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First Day First Impressions
by Karen Schollemann

Friday, September 26, 2014, was an exciting day for me, since it was my first time to be an accredited member of the press at a film festival. I felt pretty important, especially after I picked up my official badge and hung it around my neck. All I had to do was flash my badge and I was able to walk into the wonderful world of film firsts from many different lands and cultures. However, how should I decide which films to go to; there were so many! Some of the films, which were open to public screening, were all booked out already, so that made the decision somewhat easier. Basically, I ended up picking films by directors, topic or by way of the grapevine. It was great having so many members of our Film Club team there, so that we could discuss which films to see as well as air our sometimes very different opinions as to how to rate a film. Slowly I was learning the ropes and this first day surprisingly enough introduced me to my two favorite festival films, Mommy and Girlhood and it is, in fact, these two films that I would like to review and compare. I’ll start with Mommy since that is the first film I saw and it did a good job of conditioning me for more to come.

Mommy directed by the 25-year-old French Canadian, Xavier Dolan, is an intense, innovative, fast moving and character driven film. From the beginning moments, when we meet the titular mother, Die (Diane), played masterfully by Ann Dorval, our attention is captured emotionally and physically. In an opening scene we see Die driving to pick up her obnoxious but charming son, Steve, brilliantly played by Antonie-Oliver Pilon, who has been discharged from a detention home for setting a fire, which seriously burned one of the other boys. Die, who is widowed, often jobless, dresses like a teenager and acts like it sometimes, too, is faced with the task of raising her ADHD aggressive son. He swears, he fights, he gets touchy with women, but when calm he is sweet natured and even comforting. The movie is like a roller coaster ride,  a juxtaposition between scenes of aggression, sometimes violent and scenes of joyous highs, often tender.  For example, one minute they are gleefully dancing to the pop music of the ninety’s and soon after they are violently fighting because Die asks Steve if the Mommy engraved necklace he gave her is stolen.  Interestingly enough, Dolan said himself in an interview in the Hamburger Abendblatt, “My characters fight in order to exist. This is a story of a mother-son relationship that is full of rough, raw love—sometimes exhibiting itself in the form of tender moments and sometime in rage and disappointment. They love each other more than anything else but the social circumstances and Steve’s illness make it difficult for them to make it work.” In addition, Dolan states that his lead character, Steve, has quite a bit in common with himself and that he also used to settle conflicts with his fists.

Deftly, Dolan adds a third character to this mother-son duo. This character is their neighbor, Kyla, played by the beautifully understated Suzanne Clément.  Kyla is a shy, introverted teacher, who probably had a nervous breakdown in the past, which caused a stuttering speech impediment. She is Die’s opposite and when she decides to give Steve home schooling, she not only brings a calming influence into the mother-son relationship, but she also begins to liberate herself from her own inhibitions.

Dolan’s use of artistic flourishes, such as with the music and camera stunts, amplifies the emotional intensity of the film. The wonderful scene where the radio music from the ‘90s accompanies the spontaneous, heartfelt dancing in the kitchen gives the three main characters as well as the audience the exuberant feeling of dancing their troubles away.  Dolan’s use of a 1:1 aspect ratio with black bars on each side through most of the film conveys a feeling of claustrophobia, a feeling of being bottled in. Twice in the film the characters are able to break out of their boxes, when Dolan employs the widescreen; for example, in an especially liberating moment, when Steve skateboards down the middle of the street singing and lifting his hands in euphoria. Some people found these camera effects silly or as the Germans say, kitschig, but since I tend to be more of an emotional, spontaneous person, I consider it to have added to the dynamics of the film. It makes the characters come alive and gives you an uplifting feeling that in spite of all the problems and obstacles, there is still hope.

As I see it, the movie does have one or two small flaws or incongruities, which either do not seem to fit or leave one in the dark.  For example, the beginning scene, which shows a title card that speaks of a fictional new law in Canada that allows parents to place their children in institutions without any legal proceedings, is, in my opinion, superfluous and can easily be left out without changing anything in the movie.  In addition, the mystery around Kyla’s relation or better said “non-relation” to her daughter and husband bothered me at first, but in another light, developing this relationship might have taken away from the two main characters and their problems. 

Mommy takes us up and down the scale of emotions and in the end leaves us emotionally exhausted but instilled with Dolan’s love of life and hope that things can change for the better. The three central actors were the vehicles to conveying this message and their brilliant performances made Dolan’s characters come vividly alive.  This is definitely one of the best movies this year. Don’t miss it.

After recuperating from watching Mommy over a hot bowl of pumpkin soup in the Abaton Bistro while discussing the film with other members of our team,  I checked the schedule for my next industry screening,  which was French director Celine Sciamma’s, Girlhood (Bande de filles). Unlike Mommy, Girlhood is slow moving and at first, I thought I might be able to take an emotional break during this showing, but slowly I realized how the film was systematically pulling me into the world of Marieme.  Marieme, who is in every scene and is played by the adroit newcomer, Karidja Toure, is a 16-year-old black girl living in the banlieues (low socioeconomic neighborhood) of Paris.  Similar to Mommy, this film is a character study of a young person coming-of-age, but this time the emphasis is more on race and a girl’s relationship to her teenage friends, rather than to her mother.  Unlike Steve, Marieme is a quiet, introverted person and not being able to continue with school because of poor grades and finding no support at home, she joins a gang of three girls, led by Lady, portrayed by another newcomer, the dynamic Assa Sylla. 

At first shy and unsure of herself, Marieme is seldom seen in the foreground when surrounded by her friends.  In the first half of the movie this girl’s gang comes over as raucous, the type of group that you might want to avoid, when riding the metro.  They street fight (gang rivalries); they steal; they get drunk and try drugs. However, later on in the movie, when they are dressed up in their stolen, stylish dresses and dancing to the music of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, we perceive young girls searching for their identity, young girls whose friendship helps them grow.  Not only does the music let them dance their sorrows away (as in Mommy) but it also initiates a new chapter in Marieme’s journey to adulthood.  At the beginning of the song Marieme dances timidly and is always looking to see what the others are doing, but as the beat goes on and they all begin to dance and sing with heart and soul, Marieme develops her own style, her own voice and actually seems to begin to take over as leader.

Whereas Dolan’s Mommy wavers back and forth between the highs and the lows of his characters, Sciamma’s Girlhood is very focused and structured. Sciamma divides Girlhood into four distinct sections, which mirror the different steps in Marieme’s development. At the end of each section, Marieme emerges with a new hairstyle. When we first encounter Marieme as a student, she has braided hair. Then, when she joins the girl’s gang, she opens up her braids and lets her hair fall straight, like her new friends. In the third part, when she works for an underworld boss, she wears a blonde wig. Finally, in the last scene, when she says good-bye to the gang and then symbolically closes the door at home, she walks into the light of the camera and is on her way to finding her real self.

Sciamma’s use of the camera in Girlhood is quite different from Dolan’s in Mommy. Whereas Dolan used mainly the 1:1 ratio, Sciamma relied more on Cinemascope or the widescreen. However, at the end both open up to a wide screen, giving us that feeling of hope. Colors and tones were also quite different. In Mommy, it was very colorful and vibrant, reflecting the emotional, explosive nature of the film, while in Girlhood blues and greys dominated, echoing a more subdued mood.

Like Dolan, Sciamma feels close to her characters, since she grew up in the disadvantaged banlieues outside of Paris. In an interview with Fred Film Radio after the Venice Film Festival, Sciamma stated that she often saw these girls walking through the streets and was always fascinated with their energy, their intelligence, humor and charisma. Therefore, armed with this idea, she went out into the streets of Paris to find the girls who would become the actors in Girlhood and what a success it was!

In conclusion, there are two most important impressions I would like to relay through my “First Day, First Impressions” report. First of all I want all to know that I am now a converted Hamburg Film Festival fan and even though I wasn’t able to attend as many films and interviews as I wanted to this year, I will definitely sign up for the next festival and hope to expand my agenda. The Film Festival is an exciting, crazy, thought-provoking and fun experience, which no movie lover should miss. Secondly, I hope that I have been able to convince our readers that Mommy and Girlhood are definitely worth a watch. Dolan and Sciamma are both very talented and promising young writers/directors, who have chosen dynamic actors, who compel the characters they play to come alive. Together, the directors and actors lead the audiences into the wonderful world of theater. So, come in please!