Monday, February 3, 2020

Cline Scamia Successfully Contemplates How We Perceive Gender in Tomboy

Note: Laure is referred to with "they/them pronoun's throughout the piece in keeping with the film depicting the character in a gender-neutral manner.

I may be only two films into the filmography of Celine Scamia, but it's clear that color is a very important detail for this director. Her debut directorial effort Water Lillies used certain colors as extensions of certain characters or to even suggest conflict between specific characters. Whereas Water Lillies utilized vibrantly bright colors all throughout its production & costume design, Tomboy and its more grounded visual aesthetic are a touch more restrained in how they dish out color. Still, Scamia's thoughtful use of color still emerges throughout Tomboy, including in the title card that uses red & blue to suggest individual traditional binary genders before utilizing those same colors to visually communicate a more complex approach to gender.

Once that title card helps establish that Tomboy will be a production very much interested in how we define & perceive gender, we meet our lead character, ten-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran). Assigned female at birth, Laure begins to introduce herself to the kids living in her new neighborhood, including Lisa (Jeanne Disson) and quickly establishes themselves as a man named Mikael. It's a secret requiring a bit of work to maintain but one that allows them to get closer to the local youngsters and especially Lisa. However, it's a facade that can't last forever. First Laure's sister discovers the secret and it isn't long before Laure's Mom gets wise to what Laure is up to.

Tomboy is a quiet production, even heated confrontations between Laure and their Mother doesn't result in any loud emotional fireworks. However, that doesn't mean the plight of the characters isn't rendered any less viscerally. In fact, the muted approach helps Tomboy to contemplate the manner in which the tiniest details contribute to people's perception of traditional gender roles. This is seen in how the central idea of Laure presenting themselves as a man is not something the protagonist comes up with out of the blue. It's something that Lisa assumes based on Laure's appearance consisting of short hair & clothes that are considered traditionally masculine.

Those are the attributes that define gender in the eyes of another human being, attributes that are as subtle as the aesthetic of Tomboy. Just as successful as these subtle ways of challenging gender norms are the similarly muted pieces of camerawork that help to get inside the head of Laure. Because they have to keep this whole gender-based charade on the down low, Laure rarely expresses their thought process on the matter through dialogue. Scamia's direction and Crystel Fournier's cinematography are then tasked with capturing what is going on within Laure's mind and they're more than up for this challenging task.

Extended wide shots are especially employed well in scenes like one where Laure's sister, Jeanne (Malonn Levana), confronts their older sibling that she's aware of Laure posing as Mikael. Here, the static camera captures Laure going through a whole list of emotions in the span of just one shot that culminates in Laure pinning Jeanne to the wall. How desperate is Laure to keep up this secret? Well, this prolonged shot makes that visibly clear. Lengthy shots communicating complex emotions are also put to impressive use in a third-act scene between Laure and their Mother regarding the latter character finally breaking down to her child why they aren't able to keep up the Mikael facade.

It's a touching sequence that starts out drenched in antagonism before finishing off on a note of reconciliation laced with bittersweetness stemming from Laure having to give up the Mikael persona. It's a scene that nicely captures multiple fleshed-out perspectives at once, an accomplishment that recurs throughout Celine Scamia's exceptional script. The individual players in Tomboy are allowed to be fleshed out beyond just their roles of "little sister" or "potential love interest" so that they can become dimensionalized human beings. These characters also tend to function as differing explorations of certain gender roles or archetypes, in the process becoming another example of how Tomboy uses thoughtfully-rendered cinema to get one to look at how we perceive gender in a whole new light.

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