'Papicha': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A flawed first film.

The first feature from Mounia Meddour stars Algerian-born French actress Lyna Khoudri (Wes Anderson's upcoming 'The French Dispatch') in a harrowing tale set during the Algerian Civil War.

The first feature from writer-director Mounia Meddour, Papicha, is set during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, also referred to as the “Black Decade,” and was inspired by real events. It tells the story of a young woman obsessed with fashion whose freedom, like that of all other women in the country, was increasingly curbed until there was basically nothing else to do but either rebel (and very likely lose) or leave — both, of course, being devastating outcomes.

Very knowing about female friendships and the different possible reactions to forced social change, this is a lovingly acted film that, unfortunately, derails in the third act; the calamitous events depicted work fine as a blunt metaphor for where the country found itself or was headed, but doesn't convince on a narrative level or in terms of its psychological impact on the characters.

It is one of no less than five first or second films from northwest Africa’s Maghreb region premiering in Cannes this year, with movies from young Moroccan and Tunisian directors also debuting during the festival. Perhaps not coincidentally, the other Algerian debut film, Amin Sidi-Boumediene’s Critics’ Week entry Abou Leila, is also set during the Black Decade. This suggests a need for the country to try and start to digest what happened 25 years ago as well as the depressing fact that what happened then might actually resonate again today as extremism and fundamentalism re-rear their ugly heads. 

University student Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) lives on a rundown campus in Algiers and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Life as an 18-year-old woman isn’t easy in the 1990s, when Nedjma and her girlfriend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) have to sneak off campus to go clubbing and make some money selling garments they made in the bathroom of the club to local “papichas,” or pretty girls. Before they reach the club, they need to get changed into their dancing outfits and do their makeup inside an illegal cab, and quickly put on a headscarf when they are stopped at a roadblock where their driver is interrogated, before finally being able to dance the night away once they’ve arrived. 

To get home, they hitch a ride with two handsome young men, Karim (Marwan Zeghbib) and Mehdi (Yasin Houicha), who are surprised when Nedjma says she doesn’t want to leave Algeria — despite everything they have had to go through just to go out dancing one night. (Meddour doesn’t really explain why but one can image Nedjma wouldn’t want to just leave behind the family, places and life she knows.) But many people don’t feel like the protagonist, with someone suggesting that all of “Algeria is an enormous waiting room” for people wanting to leave, underlining how the growing restrictions on freedom affect not only women but everyone who doesn’t believe in extremism.

The film doesn’t offer all that much in terms of socio-political context, so it helps to know that in 1991, the state, after an election debacle that threatened to put an Islamist party in power, tried to fight off amorphous Islamist rebel groups bent on jihad and the installation of an Islamic republic. This led to thousands of civilians being killed and relatively liberal social mores changing rapidly because of the continued threat of violence and a barrage of supposedly religious propaganda.

This explains why, in the film, posters crop up on campus and elsewhere, telling women to cover up from head to toe or else they will be "taken care of." A group of fundamentalist women in drably colored headscarves subsequently show up on campus to police the behavior of the girls in the classrooms and the dorms, with, quite shockingly, the university authorities wary of interfering with these disturbances in any way. This makes life very complicated for Nedjma and her friends Wassila and Kahina (Zahra Doumandji), who dreams of moving to Canada, and the girls’ pious roommate, Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda). The latter, while underdeveloped, is the most fascinating of the girls because she’s the most religious but also the biggest fighter — and a mean rapper to boot. However, a last-act revelation about her physical state feels too much like a screenwriter's invention to be really convincing.

As the reality around them changes rapidly, the girls come up with an ingenious way to protest what is happening; they will prepare a fashion show that will include designs inspired by the haik, a traditional Maghreb garment for females made out of a single piece of fabric that covers the whole body. It’s both a statement of their respect for tradition and their desire to do things their own way, though what makes it problematic is that, according to the fundamentalists, women can’t gather anymore and much less on a Friday, the planned day for the show. 

Meddour, whose husband, French genre filmmaker Xavier Gens, is one of the producers, is at her best when simply capturing the girls as they try to live their lives in a time of profound and sometimes violent transformation. The female camaraderie feels both well observed and authentic and the actresses have a lovely rapport. But their reactions to some shocking developments, including a first one about 35 minutes in and a major one in the last act, aren’t handled convincingly or are almost absent. Indeed, as a screenwriter, Meddour seems more interested in these shocking happenings as historical events and abstract symptoms of an unhealthy society than as specific traumatic events that, in their aftermath, leave an indelible mark on one or more individuals. This saps especially the last act of credibility and good will. 

Together with costume designer Catherine Cosme, cinematographer Leo Lefevre delivers the most noteworthy technical contribution. Maddour and Lefevre’s sense of framing and fine use of back- and foreground in several key sequences lend these limpidly filmed scenes additional dramatic heft.    

Production companies: The Ink Connection, High Sea Production, Tayda Film
Cast: Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Zahra Doumandji, Yasin Houicha, Nadia Kaci, Meryem Medjkane, Marwan Zeghbib
Director: Mounia Meddour
Screenplay: Mounia Meddour, Fadette Drouard
Producers: Xavier Gens, Patrick Andre, Gregoire Gensollen, Belkacem Hadjadj, Mounia Meddour
Director of photography: Leo Lefevre
Production designer: Chloe Cambournac
Costume designer: Catherine Cosme
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Music: Rob
Casting: Karine Malika Bouchama, Brahim Djaballah
Sales: Jour2Fete
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

In Darija
No rating, 105 minutes