Directed by: Houda Benyamina || Produced by: Marc-Benoit Creancier
Screenplay by: Romain Compingt, Uda Benyamina, Malik Rumeau || Starring: Oulaya Amamra, Deborah Lukumuena, Kevin Mischel, Jisca Kalvanda, Yasin Houicha, Majdouline Idrissi, Mounir Margoum, Farid Larbi
Music by: Demusmaker || Cinematography: Julien Poupard || Edited by: Louic Lallemand, Vincent Tricon || Country: France, Qatar || Language: French
Running Time: 105 minutes
Because I’m a dinosaur, I subscribed to Netflix’s streaming service (also known as “Netflix”) for the first time in my life two weeks ago. I remain underwhelmed by the service’s — in actuality, all streaming services’ — inconsistent audio-video quality given the lack of 4K/HDR content, but I am enjoying drowning myself in a plethora of Netflix Original content of all genres, nationalities, and filmmaker backgrounds. Prominent horror films will be covered in the coming weeks in celebration of Halloween, but today’s film of interest is my first French drama in quite some time: The feature-length directorial debut of Houda Benyamina and 2016 Camera D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, The Divines.
High-profile French dramas are considered reliable cinematic gold by most film snobs (i.e. dramatic cinephiles) and obtuse, dense, arthouse think-pieces by most of the general public. As with most cultural extremes, I like to think of myself closer to the meat of the bell curve with regards to subversive, striking French cinema. One has a fair chance of uncovering either A Prophet (2009) or Amour (2012), which run the gamut from intense to dry as far as European dramas are concerned.
The Divines touches both extremes, but in a good way. Its setting (an underprivileged Parisian immigrant suburb) lends itself to mild crime drama themes and occasional cinematic violence, but the bulk of its narrative focus is a memorable coming-of-age story of its protagonist, played by Benyamina’s younger sister, Oulaya Amamra. Amamra’s arc, development, and personality are considerable, so much so I grew from being mildly annoyed with her troubled, smartass teenager attitude and upstart, cliched wanna be drug-dealing aspirations (“Money, money, money!“) to being invested in her hopes for a better life, her raging insecurities, her childhood friendship with costar Deborah Lukumuena, and her emotional budding romance with supporting actor Kevin Mischel. The fact that Benyamina develops an initially unlikable near caricature into a complex character with depth is a testament to her budding auteur talents, not to mention Amamra’s impressive range. It’s the main appeal of the movie.
The growth in Amamra’s protagonist is built atop multiple factors, including both effective screenwriting from first author Romain Compingt and precise visual storytelling from Benyamina. With regards to the latter, Benyamina uses a variety of charismatic handheld maneuvers in brief chase sequences, steamy voyeuristic angles, and intense dance sequences to emphasize everything from character emotion to dry humor. She uses locked tripod shots and motion-controlled tracking sparingly, but her few instances of them are purposeful and memorable by distinction, such as when Amamra and Lukumuena mime a sort of fantasy sequence in a luxury car with non-diegetic sound FX. On that note, Benyamina uses cross-cutting and occasional flourishes of prominent diegetic music to emphasize tension and brief match cuts.
Perhaps the film’s best use of visual storytelling and character development are the costume and makeup design of Amamra herself. In combination with the young actress’ emotional range, her character’s shift from casual hair ties and hoodies at the beginning of the film to her charismatic use of elaborate dress, hair styling, and extensive makeup emphasizes her character’s true maturation. This is a coming-of-age story, and this protagonist looks and feels like she ages 7-10 years in less than two hours of screen-time. That’s effective, not to mention efficient, character development.
Compingt’s screenplay, on which Benyamina is credited as second author, may deserve the most credit for that thematic efficiency. At well under two hours, yet feeling comprehensive and detailed in its character examination, The Divines is one of the better paced French dramas I’ve seen. It’s nice to never have to check one’s watch while watching someone “grow up” (e.g. Boyhood ).
My few complaints about The Divines have to do with its limited but notable use of mobile phone video and its predictable climax. The former might have worked as a brief 10-second introduction of Amamra and Lukumuena’s relationship, but grows overindulgent after the film’s prologue. Its use later in the film during a brief yet intense police chase ruins much of that sequence’s visual coherence for no good reason. With regards to predictability, anyone who can’t predict a certain character’s tragic death by the end of the first act (you’ll know who I’m talking about), as well as who’ll be indirectly responsible for that death, should go back to film school. The ending is still emotional, but it could’ve hit so much harder if it was less telegraphed.
Everything considered, The Divines is one of the better coming-of-age stories I’ve watched in recent years. Mainstream critics or commentators may dwell on the film’s distinct feminine angle and style, but as always I argue the merits of this film are in how co-writer director Houda Benyamina executes that style with such precision and personality. Her acting direction of younger sister Oulaya Amamra may have birthed two careers at once, while the film’s efficient visual style are reference level in terms of makeup, costume design, and structural editing. A few annoying sequences of social media commentary and a borderline formulaic ending aside, The Divines runs a thematic gamut from youthful spunk and attitude to hardnosed realism and mature cynicism, which is everything you’d want in a cinematic narrative showing — not telling — how a girl (or boy) becomes a woman (or man).
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Divines feels rough around the edges to start, but that’s just to show how much it and its characters grow on you by film’s end. Oulaya Amamra demonstrates not only great range but a great and believable character arc, thanks to help from an extensive wardrobe, a creative soundtrack, versatile cinematography, and a rapid-fire script.
— However… filmmakers must stop using cellphone footage in feature films. This isn’t amateur-hour, and you’re not being “hip.” You’ll know who’ll die in the last scene by the 45-minute mark.
? Are there many dance halls and performing arts centers in French shopping malls? Paris must be artsy indeed.