Houda Benyamina grew up with a lot of anger in her, directed at a society unwilling to let its poor climb up the ladder and at people in positions of authority who, instead of helping, contribute to reinforcing those glass ceilings. She channelled that sentiment in two acclaimed medium-length films which pictured France as a country of exclusion, nowhere near the ideal of its national motto. Her first feature, the Caméra d’Or-winning Divines, reunites some of the casts from her shorts and places them in the same setting, a poor Parisian suburb where rebellious teenager Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, all Actors Studio fever) camps with her mother among the Roma people. Her best friend lives in a nearby building block, where they hang out and dream of “making it.” This, sadly, essentially translates as “making money” (they are fans of Scarface ), and Dounia proceeds to learn the harsh rules of drug dealing and is, inevitably, lured by a job so big it could buy her way out of the ghetto.
Divines is at the same time overflowing, a typical case of an all-that-matters-to-me first feature, and dull, packed with clichés aimed at a mainstream teenage audience. At Cannes, some observers confused the film’s rage and frantic editing with creative vitality; but a lack of invention in situations and dialogue is never going to be saved by blasting lyrical classical music, however reliably tear-inducing Lacrimosa might be. Benyamina’s message is too raw for her sincerity to be questioned, but her apparent perfectionism seems to be misdirected at this point, and exaggerated accolades are not helpful.