'Girls of the Sun' ('Les Filles du soleil'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A meaty all-female war movie served with an extra slice of cheese.

French writer-director Eva Husson (‘Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)’) unveiled her second feature, about Kurdish women fighting the Islamic State, in competition at Cannes.

Pulling out the big guns to depict the tragic plight and battlefield heroics of Kurdish female soldiers who bravely took on the forces of ISIS, Girls of the Sun (Les Filles du soleil) is at once mildly harrowing and completely over-the-top, intermittently intense yet so unsubtle it winds up doing damage to its own worthy discourse.

Written and directed by Eva Husson — whose first, very sexy and ethereal feature Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is a far cry from the Hollywood-style machinery of this effort — the film works best when it shows star Golshifteh Farahani leading her all-female battalion through the heat of combat, worst when it indulges in narrative histrionics and a tear-jerking score worthy of a Walt Disney movie. Premiering in competition in Cannes, and preceded by a first ever women’s march on the red carpet, this timely yet heavy war flick should drum up interest for its femme-centric cast, crew and subject matter.

Based on true events — in this case the stories of Yazidi women who were kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and then escaped to join the Kurdish army — the script (by Husson, with the collaboration of Jacques Akchoti) follows two characters who find themselves immersed in fierce skirmishes between the Kurds and Islamic extremists in November 2015. One of them, Mathilde (actor-director Emmanuelle Bercot), is an eye patch-wearing war reporter traumatized by the recent death of her husband in Libya. The other, Bahar (Farahani) is a local (the film never mentions the Yazidi people by name) whose life was upended when the Islamists invaded her city, summarily executed all the men in her family and then took her and her young son, Hemin (Tornike Alievi), prisoner.

Cutting between the present, where Bahar and her squadron prepare to take back their city and perhaps locate her little boy, and the past, where we follow the woman’s traumatic journey from lawyer and mother to Kalashnikov-wielding freedom fighter, the film kicks off in an extremely clunky manner with some eye-rolling expository dialogue. “What are you doing in this hell?” one woman asks Mathilde as she arrives in a hilly and rather picturesque part of northern Iraqi Kurdistan. “You’re the kings of Marxist-Feminist propaganda,” she quips, in what is meant to sound like international shoptalk but comes across as totally unnatural and almost laughable.

That tone will come back to haunt Girls of the Sun on more than one occasion, especially when composer Morgan Kibby’s thundering score chimes in to pound every single dramatic note into our heads from one scene to the next. A faux-poetic voiceover by Mathilde that opens and ends the movie — the latter during half of the closing credits — doesn’t help matters, either.

What works slightly better is the focus on Bahar and her truly awful backstory, which includes kidnapping, rape, suicide (of her younger sister) and imprisonment at the hands of Islamists who seem to thrive off the utter degradation of women. The Iranian-born Farahani, performing here in Kurdish and French, is altogether convincing in scenes that show her character deeply suffering yet refusing to let down her guard. After she manages to help her fellow prisoners escape — in a sequence that stretches credulity at times — it’s easy to understand why Bahar then decides to pick up a gun and courageously lead a female squad of Kurds to fight the enemy face-to-face.

Husson never lets us forget that this is a story of sisterhood in peril, of women bravely risking their lives — several of Bahar’s soldiers are killed off over the course of the film — to rid their land of an evil menace that has enslaved both them and their children. The director even wrote the lyrics to a song (composed by Kibby) that the combatants sing to psyche themselves up: “It will be a new era/Of Women, Life, Liberty” they exclaim one day before the enemy suddenly appears at their doorstep and the fighting kicks into high gear.

Working with cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup (The Forest), Husson does a good job making the battle scenes both visceral and poetic, with smoke and other effects used to illustrate the fog of war that Bahar and Mathilde — who shadows the soldiers as a reporter but serves little dramatic purpose beyond providing a Western viewpoint — find themselves in. The combat scenes, which include a slew of pyrotechnics, occupy most of the final reel, leading to a finale that seems rather forced and phony, undercutting the more serious historical backdrop of the film.

It’s impressive to see a relatively new director like Husson trying to make an all-out guts-and-glory war flick a la Oliver Stone (his films Platoon and Salvador both come to mind here), although taking Hollywood movie tropes and applying them to the plight of the Yazidi could be considered a questionable use of her skills. On one hand, she’s shining a light on an important and terrifying story that made headlines a few years ago but has since been forgotten by many of us, and for that deserves some credit. On the other, she’s doing it with an overtly manipulative, rather cheesy approach to the genre that can play more like fantasy than reality, and so no matter how high the stakes are her film ultimately feels like a losing battle.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Maneki Films
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zubeyde Bulut, Maia Shamoevi, Tornike Alievi, Nuka Astiani
Director: Eva Husson
Screenwriter: Eva Husson, with the collaboration of Jacques Akchoti
Producer: Didar Domehri
Director of photography: Mattias Troelstrup
Editor: Emilie Orsini
Composer: Morgan Kibby
Casting director: Bahijja El Amrani
Sales: Elle Driver

In French, Kurdish, English, Arabic
115 minutes