has become a bona fide member of the group, a transformation fully signified when de facto leader Lady (Assa Sylla) presents her with a gold necklace bearing her new name: “Vic” short for Victory. The girls are in a hotel room in Paris, eating pizza, drinking spiked cola, and trying on newly shoplifted dresses. Marieme openly and playfully jokes with the girls.
Abruptly, we cut to a shot of Lady, looking down. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” starts playing, superimposed over the rest of the scene’s audio. Lady looks up, staring directly at the camera, as she lip-syncs along to the lyrics. The camera pans back out and she diverts, looks away as Adiatou (Lyndsay Karamoh) and then Fily (Marietou Touré) enter the shot with a grace that feels both completely natural and carefully choreographed. The camera then cuts to Marieme, sitting on the hotel bed, nodding along to the music as she watches her new friends dance. She smiles, then gets up to join them. For a moment, the camera lingers on the empty space Marieme once occupied on the bed. This is where she once was, on the outside looking in, but no longer. Now she is right at the center of the group.
The realist drama Sciamma has crafted is temporarily suspended and we enter the world of a music video as the song plays out in its entirety. And yet, this transition does not feel like an interruption. While it would certainly be difficult to anticipate this sudden musical interlude, the flow into the scene feels natural, given the intensely physical nature of the film.
At the end of the scene, the music softens, and we hear the girls singing for themselves. We return to the original narrative just as quickly as we were plunged into this new musical world. Dancing in their new dresses – security tags still intact – and set against a backdrop of blue light, the girls are momentarily wrapped up in their own world, free in the glory of the song. And we are right there with them. Like Marieme, we are no longer on the outside looking in. We see this moment through their eyes, we feel their energy, their unself-conscious abandon, all without a single line of dialogue.