Divines review – exhilarating urban thriller froths with joie de vivre

Houda Benyamina’s Paris-set drama about the intense friendship between two young women with dreams of better lives is consistently enjoyable

Read interview with Houda Benyamina

There’s an explosion of energy in this very impressive debut movie from first-time French director Houda Benyamina, now showing on Netflix, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes this year. Divines hits the ground running: an urban thriller from the Paris banlieues that is a little like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, mixed in with some freewheeling New Wave fun. It’s frothing with soap-opera intrigue and sex interest, but it climaxes on a very bleak note. There’s a great soromance between two young women: Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) who dream of getting the hell out of their estate and making it big somewhere, anywhere, with lots of money. Everyone does the obligatory flicking-dollar-bills-from-a-fistful mime – part bountiful, part contemptuous, part defiant.

Amamra is tremendously good as Dounia, a livewire, always seething at the personal insult that every aspect of her life now constitutes. She is a drama queen with a real temper, believing she should be a star, a vocation nourished by sharing mobile phone pictures and videos online. Benyamina has a stylish opening sequence shot portrait-style on a phone. Dounia feels that her ordinary life is intolerable: living in a Roma encampment with her mum, Myriam (Majdouline Idrissi) who works as a bar hostess. Forced to do humiliating job-interview role-play exercises in class, Dounia explodes with haughtiness and walks out of school for good.

Her current scam is shoplifting wearing a burqa with her friend Maimouna, but she needs to step up to the big league: working for local gangster Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda) selling drugs and stealing petrol by siphoning it from cars and vehicles on a local building site. Rebecca soon gets a thing for the beautiful Dounia, who herself begins an affair with Djigui (Kevin Mischel), a dancer at the theatre where Dounia and Maimouna like to hang out, cheekily criticising the performers’ technique. But a crisis looms when Rebecca orders Dounia to seduce a big-league criminal with a taste for young women and burgle his apartment.

Watch the trailer for Divines

Benyamina finds a groove of joie de vivre and enjoyability with this movie, even during its periodic melodrama and social-realist drear: there’s a very funny in-camera trick when Maimouna and Dounia are fantasising about driving around in their Ferrari and then, framed at the head-and-shoulders level, they really do appear to roll around the estate in an ecstasy of wonder, maybe being dollied along a track, or standing on a wheeled platform. It’s a moment of weirdly childlike likability. There’s more satire when Rebecca insists that Dounia wears high heels – and of course she scrubs up very well – because heels are a bling-forcefield against being poor. They create a miasma of prosperity and Rebecca urges all her crew to visualise money and it will come: a terrible delusion.

Maybe the final five minutes are a little too over the top, but the overwhelming impression is that Dounia has ambition and vision, a conviction that she might still be able shape her own future. It’s an exhilarating film.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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