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Femme Filmmakers Festival Review: Houda Benyamina’s Divines

I remember my wife so happened to be fed up of the coming-of-age movies when we sat down to watch this one. Or else she would have raved about it too. I think Divines (di-veen), brutally and beautifully directed by Houda Benyamina, transcends the mere notion of a self-discovery movie. The picture has teen life at it’s grittiest, asks many questions about the poverty-stricken areas (of Paris in this case), it delves into your future, and what you’re prepared to do about it.

Drug-dealing and skipping school, are plot devices here, and relevant ones. Divines also shines a warm light on young friendship, family failings, betrayal. And dealt with in such a realistic manner, is the minor glimmers of attraction. Moving, paced to perfection, and captivating as hell – this is also superbly acted on all fronts, the central character of Dounia in particular is brought to life by Oulaya Amamra with emotive bite and passion.

Divines

Audiences around the world are missing out on the non-commercial, non-English language film gems. It has been the same for years, decades. French film Divines, is one such motion picture, an experience that made me actually feel something far deeper than surface emotions.

This is director Benyamina’s breakthrough, winning the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Divines was also a hit at the 42nd César Awards, winning Best Supporting Actress (Déborah Lukumuena), Most Promising Actress (Oulaya Amamra), and Best First Feature Film for Benyamina. Still officially showing on Netflix, you really have no excuse with this one.

Divines

Utilizing perfectly, a modern take on Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus (unlike Guy Ritchie could manage with the awful Revolver) for part of its opening sequence, Divines kicks right into gear. First we see teenager Dounia (Amamra) watching locals praying, and drug dealers, then phone video footage of her and best friend Maimouna (Lukumuena) goofing around and mimicking the tough street life. But it is tough, they dwell in a run-down housing project on the edge of Paris, the girls shoplift and sell on. Dounia has a Robin Hood moment when she brings a neighbor a jar of Nutella.

They find the courage to start running errands, drug deals, for local kingpin girl Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). Their looting scores rendezvous, is high above a theater stage, where expressive dance practice takes place, a far off world to them as they mock the arts. Until, that is, Djigui (Kévin Mischel), a passionate and brilliant dancer, entices and intrigues Dounia with his energy.

Divines

Djigui catches Dounia and Maimouna spitting down on the stage, he climbs up after them, but his stupidity almost causes him to fall. Dounia helps him back up, and their moment shared is unexpected, and seemingly new to them both. Later, she watches him alone, and he knows it this time, undressing. On discovering her money is missing, she confronts the dancer, who only sees this as a chance to extend their connection – her aggression only encourages him.

On the petty crime side of things, Dounia excels, making a handsome chunk of money, and is then asked / trained to get into a rich guy’s apart to retrieve Rebecca’s hundred thousand euros. Having practiced walking in high heels, Dounia, with Maimouna in tow, is almost unrecognizable, all made-up and silky dress-clad. But really comes into her own, and falls right into the seductress role, we almost see her coming of age before our eyes.

Divines

But it’s a dangerous occupation, Dounia is doused with gasoline at one point, and also takes a vicious beating when she comes across an aggravated buyer. Her life abrupt, fast-paced, and yet she takes the punches (literally and figuratively), and for the most part stays on her feet.

The midpoint sequence, accompanied by Mozart, not only shows the twosome’s new wealth, that Dounia is smitten by dancer, and that she even attends church to deal drugs while on her knees praying for forgiveness. It also demonstrates Benyamina’s exceptional eye for music cues and story-telling. A fascinating discovery, the director clearly has talent.

Balancing several story strands of varying tones (friendship, crime, romance, ambition), is made to look easy here. A marvelous, if not entirely away from the seedy and morbid, narrative. One great sequence, when the girls imagine making enough money to buy an expensive car, the camera takes them on the journey, as they play-act their super-cool ride.

Divines

The core bond between the girls is rich and dynamic, topped off with kinetic performances from the youngsters. The director’s little sister Oulaya Amamra, in particular, is a revelation, chews up scenery without over-acting, devouring Dounia’s transformations with expert passion. A bone-crunching performance demonstrating various strands of emotional highs and lows.

In an earlier scene, Dounia shows such varying layers of her persona, as an educational role-play turns into an out-and-out verbal slagging match. Feelings are hurt, wicked things are said, and Dounia’s stubborn pride collides with unadulterated ambition. In a way, both perspectives need to be screamed loud, and heard. And thematically, the film goes a hell of a long way to make us see how essential that might be.

Go see Divines on Netflix the next chance you get.

 

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