Want to see your new favourite film? Try Divines on Netflix
Coming out of nowhere to announce itself as one of 2016’s best films, Camera D’Or-winning French crime drama Divines is a riotous, aggressive shot of adrenaline. Directed by the debuting Houda Benyaina and starring her younger sister Oulaya Amamra, Divines is distributed by Netflix, so there’s no excuse not to watch your new favourite film.
Taking inspiration from the classic La Haine and the more recent Girlhood, Divines tells a story from the heart of the ‘banlineues’, a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden stretch of French suburbs. Teenager Dounia (Amamra) is bored of her situation. Leaving school after ferociously ranting at a teacher leading a class on how to get a job (“Remember: Always smile”), Dounia spends her days sneaking into the rafters of a dance academy with fun-loving best friend Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena, frequently lovable) and her nights helping her alcoholic waitress Mother. Tired of getting no respect, Dounia begins working for local drug dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda, genuinely unnerving), but her new found power comes at a cost when she’s asked to pull off a big score.
Like Girlhood, Divines very much takes place in a girls’ world and offers the empowering sight of women being both the heroes and villains in the predominantly male gangster genre; in a rare role reversal, it is Kevin Mishel’s ballet dancer who becomes the love interest, objectified in a sensual scene where he writhes and slides like a snake to seduce Dounia.
Though Divines offers comments on femininity, race (police refuse to go near the banlineues for fear of riots) and religion (Maimouna comes from a religious family, Dounia wears her burka to shoplift), Benyaina is mostly interested in the cockiness and vulnerability of youth. Like Matthieu Kassowitz’s stunning direction on La Haine, Benyaina uses every trick and style available to create a sense of anarchy and vibrance. The opening credits play to a fast cut montage of Dounia’s Instagram videos (an editing trick later used for a police chase), while the film’s most memorable sequence involves the two girls driving around in an imagined Ferrari, talking about the money they’ll eventually earn.
Though much of Divines is content to watch Dounia and Maimouna enjoy themselves, the good times can’t last, and the film is often jolted by abrupt but brutal scenes of violence. Dounia gets in over her head; no amount of attitude can help her against more physically imposing customers, whilst boss Rebecca thinks nothing of testing her strength at gun point in a scene as tense as Alfred Molina’s appearance in Boogie Nights.
The sudden focus on intensity and serious drama could be jarring if not for the outstanding performance by Oulaya Amamra in the leading role. Starting as a doe-eyed innocent and ending as a desperate victim, Amamra carries the film stupendously well. Whether aggressive, funny, or seductive (dancing to Azealia Banks’ ‘212’ in the middle of a nightclub), she has a natural charisma and spark that is astonishing to watch. If Divines isn’t her breakout, there’s no justice in the world.
While Divines isn’t perfect, occasionally dipping into cliché or melodrama (especially in its final twenty minutes), that can only be expected from first time director Benyaina. Visually inventive, powerfully written and acted, and showing real conviction and attitude, Divines is one of the most exciting, dramatic debuts in years. Keep an eye out for Oulaya Amamra in the future; she’s going to be a star.
By Harry J. Ford
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