Criterion Crunch Time: ‘Tomboy’
Well, we are set to close another month here at Criterion Crunch Time and with this week’s movies, we cover all of the areas I hoped to at the start of this column. We have a director whose movies are leaving the service all at once, and this director just happens to be a woman. The fact that she is one of my personal favorite directors certainly helps, too! Alright, enough pomp and circumstance, this weeks’ film is Tomboy directed by Céline Sciamma. Given that she directed one of the best movies of the past decade (and maybe ever) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it would be an understatement to say that my expectations were not tempered.
Sciamma has a true gift for capturing small moments of intimacy. In Tomboy these are best detailed by the way she films hands. In every important moment of connection, the camera focuses in on hands, specifically intertwining fingers. This is true regardless of the emotion of the scene. The film opens with Laure (Zoé Héran) sitting in her father’s (Mathieu Demy) lap driving the car on the way to their new home. The sense of discovery, fun, and awe is palpable as the opening credits roll. This will repeat through all of Tomboy, even as Laure discovers who they are.
The film follows Laure, a young person born a girl, and I chose those words carefully. There are two very different readings that can be made from Tomboy. This could easily be the story of a girl who is simply a tomboy and discovering who she is as a child. Or this could be the beginnings of a transgender journey. Either reading is intensely moving, as this time in a young person’s life is intensely confusing regardless of identification. My initial read was the trans journey, but your mileage may vary.
Like all of Sciamma’s films, Tomboy is painfully intimate. One of the smartest decisions the film’s script makes (also written by Sciamma) is that Laure’s sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) seems to have it so easy. She is a giggly, bubbly young girl. She plays the part of female without even knowing that is what she is doing. Laure, on the other hand, is actively performing the gender of male when they are with their friends, as Mickaël. Every moment of this young person’s life is thought through. Can I take off my shirt? Can I urinate outside? These are all things that boys who are born with male genitalia never have to think about. And yet, Laure is so much more comfortable there.
Of course, Laure loves the time spent with family even when her sister annoys her, but we get the feeling that this is all so stilted and forced. Laure and Mickaël are almost two different people. Mickaël is confident, brash, and alluring to a female peer, Lisa (Jeanne Disson). On the other hand, Laure keeps almost completely to herself and has to be drawn into conversations with the people that love her. Tomboy hammers home the importance of being accepted and how truly empowering that moment will feel one day. But when you are young, the world is small. Laure and Jeanne’s mother (Sophie Cattani), pregnant for the majority of the film makes this clear. She has no issue with Laure “playing the boy” but after the summer break, Laure must return to school and the play must end.
But for Mickaël, this is not simply playacting. There is a reason that they choose male in a new neighborhood. This is a fresh start, without the insight to see into the future past the summer. Mickaël knows that they can pass as a boy and goes to relatively great lengths to do just that. The extended scene in which Mickaël makes a makeshift phallus to stuff in their shorts in order to attend a day at the lake is both comical and heartwrenching. We all, with that insight the child lacks, know that this will end, but we desperately hope that it will conclude without pain.
But growth is painful, and Laure/Mickaël’s journey is no different in Tomboy. After a blissfully tender kiss with Lisa in which Mickaël is gently led by the hand with her right and has their eyes covered with her lift, everything slowly begins to unravel. In a cruel twist, Mickaël’s most masculine act, that of pinning another boy down and pummeling him, leads to the discovery that Mickaël is Laure.
It seems that not only Jeanne, but everyone near Laure understands their gender and never feels the need to perform. Laure’s parents and friends seem to float through the summer, never needing a second thought in how they act or speak. And even a character introduced in nearly the last frame of the film, Laure’s baby brother seems at complete piece, the picture of comfort that Laure desires more than anything.
Thankfully, there is one possible moment of acceptance. After being taunted by the boys for her “disgusting” kiss, Lisa returns after finding out Laure’s secret. They share a lovely moment in which Laure finally introduces themselves with their given name. This simple smile and line of dialogue, performed expertly by Héran imbues the film with a softness that sends the audience away with a sliver of hope.
So, is Tomboy a trans affirming story? Or is Tomboy a coming of age lesbian love story? Either answer leaves you with a loving, possibly accepting love story. That love story is either focused on the self or the other, but both of these leave a lasting impact on the viewer. Sciamma once again provides a love story that we rarely see on film. Tomboy is a phenomenal piece of efficient, generous filmmaking that deserves to be seen before it leaves The Criterion Channel.
Join us next month for four more movies leaving the Criterion Channel!