College of the Holy Cross
The opening scene of Houda Benyamina’s critically lauded Divines frames its feisty heroine Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina’s real-life sister) through an iron window grille as she gazes down at her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), and impatiently suggests, by way of text message and gestures, that Maimouna interrupt her prayer at this basement mosque and join her outside. As she waits for her to come up, Dounia stares enviously at a woman behind the wheel of a fiery red convertible and witnesses, through a chain link fence, a money exchange between the female driver and a local young man. Catching Dounia watching, the man calls her “bastard child” and tells her to scram. The two girlfriends are reunited at street level, and the spectator now sees Dounia on a shrunken screen as Maimouna films her with a mobile phone. As if in response to the young drug dealer who has just insulted her, Dounia looks directly at the mini-camera and exclaims aggressively “Am I the one you’re staring at right now? You’re looking at me, aren’t you?” before mimicking the discharge of an invisible gun. The two friends burst into laughter and Maimouna, now in front of the camera, impersonates a model at a fashion show while a filming Dounia demands off screen that her friend pose “with an attitude” and “make eye contact” with the camera.
This entire breathlessly edited sequence, which includes a firm statement from Dounia that she is not the kind of woman who would ever marry, lasts less than two minutes. Yet it manages to encapsulate the incandescent spirit of the film, its power dynamics, the ongoing tension between religion (tradition) and the reality of the street, between life as it is and life as it could be. It further establishes Dounia as a woman who observes, controls, and obtains what she wants. It portrays the Parisian banlieue, like other films before it, as a desolate space full of abandoned lots, rickety fences, and latent violence. Lastly, this opening immediately positions its heroine as the female version of the virile heroes of cinematic fame against which the film proposes to be measured, such as Vincent Cassel’s Vinz in La Haine (1995), Mathieu Kassovitz’s iconic film de banlieue.
Divines, whose director settled for this uplifting title over the less glamorous but arguably more accurate alternative Bâtarde (the film premiered at Cannes under both titles), pursues its journey at the same frenetic pace as this introductory sequence. At every step along the way, the film blends seemingly disparate genres and continues to reference countless cinematic forebears. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed out these two tendencies. The French magazine Première qualifies Benyamina’s first work as a “feminist Scarface” that successfully fuses de Palma, La Haine, an episode in the TV series “The Wire,” and Céline Sciamma’s feminine version of the banlieue film Bande de filles/Girlhood (2014). Divines, the reviewer adds, manages to transcend these tributes because of its unique gender swap. Le monde’s Thomas Sotinel is less forgiving of what he considers an overambitious desire to direct what he sarcastically terms a “social drama-thriller-teenage romance-tragedy-musical,” an amalgam of genres that, according to him, ultimately disappoints. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, conversely, relishes what he calls “an urban thriller […] mixed in with some free-wheeling New Wave fun,” while Catherine Bray of Variety applauds what she names a “punchy” blend of “gangster thriller and female buddy movie.” She sees Divines as “a modern cousin” to the classic female-driven road movie Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). However, when asked directly about her inspirations, Houda Benyamina cites three films: Bertrand Blier’s Les valseuses/Going Places (1974), and his Un, deux, trois soleil/1, 2, 3 Freeze (1993), which takes place in a multiracial banlieue outside of Marseille, and Le thé au harem d’Archimède/Tea in the Harem (Mehdi Charef, 1985), a pioneering beur/banlieue film. 
All in all, the press was highly complimentary, and even less enthusiastic reviewers acknowledged that the film’s performances are flawless and its energy breathtaking. Many cite Bande de filles as an inevitable point of comparison, with good reason. Both films have nonwhite, strong-willed young banlieusardes protagonists, their narrative trajectory is similar from the disappointments of the French republican school to the (temporary) thrill of criminal life, and their plots that showcase impassioned female friendships and challenge gender expectations. Divines’ critical accolades came alongside prestigious prizes, including the Caméra d’or at the Cannes film festival, three César awards (Most Promising Actress for Amamra, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Lukumuena, and Best First Film), three Lumière awards (in the same three categories as the César awards), and even a Golden Globe nomination.
The plot of Divines is ambitious, increasingly tortuous as the film progresses, and can be summarized in the following way: Dounia, a non-practicing Muslim teenager with an unidentified father and an alcoholic mother (Majdouline Idrissi), lives in a Roma shantytown near a low-income housing project with her bartending mother and cabaret-performing trans relative Cassandra (Mounir Margoum). She drops out of vocational school and, tired of petty thefts at the local supermarket, offers her and Maimouna’s services to the drug dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). After a test, Rebecca enthusiastically concludes that Dounia “has clitoris” (praising her womanly courage) and hires her. Despite some difficulties, money starts pouring in, and in a brilliant fantasy sequence, the two besties dream of the high life aboard an imaginary Ferrari. In a parallel plot, reversing the notorious “male gaze,” Dounia spies on the talented (white) male dancer Djigui (Kevin Mischel), who is the object of her desire, as he rehearses in the local theater (where the two girlfriends keep their money). Sensitive to Dounia’s charms and admiring her fearless character, Djigui hides her money in an attempt to force her to talk to him and not just silently gaze down at him from above the stage. The stratagem works. Dounia confronts Djigui in person and the two engage in an erotically charged dance, a beautiful moment of narrative suspension that marks the film’s exact halfway point.
It is after this lyrical sequence that the plot begins to unravel, and the extravagance of the story in the second half, although decidedly daring, stretches the limits of verisimilitude and disappoints as much as the first half bedazzles. Here is the condensed version of what happens next: Rebecca sends Dounia and Maimouna on a dangerous mission in central Paris, where Dounia is to seduce and steal a large sum of money from Reda (Farid Larbi), a rich gangster. In a crowded nightclub replete with gorgeous women, Dounia’s seductive dance catches Reda’s attention.
Meanwhile, the dancer, who views her as his lucky charm, invites her to a performance of his dance group, which she happily accepts. Rebecca however chooses that evening for her meeting with Reda and she must comply. Intercut with scenes from the ballet, we see Dounia stealing the money from Reda’s apartment, and although he beats her severely, she manages to knock him unconscious and subsequently leaves with the booty, after having wallowed in it, bloody but elated. She leaves half with her mother and rushes to the railway station to meet Djigui, having decided to accompany him on tour. At the very moment she sights him, she gets a call showing Rebecca has taken Maimouna hostage. She sacrifices her dream to save her friend. Determined to recoup all her money, Rebecca douses Dounia in gasoline and accidentally sets the place on fire. As the flames engulf them, Rebecca and Maimouna are trapped inside. Dounia is slender enough to crawl through a narrow opening and runs for help. The film ends tragically because the firemen refuse to intervene until the police arrive, and, as the building explodes, the film mixes the fate of its fictional characters with the real-life events that triggered France’s 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities.
Divines’ second half, up to its climactic ending, is disappointing for two reasons. First, because its intrepid female leads, while convincing at first, turn into caricatures in the events leading up to the fire. Secondly, whereas La haine succeeded in commenting on a collective social issue (real-life suburban riots, which open the film) by representing the reactions of three young, multiracial individuals to these events, the intrusion of similar events at Divines’ close, although audacious, feel contrived, like an afterthought. But Houda Benyamina is a bold and unapologetic risk-taker (a “warrior,” as she proudly announces in an interview with Le monde), whose goal was to create a female-centered film that provocatively exposes the poverty and inequalities within the French Republic. This was also a personal catharsis that turned her own anger into art. “It’s better to make a film than a bomb,” the director stated in an interview. This might explain why dance is the only peaceful means of escape within the film. Benyamina, who deplores what she calls an elitist “caste system” within French cinema, founded ten years ago the “Association 1000 visages,” that aims to democratize access to the film industry and give underprivileged youth access to its jobs. In January 2017 President François Hollande bestowed it the “La France s’engage” label, which rewards innovative initiatives aimed at improving society. This is but the latest of the rewards she has collected since Divines premiered at Cannes in 2016.
Divines could be used in a university course focused on contemporary French society (further context would need to be provided). It would work especially well if taught in tandem with La Haine, since Divines tackles similar issues, while shifting the gender focus. It would work, of course, in an undergraduate or graduate film course on banlieue (and/or beur) cinema. Finally, the film has a place in a course on contemporary women’s filmmaking in France, or in a more general course focused on directors or authors, both male and female, whose work presents alternative visions of the underprivileged in France.
Houda Benyamina, Director, Divines, 2016, Color, 105 minutes, France and Qatar, Easy Tiger, France 2 Cinéma, France Télévisions, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC). The film is currently available on Netflix.
- The four reviews and the interview mentioned in the review can be viewed at: Première (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/11/divines-review-urban-thriller-debut-houda-benyamina-paris-netflix); Le monde (http://www.lemonde.fr/cinema/article/2016/08/30/divines-une-super-heroine-perdue-dans-la-cite_4989700_3476.html#meter_toaster); The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/11/divines-review-urban-thriller-debut-houda-benyamina-paris-netflix); Variety (http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/divines-film-review-1201778704/); Houda Benyamina video interview with Madmoizelle.com, available on YouTube at this address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fbD-CGdtPs.
- Link to Houda Benyamina’s interview with Steve Rose in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/10/divines-director-houda-benyamina-its-better-to-make-a-film-than-a-bomb.
- For more information on Benyamina’s “Association 1000 visages,” see: http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2017/01/26/01016-20170126ARTFIG00026-avec-1000-visages-houda-benyamina-veut-democratiser-les-metiers-du-cinema.php.
- For further context or accompanying texts, see William Edmiston and Annie Duménil’s La France contemporaine (Heinle, 2015) and Juliet Carpenter and Christina Horvath’s Regards croisés sur la banlieue (Peter Lang, 2015) for a course taught in French. For courses in English, see Hervé Tchoukam’s State Power, Stigmatization, and Youth Resistance Culture in the French Banlieues: Uncanny Citizenship (Lexington Books, 2015) and George Packer’s 2015 New Yorker article “The Other France” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-other-france).