Francophone cinema knows a thing or two about the erotic possibilities of moving. In Alain Berliner’s My Life in Pink, young Ludovic inaugurates his family’s new zip code with a relentless, and relentlessly playful, refusal to be a boy. In Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, the miserable little girl at its center can only find solace from poverty, bullying, and lack of affection in her final jetée into a lake she hopes will take her elsewhere. And what about Laure’s suggestive duct-taping of perfectly labeled U-Haul boxes in Claire Denis’s Friday Night? As if so much containment, so much packing, could only mean to mask a yearning for some uncontrollable eruption.
The Laure (Zoé Héran) of this year’s best film, Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, is a lot younger than Friday Night’s own, yet already somehow aware of the liberating possibilities of driving—even if just on her father’s lap. That’s the first image of the film, a trompe l’oeil of sorts: We see a close-up of 10-year-old Laure’s face in movement, basking the sunlight, as though she were floating in space all on her own. Then we realize it’s her father who’s propping her up through the car’s sunroof, which brings Laure from her ludic flight right back to the earthly troubles of being the new girl in town who’s mistaken for someone that she actually is, as Joon Oluchi Lee might say. She’s walking around her new neighborhood when a girl her age, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), asks her if “he” is new, before asking the presumably simplest of all questions: “What is your name?” Laure finds in the constraining, even violent, banality of the question an air pocket of risk and existential opportunity, and answers, “Michaël.” The film then follows the pleasures and anxieties enabled by an alternative answer to that “simple” question, Who are you?, as Laure passes for Michaël for most of the summer. As she develops an intimate and, yes, erotic bond with Lisa, this passing requires constant labor, from silence to the manufacturing of a penis made out of clay so she can go swimming with the boys—cinema’s most proficient debunking of bio-centric notions of the penis as something other than a mere dildo that anyone (girl, boy, or otherwise) can claim. Queer theorists should be proud, or envious.
Tomboy is one of those little big films whose simplicity and concision suggest the excess of meaning that language (cinematic or otherwise) could never account for. Films like this, and De Sica’sThe Bicycle Thieves comes to mind, seem to know and accept the inadequacy of complexity, or spectacle, of form and style when the task at hand is expressing the unspeakability of the human condition. Sciamma renders visual some of the most complicated and elusive structures at work in the constitution of personhood (i.e. desire), and never in a sentimental or manipulative way. The film’s ideas brew effortlessly before our eyes, as if it were too invested in its characters’ experiences to worry about “selling” us its story or “teaching” us its messages. Sciamma’s sensibility as a director along with the masterful performance by Zoé Héran (as well as Malon Léavanna, who plays her little sister) keeps Tomboy from making any overreaching or generalizing claims about gender, identity, or the sexuality of children. And yet we certainly “learn” from the film just as much as we “like” it. The kind of sensuous apprenticeship borne out of the aftershock of an experience so emotional, so delicate, it refreshingly eludes us.
Laure tries to negotiate a new position in relationship to her body so discreetly, so self-effacingly, so mutely (the film embraces solely natural sounds), without bothering anybody, almost like bypassing language, or at least bending it. The eponymous sissy boy of The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros comes to mind, as when all communication attempts fail, he resorts to whistling. In Tomboy, the maternal is unsettled by this child’s ability to speak otherwise, or not speak at all, and appears as the least safe of all spaces. Its enactments are perversely blanked with the familiar “I’m not doing this to hurt you,” as when Laure’s passing for Michaël reaches its limit and her pregnant mother (of a boy, tellingly) forces her to put a dress on so she can be visible as Laure again. Too late, as both Laure and Lisa now know, as they re-meet and re-ask the most banal of all questions, that if her girlhood is in the dress, then her name can be just as foreign to her skin.