In 2008, seventeen teenage girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts made a “pregnancy pact” to collectively mother seventeen children. When French sister-filmmakers Delphine and Muriel Coulin read that tabloid headline they made a pact of their own—to make a film about it. The duo adapted the story to their own city in Brittany, auditioned hundreds of young actresses, and then turned up the girl-punk.
The result is 17 Girls, a surprisingly fresh, tragic testament to youth, about what it’s like to be a gamine—full of dreams, angst and energy— in today’s Europe. In a way it’s like the French, feminine version of Larry Clark’s Kids. Except now, as we know from MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, the girls aren’t shocking us by refusing to grow up but by wanting to grow up too fast. ”SLOW DOWN!” you want to shout at them. But why would they listen? And how can they hear you with the Le Tigre blasting in their headphones?
When I sat down with Muriel at a midtown hotel I was surprised to find a calm, quiet and serious woman. But as we spoke I saw that underneath the placid surface was a rebel very much like her younger characters: a dreamer ready to stage-dive headfirst into life.
How did you get the idea for this story? It’s pretty far out there.
It all started when I read two lines in a newspaper in France. It was about a group of girls in Massachusetts who came together and decided to get pregnant. As soon as I read these lines, I said to my sister this is an incredible story. It had all the themes we were interested in: femininity, the body, rebellion. So we decided to adapt it in Brittany.
Are the girls in your film feminists?
Yeah, they’re feminists, or maybe they are “post-feminists”. In the 70s women wanted to have kids when they wanted, and that meant as late in life as possible. Now it’s the same thing: the girls want to have kids when they want to, but that means now! Today, the conditions have changed and it’s possible to have it all at once: to keep studying, to work, to have kids. That is the only difference. The girls in our film are powerful, they aren’t victims.
There’s a news broadcast in the film about the recession and the lack of jobs for the youth. Is that part of the film’s message?
For us it was important not to talk too much about the economic context, but it’s definitely there as a backdrop. The girls in the film want to find a way out of the race to make money, to have a nicer car or bigger house. They suddenly want something very different than what society can offer them—a community and collective utopia.
I noticed one of the girls has a picture of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud taped to her mirror. Was he an important artist for you?
Yes, Rimbaud was very important for us. When you’re a French teenager, he symbolizes poetry of course but also that search for extremes. He didn’t make any compromises. He wanted to feel life as much as possible and I think the girls in our film are in a similar state of mind.
You shot the film on digital and gave it an amazing look. It felt both real and surreal at once––the city is this drab place but ocean and horizon are always there.
We had with us a fantastic DP and together we worked to get the setting just read. The city is a character in the film, as is the ocean and the horizon. We wanted to start with pastel colors and get into a deeper and darker palette when the story goes downhill. And the pictures of the girls in their rooms with their posters: that’s all real. We went into their real rooms and didn’t change a thing.
How did you cast so many girls? That must have been an ordeal.
We saw 600 girls. It lasted from September to May, nine months.
[Laughs] Yeah, just like a kid. We put ads everywhere: McDonald’s, cafes, everywhere. We didn’t only want talented actresses but a group of girls that would work well together.
And your sister? How do you two collaborate?
We do everything 50-50. There’s absolutely nothing that one of us does that the other doesn’t get involved with in some way. Writing, editing, even traveling—we’d do it all together. Until now, because she’s pregnant.
So the film had an effect on her?
[Laughs] Yes, she and the DOP are expecting their first child. Clearly the film had a big influence.