TIFF 2016 Review: Divines
Houda Benyamina’s Divines, which won the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is the sort of ideal candidate for a prize dedicated to first time filmmakers. It contains a crackling energy that’s unrestrained and messy in the way debuts can be, like Benyamina is throwing as many cinematic ideas as she can at the wall without giving a damn about what sticks. And for the most part Divines succeeds on this front, its flaws not outweighing its engrossing style, until a final act that tips the scales against it.
Taking place in a low-income apartment block in Paris, Benyamina opens her film with a group of people praying in a mosque while teenage firecracker Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) peers in from a window. The serene quality of the singing in the mosque gets cut short when Dounia starts texting her best friend Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena) who’s sitting inside with her parents. It’s a small, disruptive act that sets the tone for what’s to come, as the two girls continually disrupt those around them in the name of enjoying themselves. But there’s a major difference between the two girls in terms of where they come from; Maimouna has a strict yet supportive family, while Dounia lives in squalor with her alcoholic mother, dreaming of a life filled with money and success.
Dounia sees an opportunity in the form of Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), a drug dealer who hires Dounia on after making an impression. From there, Benyamina charts Dounia and Maimouna’s growing confidence as they earn money selling drugs and running errands for Rebecca, and it’s in these scenes where Divines showcases Amamra, who gives a terrific performance. She plays her role with a ferocity that both shows her drive to escape her circumstances and reveals a vulnerability hiding underneath her anger. When Dounia gets orders to seduce a man in a night club so she can rob him, she grabs his attention by hopping up on stage and dancing. Amamra plays the scene with a hesitation that exposes her lack of confidence underneath her attempts to pull off seductive dance moves, reminding viewers that she’s still a young girl, and it’s a remarkable feat that Amamra pulls off. If there’s anything to take from Divines, it’s Amamra’s performance, which should go down as one of the best of 2016.
Performances are excellent all around, including Lulumuena who provides a levity that counteracts against the film’s darker moments. But it’s Benyamina who shows the most promise, with her direction providing several sublime moments amongst a tonally scattered film. Benyamina tends to lean hard on more melodramatic moments, but it’s when she dips into the surreal, like when the camera plays along with Dounia and Maimouna acting out a fantasy, there’s a charm to the film that’s hard not to succumb to. A subplot between Dounia and her love interest, an older dancer named Djigui (Kevin Mischel), plays out in a way that’s truly unpredictable, their taboo romance oscillating between a charged chemistry and an unsettling level of aggression between the two. Every scene between the two is riveting, and proof of Benyamina’s (unhoned) talents behind the camera.
It’s only in its final act that Divines loses its footing, opting for a conclusion that brings it into generic, manipulative territory that collides with the free-flowing nature of everything before it. Given Dounia’s occupaton, it’s inevitable that things were going to go south at some point, and when they do it’s a short, concentrated burst of miserablism. It’s in these last twenty or so minutes that Benyamina feels like she’s forcing the other shoe to drop, putting her characters through the ringer to make its moralistic points rather than make these developments feel natural within the film’s world. But it’s in the final scenes that Divines commits its worse offense, manufacturing a tragic situation that opens the door for Benyamina to make a social statement about the government’s treatment of impoverished minorities. It’s a statement that comes across like Benyamina trying to get serious in her conclusion, as if the only way to make her point is through such a blunt, unsubtle manner as opposed to relying on her observational direction. It’s a disappointing shift in tone and narrative for film that, once its ending is put aside, pulses with a level of excitement for what Benyamin will come up with next.