Set in the deprived banlieue on the outskirts of Paris, Divines (2016) recounts the experiences of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a swaggering teenage girl of Qatari background who abandons her schooling to begin dealing drugs for a redoubtable local trafficker named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). As the film progresses, Dounia undertakes ever more dangerous tasks in order to gain the respect of her newfound employer, whose ultimate assignment – that of seducing an older man Reda (Farid Larbi) for monetary gain – proves almost fatal.
Considering the banlieue setting and dramatic storyline, it is unsurprising that the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris served as an inspiration for director Houda Benyamina. Through Divines, she seeks some 11 years later to depict the poverty, injustice and segregation, which still tarnish French society. In an interview with madmoiZelle magazine, the passionate auteur even goes as far as to insinuate that her leading character is an incarnation of herself in another life.
Alongside hormonally-charged embroilments between the two female protagonists there lies a touching, albeit doomed, histoire d’amour between young Dounia and professional dancer in the making Djigui (Kévin Mischel). The scenes in which Dounia observes the latter audition from above in the local theatre are marked by a lyrical, almost spiritual aesthetic which borders on the genre of art house cinema; a flamboyant operatic soundtrack accompanies mesmerising images of Djigui as he almost caresses the studio floor with his dancer’s grace.
Despite some gender transcendence, Divines is ultimately a social realist drama whose main themes are not the love (or lust?) between Dounia and Djigui, but rather friendship, hardship, addiction and betrayal… A betrayal leading to a shockingly tragic denouement which, unlike some other films set in the Parisian banlieue, is not intended to be cathartic for the viewer. Dounia’s best friend and partner in crime Maimounia (Déborah Lukumuena) unintentionally becomes the iconic visage of the film.
Divines is one of the rare films of our age that invoke critical reflection in the spectator. A drama with the words drugs, sex and violence in its plot summary would often lend to hard-hitting action scenes with fast cuts and extreme close-ups. Nevertheless, Benyamina’s aforementioned unconventionality regarding cinematographic techniques – combined with a female-dominated storyline – make her film one of a kind. So much so that the viewer is encouraged to investigate the background and reception of the œuvre at its harrowing closure.
Following the film’s release, the French-Moroccan director Benyamina participated in various televised interviews where we learn that the protagonist’s role is occupied by her very own sister. This is, however, not a product of the nepotism so rife in the modern film industry. Young Amamra (Dounia) had to transform herself from a meek ballet dancing damsel into a feisty, fearless young woman in order to convince her elder sibling to cast her in the leading role. She showed her sister that she “a du clitoris” (literally – has clitoris).
Indeed, the phrase “avoir du clitoris” is one of the most unforgettable lines of the film, pronounced by drug dealer Rebecca in admiration for Dounia’s brashness and insolence. Invented by Benyamina herself, the phrase is supposed to counter the widespread idiom “to have balls” (“avoir des couilles”) which is founded on male dominance and potency.
Such dominance almost prevented Benyamina’s work from being released; she claims that a mere 14% of films in France were made by women in 2015 due to an elitist “caste system” which continues to exist. Few women on selection committees means few women behind the big camera. Benyamina’s insistence in having her work produced against these odds was often attributed to her having “balls” – a phrase which she cleverly turned on its head.
Divines truly is a godsend in a world of action-packed, crowd-pleasing movies which leave very little scope for critical analysis. It is a cry for help – firstly, for the poverty-stricken banlieue all too often neglected by the French police, as we see with the final tragic demise…and, secondly, for all budding female filmmakers who must face up to repugnant Weinstein-esque characters in order to make their voices heard.
Benyamina’s film “a du clit” – and so should we by favouring such innovative, divergent masterpieces over blockbusters whose hegemony is literally blocking the path of underrepresented voices, whether it be ethnic minorities or – in the 21st century equally troubling to admit – even women. As Benyamina proclaims, “c’est un film humaniste”.
Divines is available in the UK on Netflix with the original French audio and subtitles in various languages.