Teaching Tomboy

Amelie Hastie


My students and I can’t quite get Tomboy (France, Celine Sciamma, 2011) out of our heads. Our obsession started with what seemed like a failure of sorts — bad programming in the syllabus for my course “Cinema and Everyday Life.” This class is itself a kind of experiment with perception; we have a set of primary readings that wind their way through the semester, each of which are phenomenological explorations in different ways: Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical rumination on poetry Poetics of Space, Siegfried Kracauer’s beautiful analytical tome Theory of Film, Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, and Inger Christensen’s book-length poem alphabet. We watch one film a week (each an example of global cinema, largely art-house fiction films, produced within the past two decades), which we put in conversation with the readings. I’ve programmed some films that are representations of what we might call “everyday life,” which one could arguably claim about Tomboy, the contemporary story of a young girl, Laure, who moves with her family to a new home, where she begins to pass as a boy, Mikäel, with the other neighborhood children (initially unbeknownst to her family). However, our examination in the class is less on representations of the everyday and more on our perceptual experiences of film as part of “everyday life.” As a means of engaging this approach, unless students explicitly request it, I ask that they come to class with very little a priori knowledge beyond that they are coming into a room to watch moving images. This experience of film takes seriously Gaston Bachelard’s claim that “when the image is new, the world is new.”[1] And that is the “theory” that I attempt to put into practice over the course of the semester.


Figure 1: Tomboy (France, Céline Sciamma, 2011) When the image is new, the world is new.















My goal in this course is not to make one-to-one relationships between the written and visual texts. Nor do I want students to simply apply a theoretical premise to an understanding of a film, even as we attempt to grasp the key terms of the texts we read. Rather, my hope — lofty as it may be — is that the written texts stand as models or demonstrations for a means of perceiving film itself. Bachelard’s descriptions of the ways in which poetry incites the imagination might parallel the ways in which we can describe our own experiences of the images before us. Woolf’s novel is also a potential model for thinking as we watch. But mostly — and this is really where the loftiness comes in — I wind these texts throughout the course of our semester together so that we start to live and breathe with them as we watch each successive film. And in turn I invite the students to draw on their lived experiences of the films in their own written work for the class. In this way, writing becomes an active demonstration of their viewing; in fact, to encourage a phenomenological perspective, I invite them to write in the present tense with a first-person pronoun, coming to an “argument” cumulatively as the essay unwinds, rather than stating a position as they begin.

We initially watched Tomboy accompanied by the first ten chapters of Woolf’s novel. And this is where I worried I failed the class. On the surface, the two texts are of very different forms — not just the literary and cinematic, of course, but in the very ways they move. Woolf’s work is explicitly about the experiences of perception, and it demonstrates processes of thinking, particularly in the wavering ambivalences of her characters. Tomboy has a more “realist” style, or at least its poetics are subtler than in Woolf’s work, and it is centered on one character in particular rather than a myriad of points of view. Our first discussion therefore stumbled as we sought connections between the two works. I even pointed to a seemingly literal relationship between them (not my usual tactic), reading aloud a passage from To the Lighthouse and showing a sequence that bears narrative similarities to it.

In the sequence, Laure and her father are playing the “Happy Families” card game, in which they ask one another for particular cards in order to make a family set. So much happens in this quotidian, but intimate, moment! To complete a set, Laure’s father first asks for a son, which Laure does not have. For her turn, Laure asks for a daughter, which her father gives up. The two continue their play, pausing for a sip of beer, until Laure rests her head on a pillow, sucking her thumb, while her father reassures her. In the first part of the sequence, the two appear together in a medium shot, a long shot, and then a medium close-up together. As they sit in the frame together, we see these characters as they do not see themselves. Rather than trade places with each as would happen in a shot-reverse-shot sequence, here we sit with them, beside them. The framing of them in space — and the fact that we view them in the same space — produces a sense of intimacy, even a sense of “immensity,” as Bachelard might call it. Existing with them in the duration of “real time” (that is, this time is not shaped or condensed), we are privy to the father’s gentleness towards his daughter, the light caress of her shoulders, his fingers combing through her hair. This intimacy is matched in the next scene, in which he holds Laure, her legs wounding around him. And then we see a close-up as Laure’s father swings back and forth, her head resting against his. Here the camera remains very still, allowing the figures themselves to recede and return with each turn, in and out of our vision, in and out of the shadow cast by the other.

The reading that I matched with the sequence was from Lily Briscoe’s point of view: she wonders what “knowledge” Mrs. Ramsay contains inside her and whether it can somehow be communicated, transferred. I read the passage aloud:

Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. … Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.[2]

I wanted the students to somehow feel the sense of an embrace that is in both scenes. I hoped, in fact, that intimacy might appear as a form of knowledge, as Lily foretells, or of perception itself — not just in the texts but also of them. That intimacy exists in the image of the father’s fingers in his child’s hair as well as in their torsos and then faces moving back and forth, coming in and out of our vision. And so I also wanted, through Lily Briscoe’s ambivalent narration — that sense of fluctuation that winds through every character’s narration in the novel — for students to understand how the film, too, holds in balance experiences or modes of being that seem to be in opposition to one another. Such experience is clearest in the case of Laure/Mikäel who is both a boy and a girl at once and in the father’s perception and embrace of his child (asking for the son, giving up the daughter in the card game). But such experience also exists in this little sequence when Laure’s father holds her in his arms: their bodies entwined as father/child, enabling a recognition of the differences and likenesses between them at once.

But we didn’t quite get there that day, as I was unable to express this desire myself — partly because, perhaps, I hadn’t worked it all through, but also because I wanted them somehow to get there themselves. Teaching film, of course, often demands something ineffable — a flash of recognition that one cannot predict or truly demand — that, in the best cases, settles in and becomes part of one’s understanding over time, even part of one’s very process of thinking. For me, teaching through phenomenological readings (whether explicitly or implicitly philosophical) enables such a process, but it also demands patience on my part, which I routinely forget.

I don’t know if I can describe or define what took place over the series of the next few weeks. But over time, our sense of this film grew and grew, so that it crept into other conversations, becoming central to our growing phenomenological understanding of film. Students recalled the opening image of the film: first the back of a child’s head seemingly arising out of a moving vehicle as it propels forward, then only the child’s wrist and hand extending into the air against the sound of the wind and the car’s engine. This hand, a student said, comes to us without gender: all we know is that it is a child’s hand. Holding that notion in balance enables a sense of openness towards the child who shifts between others’ perceptions between boy and girl and who embodies, over the course of the film, both identities. Hands returned again and again, in fact, as we continued to refer to another scene, in which Laure draws a watch on her sister’s wrist so that she can keep track of the time when she will return. In an attempt to trace a concept in Poetics of Space weeks after we first saw this scene, a student recalled it as an image of “intimate immensity.” As Bachelard writes, “It is the principle of ‘correspondences’ to receive the immensity of the world, which they transform into intensity of our intimate being.”[3]


Figure 2: Tomboy (France, Céline Sciamma, 2011) A principle of correspondences.















Through the images of hands and arms, intertwined and separate, my students seem able to grasp this film; they recognize Laure’s being as between, whether between boy and girl, parent and child, family and friend. In that recognition of “correspondences,” they do not hold this child in their arms or grasp their arms about a parent’s knees. They do not become the figure in the film, but rather reside alongside them. They identify as someone nearby (as a “friend,” one of my students said of this film). In a quite different context — that is, the context of ethnographic and experimental film — filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha describes the practice of “speaking nearby,” which is parallel to indirect language. She claims that this is “a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”[4] For Trinh, this practice is “not just a technique or a statement to be made verbally. It is an attitude in life, a way of positioning oneself in relation to the world.”[5] Here Trinh is primarily describing the documentary filmmaker; I think we can apply this notion, too, to the viewer of narrative film. Films like Tomboy allow us as spectators to “come very close to a subject without … seizing it or claiming it” — whether as part of our own identity or as an object we can possess. To look at another and attempt to understand: is that not compassion itself? In its moments of quietude, Tomboy invited our compassion, and in our repeated returns to it, we have embraced it.


Amelie Hastie currently writes the “Vulnerable Spectator” column for Film Quarterly and is determinedly finishing her book on the 1970s television series Columbo (Duke UP). She is Professor and Chair of the Film and Media Studies program at Amherst College.



[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. Trans Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

[2] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. NY: Harcourt Inc. (1927/1981): 51.

[3] Bachelard, 193.

[4] Nancy N. Chen, “‘Speaking Nearby:’ A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha. Visual Anthropology Review v 8: 1 (Spring 1992): 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.



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