Les Misérables was one of the two biggest films showing during my visit to GFF20. It was joint winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in May 2019 and selected as the French entry for the international film Oscar. It received 11 nominations at the César Awards in France and was picked up for US distribution by Amazon. It will open in the UK through Altitude on April 24 in over 100 sites. If, like me, you haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel or have managed to miss any of the film or stage adaptations of Hugo’s classic, never fear. This isn’t another adaptation. But it does have a clear connection to the novel. Director and co-writer Ladj Ly witnessed and recorded a disturbance in the Paris banlieue of Montfermeil in 2008 in which the police acted violently towards local Maghrebi and West African youth. Ly himself grew up in Montfermeil and his parents are from Mali. In the 1862 novel, Montfermeil is where the former convict Jean Valjean meets Cosette, a girl abused by her adoptive parents. The characters from the novel are mentioned in the film script and the film ends with a statement by Victor Hugo which sums up the social commentary of the novel and the film. Ladj Ly produced an earlier short film with the same title featuring the same trio of lead actors in 2017.
[If anyone is not familiar with the term les banlieues, which is sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘suburbs’, they refer to the large housing estates mostly built on the outer edges of the Paris conurbation. They were initially designed to house workers for local factories, but in many cases, e.g. on the North East edges of Paris like those featured in this film, they now house several generations of migrants from former French colonies.]
Ladj Ly appears to have shot most of this, his first feature, in Montfermeil and the nearby commune of Clichy-sous-Bois where the 2005 uprisings against the Paris police started. This history in turn links the new film to the classic banlieue film of 1995, La haine (due for a second re-release in the UK soon). La haine is an important film but times have moved on. I found most of the sequences of Les Misérables were familiar from the gripping French TV police procedural series Engrenages, though the new film is certainly in places more spectacular.
Ly opens his film with a sequence symbolising a powerful moment of affirmation of ‘identity’ in Paris. We see the Maghrebi and West African youth boarding a train in les banlieues, carrying the tricolore and emerging in Central Paris to join the crowds celebrating France’s win at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Most of the youths are talking about their local hero Kylian Mbappé, the young player from Paris Saint-Germain who scored the final goal in France’s victory over Croatia. Just as in 1998 when France won in Paris, Les Bleus included several players raised in les banlieues of Paris. But soon Ly deploys a familiar narrative strategy. An ‘outsider’, a police officer from rural France, arrives at his new posting in the banlieue. This is Stéphane Ruiz who joins two experienced officers in an SCU (Anti-Crime Squad) trio. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the ‘corporal’ to Sergeant Chris (Alexis Manenti) and the driver Gwada (Djibril Zonga). Chris immediately riles the new man by calling him ‘greaser’ and soon demonstrates his tough attitude by searching and sexually harassing young women at a bus stop (thus the reference to the Cosette character in Hugo’s novel). There is a clear policy to ‘blood’ Ruiz who is an experienced police officer but doesn’t know les banlieues. He will be given ‘tasks’ almost like a junior apprentice in a factory.
The police patrol makes a tour of le cité, picking out the various groups and identifying different power plays and players. The central narrative of the film begins when the team are directed to a confrontation between the Mayor of the commune and a Roma circus group. The Roma leader ‘Zorro’ has had a lion cub stolen and he threatens mayhem if the cub is not returned immediately. Chris sets out to find the cub in an attempt to keep the peace. In what follows, the methods used by Chris and Gwada lead to a confrontation in which a young West African boy is injured and a conflagration is threatened. Ruiz is faced with orders he doesn’t want to follow and acts in ways he thinks are ‘correct’ but which threaten his two colleagues. He doesn’t understand the local power structures and in a telling moment Gwada tells him to stop lecturing them after only a few hours of experiencing the environment of the city. The narrative has an open ending in the midst of violence followed by the Victor Hugo quote:
Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.
One of the features of the latter half of the film is the focus on younger teenagers than the trio of 20-somethings in La haine, emphasising that dissent now runs deep in les banlieues. The youngsters are there in La haine but they aren’t directly in conflict with the police. There have been other earlier banlieue films made by first generation Maghrebis but none that have reached UK cinemas to my knowledge. La haine, Engrenages and Ma 6-T va cracker were all written and directed by white filmmakers. Ladj Ly has a heavy responsibility to represent these events on screen. My first impression is that he does well to draw quite complex characters that defy immediate typing. The film faces the same problems as earlier banlieue films with regard to subtitle translations. Both the police and youths use forms of slang and some of the translations seem contentious to me. The young teenagers are referred to as ‘bus’, the Roma are ‘Gypsies’ (definitely a contentious term in the UK) and there are references to the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ which has specific connotations that I’m not sure are relevant here. There is a lot of narrative data crammed into 102 minutes and I look forward to a second viewing. I hope the film gets the audience it deserves. One negative feature that might have an impact is that having displaced Portrait of a Lady On Fire as the French Oscar nomination, the film does not feature significant roles for women outside of the young women at the bus stop, the rather fierce police commander and Gwada’s mum.
Divines is a fascinating and provocative film that is highly entertaining and timely. No wonder it created a stir at Cannes earlier this year where it won the Camera d’Or, the ‘first feature’ prize, for its director Houda Benyamina. Unfortunately, what could be an excellent film to use with 16-19 students in schools and colleges in the UK has been bought by Netflix and is currently certificated (15) by the BBFC only for VOD. If you want to see this in cinemas you’ll have to go to France. Perhaps we should lobby Netflix for a DCP? Presumably it will appear on Blu-ray? But first you’ll want to know why all the excitement.
Divines is a ‘banlieue film’, i.e. a narrative set in the the housing estates outside Paris. Its director is Moroccan-French and the lead character Dounia is played by the director’s younger sister Oulaya Amamra. Dounia is a 15 year-old facing the same bleak future as the central character in Girlhood (France 2014) and she reaches breaking point when faced with a role-play in school designed to train her as a receptionist/desk clerk. Dounia is already equipped for survival on the street and has a shoplifting scam worked out for the local supermarket with her partner in rebellion Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Dounia is petite, beautiful and sharp as a tack, Maimouna is large, exuberant, but also slightly vulnerable. Dounia is in charge. Her family is unable to control her. The family lives in a Roma camp and earn a living in bars and clubs. Maimouna’s parents are more conservative and she is expected to go to the mosque.
Divines is a youth picture which mixes crime, romance and dance – an interesting combination. Dounia can only see herself making progress by working for the area’s drug queen, but she’s distracted by her interest in the security guard at the supermarket – a handsome young man with a six-pack and a flair for athletic modern dance. Dounia seems driven both by desire and envy when Djigui (Kévin Mischel), the guard, succeeds in his attempt to get into a dance troupe. The film’s final section uses a familiar genre narrative device and overall the strength of the film is not so much in the story development as in the performances, the presentation of the action and the emotion packed into the central relationship between the two girls.
According to Isabel Stevens in her useful overview of the film for the LFF, director Houda Benyamina is a self-taught filmmaker who made several short films and set up a workshop for actors, including her sister and Déborah, before this, her first feature. Divines is informed by Benyamina’s experiences of the Paris riots in 2005. Her filmmaking background reminds me of the similar story of Shane Meadows and his Nottingham experience. In both cases the director is working with actors they know from a local community and that gives the performances an energy that is more difficult to conjure up by directors who come into the community from outside. Divines does use some ideas that are shared by both Girlhood and La haine but it is in no way derivative of those two well known films and includes its own innovative ideas alongside the emotional impact of its central relationship. It also acts as an antidote to the negatives of the otherwise worthwhile Black on release in the UK earlier this year. But can we get Divines out of the clutches of Netflix?
Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait more than six months for a UK release. Phoenix was one of those films and Girlhood is the other. The title ‘Girlhood’ refers both to that period of a young woman’s life and to the concept of girls controlling their ‘hood – moving in on a genre previously seen as male. The English title, unusually, is better than the French – Bande de filles which suggests ‘Gang Girls’ or ‘Girl Gangs’. Girlhood is set in les banlieues – or les cités, those giant housing estates on the outskirts of Paris made famous in global cinema by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (France 1995). Director Céline Sciamma (known for Water Lillies 2007 and Tomboy 2011) states quite clearly in the Press Pack that she is aiming for something different than La haine. She argues that CinemaScope is the best screen ratio to show gangs and although she shoots on the estates, all the interiors are shot on studio sets so that she can control the colours/décor etc.
“We used static shots with a very deliberate perspective as opposed to the Steadicam’s predictable energy. We relied on travelling shots and often used sequence shots. It’s an episodic narrative, with dramatic accelerations.” (Sciamma in the Press Pack)
The writer-director goes on to suggest that this is a new kind of narrative, a ‘fictional manifesto’ for a group of girls discovered through public casting sessions. It certainly does have a new kind of energy and it challenges representations of young women and in particular young African-Caribbean French women. Unlike many of the films set in les cités, this film is not dominated by North African French characters. The narrative seeks credibility rather than the ‘authenticity’ of social realism. Even so the resolution of the narrative is ‘open’ but not triumphant. This is a start – there is a long way to go before these girls achieve complete social freedom.
The central character is Marieme who we first meet as she comes back to le cité with a group of young women. The opening scene suggests that all the young women have been playing for a team in a game of ‘American Football’. I wondered if this might be a fantasy sequence (it seems an expensive sport to play because of all the equipment) but I would be grateful for any confirmation that such things happen in Paris. Perhaps it signifies an aspiration towards American culture among French African-Caribbeans that mirrors earlier French interest in American popular culture? Marieme has a difficult home life. Her father is absent and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel, working long hours. Marieme looks out for her two younger sisters – and tries to avoid her big brother Djibril, a dangerous character who abuses his sisters in taking control of the household and attempting to restrict their social behaviour.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening section of the narrative is when a dejected Marieme, learning that her only future after the summer is to go to vocational school (which she doesn’t want to do), meets a trio of seemingly tough ‘gang girls’. The leader of the trio sees something in Marieme and eventually invites her to join the group. Marieme changes her hair, her taste in clothes and her name. She gets out of the summer job her mother has organised in a hotel. Now she is ‘Vic’ (for victoire/victory), named by the gang leader, ‘Lady’. Collectively the girls have fun – even if it involves petty crime and fights and shows of bravado – before Marieme/Vic is forced to make decisions. These inevitably involve young men – the boy she has a relationship with, her controlling older brother and the local ‘boss’ for whom she works and who affords her ‘protection’ once she has become ‘known’ in the male world. The film has an open ending. We don’t know what will happen to Vic, but we have learned a great deal about the life that she and her sisters face in les cités.
I found the whole film captivating and in particular Marieme/Vic as played by Karidja Touré. Seemingly without prior experience, Touré is a strong presence, moving from being quiet and withdrawn to fierce and commanding as required. When she smiles, her personality fills the screen. The other three young women are equally striking in different ways. ‘Lady’ is a clear leader, Adiatou is street-smart and Fily is the quiet one, sometimes the butt of jokes but a strong physical presence.
There isn’t much ‘plot’ in the film. The narrative structure is in some ways unusual and I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the pleasure of an unfolding story. Watching it a second time I realised that I had been so taken with my first viewing that I hadn’t really noticed how the narrative divides into sections and that the final section – when Vic moves to another estate – is longer than I thought. In fact this is quite a long film for the genre. The power of the film resides in the relationships of Vic with the other three girls, with the boy she is attracted to and in perhaps the most moving scenes of all, with her younger sister who appears to be following, quite literally, in her footsteps.
Girlhood has been successful and I was pleased to see reports that in France it has been shown in multiplexes in les banlieues, reaching the audience who are represented in it. In the UK it has been generally very well received but there have been gainsayers, in particular on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I found the discussion about the film on this show both annoying and disturbing. It was annoying because of the obvious contradiction. We were told that films like Girlhood were very unusual because there are very few other representations of young Black women in French cinema (certainly that is true of the French cinema that makes it to the UK). But at the same time the young women in Girlhood were ‘stereotypical’ and their behaviour/representation was ‘clichéd’. How can they be stereotypes if we haven’t seen them on screen before? This is sloppy thinking – it suggests that the audience is reading these young women as if they were in a British or American film. In fact, they are shown in quite distinctive ways that sometimes demonstrate connections to American culture and sometimes seem unique (an entertaining game of Crazy Golf or a dance contest in a city centre square). On the Saturday Review panel was Bim Adewunmi, a Guardian columnist and herself a young woman of West African heritage. She complained that for her this was a film utilising a ‘white gaze’ on young Black women. Obviously I can’t argue against this but also I can’t see it in the film. Céline Sciamma in interviews has said (see the Jonathan Romney interview below) that she herself grew up (as a middle-class white girl) in or close to one of the new estates outside Paris. Much has been made of the fact that only one of the four leads is actually from an estate like the ones in the film (the other three were non-professionals from other parts of Paris). But is this really important? As the young women themselves pointed out, seeing themselves as four young Black female faces on posters all over Paris was an exciting new experience. A girlhood that was invisible in mainstream media in France has been give exposure.
For more background on the film and the young actors see the very useful Jonathan Romney piece in the Observer. This one of many pieces in the Guardian/Observer and the film seems to have made a significant impact on the ‘liberal left’ in the UK. I’m hoping it will be possible to use Girlhood extensively in UK film education. I’ve watched it twice but I think it will need several more viewings before I discover all its riches. I need to explore both its cinematography and the music soundtrack by Para One – also responsible for Sciamma’s earlier two films.
The UK trailer: