Divines, the feature film debut by Houda Benyamina, is the kind of coming-of-age movie that could easily have been about two boys living in poverty who get mixed up in the drug trade, replete with a charismatic, mercurial drug dealer. Indeed, the way that the male characters in Divines are kept peripheral to the plot, in the secondary positions of love interest or co-antagonist, is reminiscent of how female characters often get treated in these kinds of boy-centric stories. But Divines, magnificently, doesn’t follow the expected route, choosing to tell instead this kind of story about two girls living on the outskirts of Paris. And these girls are allowed to be obscene, rude, messy, and flawed, leading to an exhilarating and ultimately heartbreaking viewing experience.
The at-times meandering narrative centers on Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), who, frustrated with the hopelessness of her living situation and seemingly dead-end future where her best hope is to be-come a receptionist, recruits her lifelong friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) to work for Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), a mysterious older drug dealer from school. The naive girls are seduced by promises of wealth and by the thrill of the illict work, but, inevitably, nothing is that simple. Dounia and Maimouna’s story in Divines is not, ultimately, a happy one, and contains almost-expected moments of violence and attempted rape, characteristic of a movie dealing with teens and drugs. Yet the cinematic touches Benyamina uses to tell her story make what could have been a generic cautionary tale specific and utterly relatable, conveying the intensity of the female teenage experience in enchanting occasional moments of heightened reality. The most memorable of these sequences is an extended take early on where Dounia and Maimouna glide-walk in tandem around a parking lot, pretending to drive in faraway Phuket, Thailand. Dounia’s imitation of an engine revving is slowly replaced with the sounds of a real engine, along with skidding wheels, wolf whistles from imaginary boys, and music from the car stereo, all giving us a taste of this dream, making it as real for us as it is for the girls.
While the film touches on romance and sex, fittingly for the coming-of-age genre, Divines is clearly about the relationships among the women in its story: the fraught mentor-mentee rapport that develops between Rebecca and Dounia, the vitriol between Dounia and her mother (Ma-jdouline Idrissi), for whom Dounia must continually take responsibility, and, most poignantly, the friendship between Dounia and Maimouna, which is revealed to be the only true and pure form of relationship — the only kind of love in Divines that is shown to be unbreakable and unconditional. Indeed, for Dounia, sex and romance are motifs of weakness, as reflected by her mother’s maligned promiscuity and Dounia’s status as an illegitimate child. Early in the movie, Dounia insists on wearing her hair tied back, even when Rebecca tells her she is prettier with it down, to desexualize herself and remove any possibility of sex from her life. So when Dounia finds herself fixated on a dancer named Djigui (Kévin Mischel), their interactions are colored by a strange sexual tension that she shies away from, that she doesn’t trust — it’s clear she views Djigui, and her own burgeoning feelings for him, as dangerous. But when Rebecca has Dounia act as jailbait for an older man who owes her money, Dounia compartmentalizes her own avoidance of sexuality and is determined to perform the role she is tasked with. In this way, Divines obliquely but keenly addresses the issue of teenage girls being expected to be “sexy, but not sexual."
It isn’t immediately clear if Divines has what would be a traditional villain, but there is a culprit in this story. Someone, or rather, something, leads to the devastating tragedy of the movie’s finale: the system of racialized poverty and classism that makes economically disadvantaged teenagers leave school and turn to crime and violence as a way out of the banlieue (suburbs). Upon finishing the movie it becomes clear that Benyamina has given the narrative an undercurrent of struggle and mistrust between the locals and authorities. Most crucially, at the end of the film, when the authorities are desperately needed in a life-or-death situation, they refuse to act to help Dounia and Maimouna, fearing for their own safety. And when they do finally act, it is only when it is too late to help. The police come into these communities not to defend, but to incarcerate, laden with riot gear and stony expressions, devoid of any protective or caring instinct. Divines doesn’t implicate the girls for getting mixed up with criminal activity, but condemns the apathy of the state that allowed conditions to get this bad.
Oulaya Amamra’s performance as Dounia is a tour-de-force. Dounia’s most common expression and attitude in Divines is her poker face, which the narrative uses to establish not only her strength and capability, but also her tenacity and to-a-fault-stubbornness. Yet the flip side of Dounia’s resolute behavior is a cathartic rage and hair-trigger temper, so uncommon in portrayals of teenage girls, that the story refuses to condemn or force Dounia to shed as some kind of marker of maturity or growing up. Maimouna receives far less focus than Dounia, but her obvious love for her friend and cheerful nature make it easy to love her as well. Benyamina, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a confident director, and Divines is well-made and edited, using lighting and color saturation adeptly to distinguish locales and moods. Divines won the Caméra d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and is currently streaming on Netflix everywhere but France. Hopefully, Divines will prove to be a successful career-starter for Benyamina, and an incentive for more of these kinds of stories, featuring diverse casts of women and girls, to be told on all kinds of screens.
Photos via Diaphana
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Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer and nascent art/media historian and curator. She can be found at www.i-on-the-arts.com and on Instagram @debonthearts.