After exploring teenage lesbian desire in her first feature, Water Lilies (2007), Céline Sciamma rewinds the biological clock back to childhood in her second film, Tomboy. In her latest installment she navigates through the growing pains of the uncharted gender identity of a pre-pubescent girl. Ten-year-old protagonist Laure (Zoé Héran) moves to a suburban neighborhood in France with her father, mother and younger sister. A different environment and adventurous friends set the stage for Laure to construct a new identity under the alias Mickaël. Sciamma does not directly attempt to explain or justify the reasons why Laure longs to be a boy. There is no explicit dialogue regarding biological determinism or discernable study of the psychological make-up of the protagonist. Sciamma states that Tomboy shifts the question away from “why does she do that?” to “how does she do that?” The director definitely makes an effort to remain impartial and apolitical. She constantly negotiates a balance between making a natural, light film about coming of age that avoids blatantly focusing on the pathos of Laure’s situation while maintaining an underlying sense of mystery and suspense surrounding her secret. In an interview for Arte Television, Sciamma explained that childhood is a period in life where we play dress-up, becoming someone else; it is the time of role-playing games such as cowboys and Indians. She felt that the questions surrounding identity construction in general are more important than the [End Page 107] concept of gender identity in her film. Sciamma claims her film is about the universal mysterious world of children rather than gender/sexual identity issues per se. However, she avoids acknowledging the queer implications inherent in Tomboy. It would seem unlikely that the recurring themes of sexual marginalization and body dysmorphia would merely serve as peripheral bystanders during a child’s summer of exploration. If not the director’s focus, then, ours will be to contemplate queer issues such as lesbianism, transexualism, and homophobia found in Tomboy.
The film opens with a shot of the child protagonist’s neck that conceals his/her visage and obstructs their ambiguous gender. Neither the short haircut nor the dark blue t-shirt s/he is wearing gives one any clue of his/her sex. A close-up of the child’s face shortly appears thereafter but their androgynous features don’t give us any insight either into their identity. Sciamma utilizes low camera angles to inform us that Tomboy is a movie about children, filmed and experienced through their eyes much like Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933) or Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959). The main character’s sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), a charming six-year-old precocious girl who embodies the epitome of a “feminine” girl inhabits a pink bedroom with her dolls and frilly dresses. The siblings’ simultaneous presence onscreen serves to emphasize their polarity thereby reinforcing the protagonist’s masculinity. The film’s symbolic contrast between the masculine and feminine via the two siblings invites us to dissect gender identity as the leitmotif of her film.
Much like the protagonist in Albert Nobbs (2011), the child employs an alias (Mickaël) in order to perform a male identity. In a startling revelation, the director exposes us to the protagonist’s sex when Jeanne and “Mickaël” are taking a bath together. Suddenly their mother (Sophie Cattani) calls out “Laure” and “Mickaël” responds. This is the first indication that “Mickaël” is actually officially named Laure. The next shot provides a wider frame of the bathroom displaying Laure’s naked body in the middle of the screen while she stands facing us, confirming that she is in fact - female. Sciamma needs to affirm that Laure is a girl because gender/sex matter to her. She removes any potential confusion when she confronts us with the child’s genitalia, not merely in an incidental way but to showcase the politicized body.
Although Laure possesses a female body she spends much of...