Review by Paul Preston

What do you think of when you think of Paris? The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre? Romance? Well, Divines is here to remind you that there’s also a poor part of town, and it’s brimming with vitality, crime and a kinetic debut feature from Houda Benyamina.

The film begins with friends Dounia and Maimouna. They goof around on their cell phones, laugh a lot and engage in mischief such as stealing grocery items and re-selling them on the street. Sounds pretty innocuous. Well, that’s where bad decisions come in. Dounia comes from a broken home, her mother is an embarrassing alcoholic and her neighborhood is a shambles. As it is in these concrete jungles, she sees the opportunities in crime as a way to make money like she never has before, stepping up from petty theft to drug dealing and high-end burglary.


We first see Dounia’s rage against the proverbial machine in a fiery classroom confrontation with her teacher that leads to her exiting school in rebellious fit. To Dounia’s credit, it seems as if the class’s lesson is to prepare yourself for an adult life in the exciting world of customer service. It’s the kind of rant a misunderstood artist would get cheers for, but unfortunately the only way out of the slums Dounia sees is to work for Rebecca, the local drug lord and top criminal in the neighborhood. Rebecca is a unique character invention, flipping the gender script on felonious kingpins, turning the powerful lawbreaking father figure into a mother figure…if your mom threatened you with a gun to your head.

The fiery artist rant does exist in this film, in the form of Djuigui, a dancer at a nearby theater who Dounia and Maimouna spy on from the rafters. The girls have chosen this theater as a place to stash the loot from their thievery, but find themselves fascinated with Djuigui’s dance moves and passionate spirit. It’s in scenes like these you can glimpse the promise in people like Dounia and Maimouna, but they never trust their own artistic souls, instead opting for Dounia’s rise up the criminal ladder and the money and cars that could get them (these themes collide in a particularly inspired scene where Dounia and Maimouna take a dream ride in their Ferrari).


Director Benyamina has mixed all this together with a very assured hand for a debut effort. It doesn’t hurt to have top-notch lead performances. Kévin Mischel plays Djugui, looking like a French Jamie Dornan with the brash commitment of Shia Lebeouf at his best. Jisca Kalvanda is all power plays as a convincing Rebecca but Oulaya Amamra as Dounia delivers in the most crucial role. My biggest hurdle with Divines is the number of choices the lead character makes that simply won’t help her. Easy to say, of course, from the outside looking in (there’s no question Dounia is desperate to change her shantytown existence), but the challenge is then to maintain a film where I can still care about the main character while she’s not doing the right thing (with heart-breaking fallout). Divines achieves this mostly through Amamra’s powerhouse performance. She’s a force to be reckoned with to the final scene.

Don’t let names like Djugui and Oulaya fool you into thinking this is going to be one of those inaccessible foreign films. It’s in French, but Benyamina directs with the energy of Danny Boyle, delivering visuals and a sharp pace easily compared to Boyle’s story of a similar slumdog. Your patience will never be tested as it was with something like the godawful Amour. Foreign film is not a genre, it’s simply the language with which some genre pieces are told.


Divines won the Caméra d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, a real film-lovers fest and it’s debuting in the states on NetFlix. This is a bit of a dampener ‘cause the film is decidedly cinematic. But if we can’t get a cinematic experience in the U.S., I suggest watching it in the best possible home theater setup you can muster.

Directed by: Houda Benyamina
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Country: France
Distributor: NetFlix

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