If you want to talk about France and feminism, you can rewind back to the frivolous Marie Antoinette, the 1789 revolution, Eugène Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People" from 1830, or the first elections in the 1940s to which French women were allowed access. What should not be omitted, though, is the purposive strategy of French politicians and lawmakers in the aftermath of the Second World War to reduce women to housewives, so they would not take jobs from the men. At the time Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, special social and tax privileges were introduced in France for families with three and more children, many of which are still in currency today, even if the country has one of the most advanced childcare systems in the world. It was not until 1965 that married women in France were finally able to open a bank account or to sign a check without their husband's authorization—a little-known fact that can turn around your whole perspective on the French New Wave. Now let's conjure up once again the pantheon of independent and complex female characters those films gave us and try to imagine the invisible maze of difficult choices they had to navigate: Antoine Doinel's mère térrible in The 400 Blows, who falls victim to her preoccupation with what-people-will-say; Agnès Varda's Cléo, who roams the streets of Paris trying to redefine her existence beyond beauty and fame; Jean Seberg's personage in Breathless, who prefers to sell newspapers and to write for almost no money so she does not have to rely on men. With the French New Wave came also the cult of cinephilia. However, as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and the other Young Turks manifested first in Cahiers du Cinéma, then in their films, cinephilia is about imposing a male, fetishist regard over the very body of cinema. In his 2003 book La Cinéphilie, the French film critic Antoine de Baecqu underlines the New Wave's obsession with Summer with Monika by Ingmar Bergman, summing up: “Monika embodies that particular desire to appear as a woman (young filmmakers never stop fantasizing their rapport to their heroines / actresses based on the "couple" model Bergman/Andersson) (...) The body of Monika, once seen and understood, becomes the matrix of the New Wave: it says desire, freedom, nature, provocation, youth.” No wonder that a few decades later directors like Catherine Breillat or Claire Denis revolted so much against that same objectified female body/body of auteur film, yet even today their most radical work is still being perceived in terms of genre cinema.
Fast forward to 2016 when Divines, the full-length debut of the French-Moroccan Houda Benyamina, premiered at Directors' Fortnight in Cannes. The good ol' ghetto story of friends who want to gain money and respect but then face the consequences, only shot with girls this time, apparently won over the Caméra d'or jury with its vitality and zest. There was a lot of clitoris talk, both on and off screen, Houda Benyamina's award photo published at the left-wing flagship Libération also clearly spelled Black Power in all possible connotations. Still, Divines' director keeps insisting she is “humanist,” not “feminist,” thus joining a big crowd of prominent French women in the movie business who made the same statement, quite often in connection to their films in Cannes, too: Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maïwenn. Nevertheless, Divines is all about “the heroine's journey,” with men in the plot mostly reduced to objects of desire or pawns. Suburban tomboy Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) wants to make it big, or at least better than her troubled mother, and falls for a hot, equally ambitious dance performer. Maïmouna (Déborah Lukumuena), Dounia's best friend, has Beyoncé posters in her room and an imam father to rebel against. Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), who recruits the duo, bosses the local drug dealers with fierce management and New-Age wisdom. If at first Dounia walks the macho line to mark her territory à la De Niro (Oulaya Amamra did indeed study the actor's classics from the 1970s to prepare for the role), her newly-found femininity is rather instrumental; she soon discovers that beauty is a powerful weapon one has to use wisely. In this context, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee are visible references in Benyamina's debut, just as her film is constantly being compared to La Haine (1995) by Mathieu Kassovitz. The storyline resemblance between both French films and between the politically charged intentions of their authors is obvious. But then again, it is obvious why feminism is key in approaching the tale of three girls who consume their image of tough chicks with pop-culture gusto. From the shopping mall as an existential and psycho-geographical center of the Parisian suburbs, to the hip-hop trope-heavy visuals, Divines draws a clear line between the generation of La Haine (and Tupac) and globalized bling, a sub-capitalism scheme that gives an illusion of empowerment. In comparison to La Haine and other cult crime films, ironically (or in fact, tragically), Divines' protagonists fail because their model of identification comes from the man's world.
It is possible that Benyamina, the first Arab director to claim the Caméra d'or honor, does not want to plunge into intricate debates—especially in a moment when the country is in such a delicate political state, being an arena of mass unrest and a constant target of jihadist terrorism. After all, feminism is mostly seen in a negative light in France, as a trendy import from America that does not concern the original cradle of democracy. The state's motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity” implies gender equality, so doubting its existence seems like an act of anarchism. Some three years ago, ex-First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy stated in Vogue that feminism is no longer necessary here, with the same ease that Anne Hidalgo, the first woman to be appointed mayor of Paris, declared recently in Le Figaro that the city's fashion industry is the national equivalent of the Silicon Valley for the States. Gender balance becomes smart branding becomes parity of consumption. By the time Benyamina's film hit French theaters, amid the burkini scandal, a Spike Jonze-directed Kenzo ad was looping its way through every browser. At least that mini American remake of Divines for the upper-middle class has a happy ending.