The French word for ‘tomboy,’ pretty terribly, is garcon manqué (failed boy). In both English and French common parlance, it’s an oft-used term to describe a cisgender female who eschews make-up, dresses or long hair. It’s used mainly to describe young people, a stepping stone between their ‘confused’ childhood years into what they inevitably are: what Jack Halberstam posits as the ‘butch dyke’ myth. It is a term loaded with prejudice, heteronormativity, and conjures up more harm than the mere image of skinned knees and muddy clothes. Failed boy. As well as being pretty conservative, the French aren’t known for their linguistic subtlety.
Céline Sciamma targets the idea of the tomboy squarely on in her 2011 film Tomboy, which tells the story of ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) who assumes a new alias, Mikäel, around other local children one summer when Lisa (Jeanne Disson) mistakes her for a boy. Though this blissful arrangement of being Laure at home and Mikäel around her new friends and burgeoning love interest seems to work out initially, soon her mother (Sophie Cattani) learns of her secret, forces her to wear a dress and confess to her friends. Laure, devastated and embarrassed, seems unable to explain why she did it, with the film’s ambiguous and inconclusive ending leaving Laure still grappling with her gender identity. Rather than being a conclusive tale of gender transitioning or coming-out, Sciamma explores the constantly oscillating explorations of gender fluidity in children, deploying the hazy vignette of summer and her characteristic minimalism to do so.
The blissful and restorative power of a childhood spent outdoors takes the helm in the film, where interiors are dark, oppressive and a breeding ground for gendered anxieties and exteriors are freeing and fluid. Sciamma gently layers together a series of oppositions to expose how the film is a game of dichotomies, in direct contradiction to the film’s nuanced look at how gender is anything but.
What pervades Tomboy, in particular, is the sense that Sciamma’s camera truly takes on a human quality, transgressing what is expected from minimalist filmmaking with colour, framing and editing to truly represent the audience, not just on-screen, but inter-spatially.
Tomboy is often thought to be the second instalment of a coming-of-age trilogy, flanked by Water Lilies and Girlhood, and so Sciamma is no stranger to articulating pre-teen coming-of-age experiences; her camera follows suit, effectively making the audience an anonymous child observer. Her camera has a youthful quality in that it places us at the height of the children, even if that means we can only see the midriff of passing adults. By prioritising the children in the frame rather than the adults, the audience becomes more and more invested in this childhood experience, more empathetic, and mentally transported into our seemingly nostalgic back-catalogue of long summers, pre-teen confusion, adolescent woe, and the world feeling a little too much to handle. This childlike camera gaze, coupled with close-ups, establishes distance with the enigmatic protagonist while plunging us into her world where heights, growth and bodies are of more pressing concern to her than the average adult.
Sciamma was intimately concerned with breathing childhood life into her filmmaking in all aspects, stating that she wanted to create a “un film qui soit sur les pulsations de l’enfance;” quite literally, a film that beats to the rhythm of “the pulsations of childhood.” Darren Waldron noticed this in Sciamma’s editing, which mixes together fast-paced cutting with longer takes in an oscillating metaphor of a child’s hyperactivity and rest. Sciamma’s attention to detail directly contradicts those who might suggest naturalistic cinema lacks stylistics elements; Sciamma breathes style into the bones of her equipment, imbuing it with a childish spirit.
Though Lisa misgenders Laure and Laure does not correct her, the ambiguity of her gender and sexuality is a running theme throughout the film, rendering farcical the rigid limits imposed by established binary oppositions. Sciamma’s use of colour imagery exemplifies this. The oppressive domestic space is starkly gendered; Laure’s bedroom is blue, whereas her younger sister Jeanne’s room is a vibrant, sickly pink; the freeing environment of the outdoors is a neutral green, fresh and full of life. As Courtney Fiske points out, Laure, who ostensibly straddles both genders or is unsure about her gender identity, always wears either red or blue, or sometimes both; the duality of her wardrobe epitomises the sensitive, feminised masculinity of her alias Mikael. The colour red follows Laure around as she descends deeper into her secret alias – her mutilated swimming costume, her soiled shorts – the latter of which he attempts to clean in a guilty sign of absolution.
Tomboy also seems to be acutely aware of puberty and all the complications that arise alongside the cusp of hormonal change. It is not apparent that Laure is genetically female until she emerges from the bath, nude, 14 minutes into the start of the film; doctors posit that the average age for girls to be fully pubescent is 14. When Laure is playing football with a group of boys, her genderless bliss is interrupted when a red t-shirt drops in between a pair of legs, seeming to symbolise Laure’s imminent menstruation, reflecting the stressful and often traumatising effects that puberty can have on a child.
Not only does colour become oppressive in the domestic interior space, but it is also the location in which performative strategies begin to taunt Laure. She fashions an ersatz penis out of modelling clay to insert into her swimming trunks; she sports a false moustache for the amusement of her sister; she allows herself to be put into make-up; all to her chagrin. These activities of gender-compliance all dissipate when Laure plays football with the suburban children, shirtless and free, with her prepubescent body giving nothing away to her new friends. Nature adapts to her, frames her, and the canopy of the forest blurs to expose the un-importance of appearances, merely emphasising its welcoming vitality. It is in the woods where Laure abandons her dress and kisses Lisa.
Nature’s power as a tranquil force reflects how Tomboy sits in stark opposition to the circus-like hysteria surrounding non-conforming genders in our contemporary society. By inviting the viewer to experience gender-questioning from Laure’s vantage point, Sciamma deconstructs and validates her experiences, using her stylised minimalism like the supportive arm of an ally to faithfully, kindly, and responsibly articulate Laure’s story.
by Steph Green
Steph Green is a culture writer from North London. Having studied English Literature, French and Film at Leeds University, she is now the film news editor of The Indiependent and has written for Vogue Paris, Into The Fold and The Gryphon. Some of her favourite films are The 400 Blows, Memento, The Social Network, Before Sunset and Call Me By Your Name. She’s normally found wittering about film on Twitter and Letterboxd.