Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Divines & Aquarius: Review

Divines is a reminder that the French are the ones to beat when it comes to empathetic studies of the lives of teenagers and children. The film, which centres on the combative, ambitious Dounia, a 15-year-old living on the outskirts of Paris, won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by French-Moroccan Houda Benyamina, it’s a lit fuse from start to finish.

Over the opening credits, Dounia addresses the camera as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver—“You talking to me?”—much like Vincent Cassel did in La Haine over 20 years ago. It’s a combative start, and the hoodie-wearing Dounia doesn’t let up, crashing out of school spectacularly, then brazening her way into a job as a drug dealer (“You’ve got clitoris,” her fearsome supplier, Rebecca, says admiringly). Though it’s frequently comic, the film doesn’t disguise the harshness of its heroine’s surroundings or the dangers of her trade; her first drug sale results in a brutal beating.

Like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which it resembles in spirit and look, Divines alternates between grittiness and diamond-hard stylization. Benyamina barrels through one set-piece after another: a shoplifting in a supermarket; an escalating classroom scene (modern French film-makers have a thing for kids arguing in classrooms); Dounia confronting the dancer Djigui, a sequence every bit as charged as the near-standoff with riot police that comes later.

In an interview with The Guardian, Benyamina, who grew up poor in the Parisian suburbs, mentioned that she channelled the anger she felt during the 2005 riots into this project. “Better to make a film than a bomb,” she said. That anger is palpable, as is a deep empathy for the flailing, fighting characters. “There’s no soul, I don’t feel the soul,” Dounia’s friend mock-critiques a dance performance. Divines is all soul.

There was a quietly brilliant double bill hidden within the programming of the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Both films are built around a figure rarely seen in mainstream cinema: an independent older woman making her own way in the world. Like Hansen-Løve’s film, or Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria some years ago, Aquarius has better things to do than dwell on the supposed loneliness of a single 50-something woman, presenting instead a complex, wonderfully real protagonist.

Like Filho’s first film, Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius is set in the Brazilian beach town of Recife. Clara (Sônia Braga) has lived there for years, in an flat in an apartment complex by the sea. She stays alone—her husband is dead, and her children have lives of their own—though she has plenty of company, a revolving door of friends, hired help and extended family. She’s a retired music critic, author of a monograph on Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, though she seems to derive equal pleasure from her 1970s rock vinyls, singing along to Queen’s "Fat Bottomed Girls" in one memorable scene.

Clara is the last remaining resident in her apartment complex; the developers, who intend to replace it with a new structure, have bought out the others. They approach Clara, suggesting that she leave too, but she refuses. Filho doesn’t reduce her decision to either stubbornness or sentiment, thus allowing Clara to seem like an inflexible old woman one minute and a courageous holdout opposing big business the next. Braga, a veteran of Brazilian cinema, embraces Clara in all her wilfulness and determination, the two-and-a-half-hour running time giving her (and the viewer) a chance to really get under the character’s skin.

Filho’s style is largely undemonstrative, though careful viewers will notice little tricks of camera and editing. The main thrust is political; you can sense the simmering anger towards the corrupt business elite. A protest staged at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival by cast and crew against the suspension of president Dilma Rousseff likely scuttled the film’s chances of becoming Brazil’s entry for the Oscars. It’s a pity: We would have loved to see Isabelle Huppert (for Things To Come or Elle) and Braga nominated for Best Actress, even if the chances of that happening were slim to none.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge, along with a third write-up on 'Under the Shadow' by Zico Ghosh.

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