Despite a focus on identity, sexuality, and relationships, the teen film genre varies widely from country to country. While the best American movies about young adults tend to focus on the comedic aspects of growing up, European cinema often uses a larger scope, specifically integrating the social and political climate of the time and place in its narrative. “The difference between European and American teens is that the majority of European parents are aware of their children’s actions,” writes the Los Alamos Monitor. This attitude translates to cinema, where American parents are often the clueless target of the joke, while European families are frequently integrated into the plot. These are just a few of the common differences. With Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe featured at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, we wanted to examine ten European teen films and their approach to the coming-of-age tale.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Czech New Wave director Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a sensual and lyrical coming-of-age tale, centers on 13-year-old Valerie and the devils and magic that accompany her adolescent sexual awakening. Depicted as a gothic fairy tale, Valerie’s fears and desires propel her through a surreal landscape and play on the heady mysteries of young womanhood.
Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, set on the streets in the banlieues of Paris, follows four young black women as they cope with shifting group dynamics, loyalties, poverty, and try to take control of their future. In Flavorwire’s interview with Sciamma she explained: “I think the movie is kind of a strange creature. It sets a classical goal for the heroine, wanting to be normal, wanting to choose her desire, choose her life. And then, it grows into this intimate struggle to find herself and show transformation — kind of like the superhero genre, when she sees what power the ‘costume’ gives her deep inside.”
A Swedish Love Story
Roy Andersson’s 2000 film Songs from the Second Floor won the director international acclaim, but it’s his beautiful 1970 debut film about two teenagers in love for the first time that many fans speak fondly of. Set in the midst of Sweden’s economic crisis, Andersson explores the tension between social classes and other politics alongside his love story, giving the narrative a touch of melancholy — but this contributes to the film’s emotional honesty.
Ingmar Bergman wrote this 1944 film and took on the role of assistant director (technically his feature debut). Set at a Swedish boarding school lorded over by a sadistic Latin professor nicknamed “Caligula,” senior Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin) endures the torments of the tyrannical teacher while sorting out his feelings for Mai Zetterling’s Bertha, who has her own torments to contend with. “Torment is a coming of age story with overtones of a psychological thriller,” writes Jamie S. Rich. “It never evolves into a cat-and-mouse game or even involves things that go bump in the night. . . . This isn’t a fatal attraction scenario. No punches are thrown, no knives are raised; rather, Widgren is caught up in a Bergman drama, and the young filmmaker’s eye is already trained on the oppressiveness of institutions and man’s inhumanity to man.”
Diane Kurys’ autobiographical story about sisters in Paris during the 1960s who deal with the trials of young adulthood and cope with the dissolution of their parents’ marriage is a tale of firsts — boys, school, love, and loss. The young women handle these moments rather differently — one prefers arguing about politics while the other is rebellious and antisocial — but both share the anxieties and insecurities that tend to consume the lives of teenage girls.
Abused by her alcoholic father and struggling to care for her dying mother in a rural French village, Mouchette’s world is turned upside down after an encounter with a stranger in the woods. Directed by Robert Bresson, film critic J. Hoberman writes of the filmmaker’s “story of a wretched adolescent girl” that Bresson “evokes a world from which something — perhaps God — has withdrawn.” Bresson reveals how Mouchette conflates abuse and tenderness, and transcends the trappings of most teenage narratives to examine spiritual and emotional despair.
North Sea Texas
For RogerEbert.com, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes of Bavo Defurne’s 1970’s gay coming-of-age story:
Defurne pulls together a sequence that brings across the sort of longing and sexual confusion that his characters are supposed to be experiencing. One such scene comes at around the film’s midpoint — an awkward dance shared by Pim and Gino’s sister to the sound of April Stevens’ risqué 1959 single, “Teach Me Tiger.” The sight of these two teenagers slow-dancing at arm’s length makes for a neat, potent image of adolescent sexuality — something halfway between innocence and desire. There’s also an evocative early sequence where Pim and Gino take a trip into the woods for a tryst; upon arriving, the two are framed — or perhaps protected — by a foreground of leafy branches. The scene climaxes (no pun intended) with several shots of swaying grass. The sense that Pim and Gino’s attraction is something of a benevolent natural force is palpable — and, for a moment, intoxicating.
Based on a novel of the same name, Ziad Doueiri’s 2004 film Lila Says is a fascinating study of teenage relationships in a post-9/11 world, set in an Arab neighborhood in Marseille. Slant’s Ed Gonzalez writes of the young couple at the heart of the film:
Lila uses her sexual identity to assert female equality and Mouloud uses his sex to negate her resolve. In the sense that Giocante’s sexuality is the be-all-end-all of the world here, the actress has earned comparisons to Brigitte Bardot’s famous tart from And God Created Woman, but this ignores Doueiri’s more authentic vision of female self-ownership. The obviously naïve Lila threatens to become a caricature of herself but Doueiri soon reveals the girl’s sexed-up vernacular as a willful defense mechanism. A scene inside a cemetery is almost abstractly expressionistic in the way the director charts the impulses of Lila’s ever-evolving relationship to Chimo and the rationale for her aggressive sexual appetite using the subtlest implications—no words, only simple stolen glances. This elliptical exchange of ideas and emotion extends to other scenes as well: Chimo’s gorgeous mother coming to her senses at the local market when she sees Lila buying some fruit, and the film’s heart-stopping tour-de-force, an extended love scene between Lila and Chimo on a bicycle. Set to Air’s beautiful “Run,” this sequence is an ethereal and innocent vision of sexual awakening and initiation, where every act between the two lowers is delicately and willfully negotiated.
You Are Not Alone
One of the earliest sensitive studies of same-sex teenage love, 1978’s You Are Not Alone was controversial for a scene where young actors Anders Agensø and Peter Bjerg take a shower together. Critic Dennis Prince writes:
You Are Not Alone (Du Er Ikke Alene) dared, in 1978, to venture into the realm of male pre- and post-pubescent attitudes. Unafraid to depict teen boys in their swirling state of uncertainty, both physically and mentally, the picture aims its sights squarely upon the controlling adults who don’t always offer what’s best for these youngsters and often add to the angst and confusion. Through the ordeal, youngsters often are left to brood over the thought that theirs might be a solitary situation.
Young & Beautiful
After losing her virginity, sexually curious 17-year-old Isabelle begins to lead a double life as a call girl. Director François Ozon offers no clear explanation why the sullen young woman remains so aloof during her encounters with her middle-aged clientele. “How Ozon handles the intersection of trust, honesty, self-esteem, parental guidance and teen sexuality, while also chipping away at a few adult misbehaviors swirling around Isabelle, proves intriguing even if his script never probes too deeply,” writes Gary Goldstein for the L.A. Times.