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Like a delinquent little sister to Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, debuting writer-director Houda Benyamina’s Divines tells a similar story about a girl from the French hood and her slow nosedive into a life of crime, but does so in ways that are explosive, erratic and ultimately too dependent on the plot points of a Hollywood thriller.
Featuring a fierce breakout performance from Oulaya Amamra as a badass banlieue gal from the wrong side of the tracks, the film dishes out tons of energy and a certain brand of macho feminism where traditional gender roles are all but reversed. Yet despite such ambitions, Benyamina has a hard time maintaining her film’s pace and plausibility, especially during a third act that slides too far into genre territory and its accompanying clichés. The result is a work that showcases the distaff director’s raw filmmaking talents but may have to fight its way out of the usual Francophone ghettos.
Hailing from one of those places outside Paris where everyone lives in demoralizing concrete towers, drug dealers rule the streets and the cops only show up when someone sets the parking lot on fire, Dounia (Amamra) seems to have few viable options in life.
At home — she lives in a sort of shantytown near the projects — her mother (Majdouline Idrissi) is an unhinged alcoholic who sleeps with anyone that will take her. And at school, she can hardly adapt herself to the discipline and hypocrisy that’s required, as witnessed in a tempestuous early scene where she absolutely mortifies one of her teachers.
After that happens, Dounia ditches vocational classes and quickly tries to earn the respect of Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), a local crime queen-pin who rules their hood like Wesley Snipes in New Jack City, making the men around here either wage or sex slaves while encouraging her dope-slinging sisters with compliments like “You’ve got clitoris. I like that.”
Soon enough, Dounia and her wisecracking bestie, Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena), are making a pretty penny themselves, the former hiding her stash in the wings of a municipal theater. It’s there that she witnesses, and begins spying on, the rehearsals of Djigui (Kevin Mischel), a break-dance boy with a nasty attitude and a six-pack that could’ve given David Beckham a run for his money 10 years ago. Their encounter, plus the burgeoning hostility between Dounia and Rebecca, leads the plot into increasingly aggressive waters as the movie shifts into genre mode for its second half.
Benyamina — who directed several shorts and co-founded the banlieue-oriented film association 1000 Visages — tries to toss everything she can into the mix here (she’s not quite thrown in the kitchen sink, though there are a few Molotov cocktails) in an overstuffed scenario that certainly doesn’t skimp on violence, trash-talking and a very femme-centric depiction of thug life.
The latter aspect clearly recalls Girlhood, up to and including a glitzy diva dance sequence, although instead of a Rihanna song we get the Azealia Banks track “212” and its chorus of “I’m a ruin you, c—,” underscoring how much Divines is a cruder, unrulier version of the Sciamma movie (which also premiered in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar).
But while Girlhood was more narratively and stylistically contained (sometimes to the point of fetishisation), Divines lashes out in too many directions, working its way toward a denouement that attempts to merge all its themes — friendship, survival, street life, social unrest, brawny male bodies witnessed through the female gaze — into a fireball of a finale that includes an actual fireball.
Like Dounia herself, there’s no denying Benyamina’s desire to break through social and cultural barriers to create something powerful, and by casting the unknown Amamra, she’s found a perfect alter ego in an actress who can be exuberant, touching and off-putting at the same time. She’s also landed the right DP in Julien Poupard, whose gritty yet colorful lensing (mixing HD and cellphone footage) captures the rawness of the locations depicted.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Divines succumbs to familiar B-level storytelling devices in its last act, undoing some of the inventiveness that was seen during the opening reels. Benyamina surely has a career ahead of her and plenty of energy to burn, but she perhaps needs to learn that less is sometimes more and all movies don’t have to end with a bang.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Easy Tiger, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Oulaya Amamra, Deborah Lukumuena, Jisca Kalvanda, Kevin Mischel, Majdouline Idrissi
Director: Houda Benyamina
Screenwriters: Romain Comingt, Houda Benyamina, Malik Rumeau
Producer: Marc-Benoit Creancier
Director of photography: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Marion Burger
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
Editors: Loic Lallemand, Vincent Tricon
Casting director: Pierre-Francois Creancier
Sales agent: Films Boutique
Not rated, 105 minutes
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