Wednesday 1 February 2017

On demand: "Divines"

When Divines played at Cannes last summer - on its way to earning writer-director Houda Benyamina the Camera d'Or for best first film - the most frequent critical comparison point was Céline Sciamma's much-admired gang drama Girlhood. Yet an early glimpse of one of its lead characters performing the "You talkin' to me?" speech from Taxi Driver - here captured in iPhone format, but still a powerful signifier of inner-city alienation - suggests Benyamina's film might equally be approached as a 21st century update of Mathieu Kassovitz's incendiary La Haine, where the young Vincent Cassel performed the same routine in a mirror. There's one crucial difference, however: where the earlier film, centring on three young males, evinced a nihilistically angry worldview that carried the apocalyptic mood inside the Paris ghetto out into the wider world, the new film comprises a considerable show of empathy for a pair of teenage girls who form a Laurel-and-Hardy-style odd couple.

We join them at a perilous interlude: meant to be revising for end-of-school exams, they're  instead busy negotiating their way into wider society, a rite-of-passage that in this instance proves decidedly rocky. For livewire motormouth Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) - a born outsider, in that she's been raised in a temporary-looking Roma camp - and her Muslim BFF Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), it at first appears a major career break when fearsome neighborhood drug dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda) allocates them a share of her turf. For all the pair's dreams of money and glamour, the reality, inevitably, is something else: waiting round on cold concrete for shady sorts to pass by, encountering plentiful opportunities for trouble, and often far worse besides. That's what's going on at ground level in Divines; but what, then, are we to make of that knowingly religiose title?

Partly, it can be attributed to the heroines' habit of rolling their eyes and looking to the heavens at moments of crisis (of which there will be many); as Maimouna's background establishes, this is far from the godless universe of most contemporary 'hood dramas. It's also, though, connected to the girls' preferred hidey-hole, up in the gods of the local theatre they sneak into and creep around, spying on the rehearsals going on below: here, Benyamina affords Dounia and Maimouna a power they don't have outside, with the tower blocks bearing down on them. The entire film seems organised around this vertical axis: in another echo of La Haine, Dounia confesses to having had a dream in which she imagines herself plummeting from the top of a tall building, a moment that rhymes with the joke told in the earlier film about the doomed soul counting off the floors of an office block while taking a similar death plunge ("Jusqu'ici, tout va bien").

What's new is the punchline Maimouna provides, a comforting yet ultimately ironic "But I'll always be there to catch you." Divines is couched as a primer in sisterhood, and the various forms of safety net young women in the inner city can provide for one another. The compassion extends outwards, from director to characters. Particularly in the scenes where the girls imagine taking a Ferrari for a spin around their block, or Dounia finds herself alone in the make-up aisle of a supermarket after hours, you can feel Benyamina granting her heroines the run of a land they don't own, and a measure of mobility denied to them elsewhere by their position in life. Where Kassovitz saw no exit, Benyamina keeps showing her hoodrats ways out, and hoping they'll thank her for holding the door open. Dounia locks eyes and lips with a lithe dancer (Kevin Mischel), who offers her a front-row seat in the halls of culture; at one point, we see her being schooled to channel her aggression into martial-arts; a midfilm makeover transforms the friends into minipop Mata Haris. 

Though nothing in Benyamina's framing quite approaches Sciamma's bold use of colour, her film has strengths besides: inventive cross-cutting, an attempt to present first love as a physical ballet that gets to the cruel, push-me-pull-you dynamic of some teenage romances, a genuinely knotty mother-daughter relationship. If the finale sees Benyamina starting one ruckus too many - it aims for explosive, and gets stuck at overheated - there's something assured indeed about the progression she makes from the early observational knockabout to more dramatic, even electric material as these girls go properly wild. Throughout, she's wise to keep a tight focus on her tremendous young thespsquad: you quickly notice the extent to which the galpals' interactions are conceived as routines performed for one another, plays for attention within a world that would otherwise be indifferent to their presence. Inviting us to join this gang, Divines offers plenty to get Benyamina herself noticed - not least the decision to bypass cinemas in favour of streaming the film on Netflix, meaning that a subtitled movie that might struggle to gain more than a two-week theatrical foothold is instead available to watch in homes across the land. More so than her sometimes naive subjects, Benyamina would appear a canny operator, negotiating her own confident, steady path into the world.

Divines is now streaming on Netflix.

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