Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 04, 2016 10:33 pm 
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A thrilling debut about a daring banlieue girl who flies too high

Houda Benyamina's Divines is intoxicating filmmaking. It's nothing. Just a ghetto girl who lives in a gypsy encampment, the ghetto of the ghetto of a Paris banlieue, who dreams of being a drug dealer. But it sings, thanks to total investment by gifted actors, writing and editing that's well and firmly paced, then becomes delirious with soaring religious music and rapid-slice cross cuts: quick drug sales, hot young dancer seen practicing from high above, Asian martial arts lessons, money-counting, delight, gifts, flaunting new possessions. And then it starts back all over again. This isn't necessarily the best moment, but it exemplifies Divines' vivacity and energy. It sparkles.

You may be surprised to learn that Houda Benyamina is directing her little sister, Oulaya Amamra, in the central role of Dounia but this isn't nepotism; maybe Oulaya is the more talented one. Her character's name means "World" in Arabic, and the whole world is what she wants, as soon as possible, to get rich quick or die trying. She imagines herself a princess, and some scenes seem literally paved with gold. She's sort of a French Arab Jennifer Lawrence in looks and feisty charisma, and even French critics with reservations about the film heralded this impressive new star.

I wanted to see the film when it was showing in Paris, but just missed it in October. In May it had debuted at Cannes - Houda Benyamina's feature film debut - and won the Caméra d'Or award for best first film. In mid-November it was released in the US by Netflix streaming, with a choice of subtitles in English, French, Brazilian Portuguese, German, or Spanish. I chose French on Netflix, a direct transcription of the actual dialogue, and learned some new slang.

After a worship service in an underground mosque, Dounia kisses off her lycée class early on, and sallies forth in the world with her humorous darker sidekick Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), and she quickly gains preference selling stolen gas for a black female drug dealer, Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda) and plunges into dangerous waters when she moves up to selling drugs. Maimouna is the imam's daughter, but the two girls only use burqa-wearing as a way to shoplift.

One will think of Kéchiche, the classicist filmmaker of the banlieue, also of Céline Sciamma's fourth work, Bande de filles (Girlhood), with its feisty band of ghetto girls of color. One may also think of the visually stimulating iPhone trans-girl buddy picture Tangerine. Benyamina also has a passionate desire to make impressions with limited means.

A criticism of the film is that it barely tries to depict Paris ghetto life, as so many films have done. Much of its world is underground, with Dounia and Maimouna sneaking around in a labyrinth of tunnels or air ducts to get from mosque to supermarket to nightclub auditorium. It's up above the auditorium stage that they spy on dancers rehearsing a hip hop style ballet, and particularly the cute lead dancer Djigui (Kevin Mischel). Benyamina stages a confrontation between Djigui and Dounia early on, and she keeps coming back for rapturous stolen glances again and again. The tunnels and the ballet, the melodious Koranic recitations and Mozart's Requiem are transparent artifices, but they are also Benyamina's passion and originality.

Dounia worships "money money money" (in English), a craven goal by Islamic or Christian standards alike. And in a cathedral, in golden light, after making a big transfer of drug for money, she asks God for forgiveness, knowing she is flying too high, too fast. Passion, aspiration, worship, transgression: these are conscious themes. Above and beyond sociology, a boiling brew of dreams, djinns, and nightmares. No need, perhaps, to depict the banlieue slavishly, if its language and people come to life. But for some, the whole brew may be to over-the-top operatic, the finale more extreme than necessary. But this is a movie of enough originality and flair for its virtues to outweigh its faults, a delirious, buoyant viewing experience in any venue or on any size screen.

Divines, 105 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016 in Directors Fortnight, winning the Caméra d'Or; half a dozen other international festivals including Munich, Toronto and London; French theatrical release 31 Aug. (AlloCiné press rating 3.7/31, many raves but some strong dissents). US release by Netflix (Internet) 18 Nov. 2016 (Metascore 71).

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