Robin Write looks at the César Awards-winning film Divines, directed by Houda Benyamina, about two best friends dabbling in crime in Paris.
Audiences around the world are missing out on non-commercial, non-English language film gems. This is nothing new. It’s been the same for years, decades. The French film Divines is one such motion picture, an experience that made me actually feel something far deeper than surface emotions. Directed by breakthrough Houda Benyamina, winning the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Divines recently hit big at the 42nd César Awards, winning Best Supporting Actress (Déborah Lukumuena), Most Promising Actress (Oulaya Amamra), and Best First Feature Film for Benyamina. Now officially showing on Netflix, you really have no excuse with this one.
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, we’re treated to 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 their goods. 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 dancer entices and intrigues Dounia with his energy.
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. She’s asked / trained to get into a rich guy’s apartment 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. 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.
A dramatic midpoint sequence, accompanied by Mozart, breathtakingly covers a lot of ground. It shows the twosome’s new wealth, Dounia’s growing affection for the dancer, and her church attendance to deal drugs while on her knees praying for forgiveness. It also demonstrates Benyamina’s exceptional eye for music cues and story-telling. 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. Another great sequence occurs 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.
The core bond between the girls is rich and dynamic, topped off with kinetic performances from the youngsters. Oulaya Amamra, in particular, is a revelation, chewing scenery without over-acting, devouring Dounia’s transformations with expert passion. The receptionist role-play exercise at school is a brilliant scene as the teacher begins to get frustrated with Dounia’s fooling around. The tensions hit the roof, and the colliding views erupt into a full scale debate on both her potential and the teacher’s achievements. 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. It’s an important scene in a courageous film that demands to be seen.