Beyond the glittering lights of Paris’ historic centre lie the sprawling concrete jungles of the city’s banlieues. It’s here between the Roma camps and the dilapidated, towering estates that Houda Benyamina’s coming-of-age film Divines takes place, and where the strength of female friendship is pitted against the hardships of social injustice.
Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) are best friends. They share their misadventures on Snapchat, laughing together as they tumble around Paris’ impoverished suburbs. When they aren’t shoplifting or dodging Maimouna’s strict Muslim parents, they’re hiding in the rafters of an auditorium, watching dance rehearsals unfold under their whispered critiques. Despite the camaraderie, Dounia dreams of a bigger cash-filled future and begins slinging dope for Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), the local drug queen-pin.
While most of the action takes place among the dangerous streets of Paris’ outskirts, the environment merely acts as background noise. Benyamina places the focus entirely on the friendship between Dounia and Maimouna, letting the incandescent spirit of what it means to be a teenage girl take centre stage.
Take away the abandoned lots and latent violence of their surroundings and what remains is a universal experience of being a young woman and the balancing act that often comes with negotiating one’s many identities. The fluidity with which the two leads navigate between power and submission, religion and society, and life as it is and life as it could be is what makes their bond so believable and ultimately what makes Divines such a moving film.
The gender reversals throughout the movie, where the women are tough and men are merely set-pieces to be gazed upon, creates a new narrative in stark contrast to the toxic masculinity of Mathieu Kassovitz’s iconic banlieue film La Haine. Far from a utopia where the patriarchy is non-existent however, Divines grounds itself in reality where women constantly take on life’s struggles and dangers, doing so with sheer force of will and without questioning whether, as women, they can do so.
Divines sears with the passion of a director bringing multicultural female experiences to the fore, and the result is a film that is as unapologetic as it is beautiful.
Steph Brandhuber is a film, arts, and culture writer based in London. She holds an MA in Film Studies from King’s College London and her previous work includes arts development for the BBC and archive film research. Her articles have been published in a variety of print and online platforms including Broadly, Beijing Review, Screen Rant, and Culture Sonar.