You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘Papicha’

Bursting with energy and likable femme-centric characters, Mounia Meddour's debut frustratingly misjudges its narrative acumen.

Mounia Meddour
Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella, Amira Hilda Douaouda

Running time: 106 MIN.

Terrific lead characterizations and edgy camerawork hold their own against a problematic script in Mounia Meddour’s feature debut “Papicha.” This is a film designed to be championed by everyone wanting to support a woman’s right to self-expression: It’s got a female director (not a novelty in the Maghreb), depicts powerful young women refusing to bow down to fundamentalism, and is bursting with energy and likable figures. Yet the screenplay’s seams show so glaringly, and the finish is so tonally mismatched, that notwithstanding audience identification and the inevitable “loosely inspired by real events” tagline, “Papicha” feels conspicuously manipulative. That shouldn’t stall further fest play and Francophone distribution following the film’s Cannes premiere, though sales farther afield may prove more of a challenge.

The setting is Algiers in the 1990s, when the nation was roiled in a bloody civil war that pitted the less-than-democratic government against an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency. Meddour mined parts of her own life, when as the teenage daughter of intellectuals she experienced firsthand the tightening grip of extremists attempting to force their agenda on those deemed too Western in outlook. But sharing the truth of that experience calls for greater care than it’s given here, such that certain real events feel organic and honest rather than merely calculated in the retelling.

University students Nedjima (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) are high-spirited best friends who regularly sneak out of their dorm at night to party in a nightclub where Nedjima sells clothes she designs to her peers. The opening sequence is a rapidly edited joy ride, the camera capturing closeup flashes of limbs and clothes as the two run to a waiting car and change into sexy outfits on the way to the club. A frightening roadblock check temporarily reigns in the enthusiasm, but once under the disco’s spell, the hijinks return.

Though studying French, Nedjima sketches fashion designs at every opportunity, delighting in the creativity and assertive independence that dressmaking provides. Her fury at Islamist posters appearing outside the university walls, demanding that women wear abayas and hijabs — “take care of your image or we will” — reaches a new level of defiance when a group of women veiled in black invade the classroom, denouncing apostasy. Then tragedy strikes when her journalist sister Linda (Meryem Medjkane) is murdered by an Islamist woman. A deeply shaken Nedjima becomes determined to combat the growing tide of intolerance by organizing a fashion show of dresses she’ll make entirely from the haik, the traditional white outer garment worn by Algerian women.

“Papicha” (the word is Algerian slang for a hip, pretty girl) nicely captures the fast-talking energy of Nedjima and her friends, frightened by the uncertainty of a country careening towards aggressive fundamentalism. In a bid to diversify the group, Meddour includes Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), a hijab-wearing classmate whose conservative values, so forcefully expressed when she’s first introduced, rather too quickly crumble. Even less soundly conceived are two young men, Mehdi (Yasin Houicha) and Karim (Marwan Zeghbib), introduced as love interests for Nedjima and Wassila, whose seemingly liberal outlooks thinly disguise intolerance and conservatism. Not that those attributes aren’t common, even among the ostensibly broadminded, but the script’s uncertainty of what to do with these characters, and the clumsy way their sudden shifts are laid bare, are fairly representative of several developments that feel shoe-horned into the plot in order make a particular point.

That’s especially true of the wildly misguided ending, manifestly designed to shock audiences via an event not based on a real story. It signals the moment when Meddour no longer trusts the emotional strength of her drama and imprudently tries to deliver a massive kick in the gut, complete with a hackneyed flashback montage, that wholly changes the tone and serves no valid purpose in a narrative already working hard to show the inhumanity of fundamentalism and the chaos of the Algerian Civil War.

Unquestionably the director’s strengths lie in the filmmaking craft, including guiding her excellent company of actors in charismatic performances. Khoudri, already a known quantity thanks to her award-winning turn in “The Blessed,” makes Nedjima a captivating, strong-willed figure who lives in a state of highly-charged emotions; she’s nicely paired with newcomer Boutella, their sharp interplay providing the film’s greatest sparks. Damien Keyeux’s rapid editing together with DP Léo Lefèvre’s close, tactile camera greatly contribute in keeping that energy going while remaining cognizant of when to change the rhythm when required.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'Papicha'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 17, 2019. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production: (France-Algeria-Belgium-Qatar) A High Sea Production, the Ink Connection, Tayda Film, Scope Pictures, Tribus P Films, Centre Algérien de développement du cinéma, Caleson, Same Player production. (Int'l sales: Jour2fête, Paris.) Producers: Xavier Gens, Patrick André, Grégoire Gensollen, Belkacem Hadjadj, Mounia Meddour. Co-producers: Genevieve Lemal, Paul-Dominique Vacharasinthu, Mustapha Matoub, Vincent Roget.

Crew: Director: Mounia Meddour. Screenplay: Meddour, in association with Fadette Drouard. Camera (color, widescreen): Léo Lefèvre. Editor: Damien Keyeux. Music: Rob.

With: Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Zahra Doumandji, Yasin Houicha, Nadia Kaci, Meryem Medjkane, Marwan Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim. (Arabic, French dialogue)

More Film

  • The Courier

    Film Review: 'The Courier'

    You don’t expect subtlety from a movie whose very first second consists of the heroine getting a fist to her face, or whose poster suggests the real “star” is her leather-clad posterior. Still, a bagful o’ hammers might provide exactly the same amount and type of entertainment value as “The Courier.” This stridently dumb action [...]

  • Richard Jewell

    AFI Fest Film Review: Clint Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell'

    Can you recall who was responsible for 1996’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing? Three days after the incident, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (accurately) reported that Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs and tipped the police, sparing the lives of innumerable concertgoers, had become the FBI’s main suspect. But was it [...]

  • 'No Safe Spaces' Review: A Doc

    Film Review: 'No Safe Spaces'

    If, like me, you’re an absolutist about the right to free speech, not just the legal letter of it but the stubborn spirit of it (as in: bring on the people I hate the most and let them speak, speak, speak until they’re blue in the face), then when you watch “No Safe Spaces,” a [...]

  • Frozen 2

    ‘Frozen 2’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Animation claims the top spot in spending with “Frozen 2.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $6.29 million through Sunday for 1,157 national ad airings on [...]

  • The Farewell Movie

    'The Farewell's' China Release Delayed

    The long-anticipated release of Awkwafina’s drama “The Farewell” in mainland China has been delayed. The holdup came just two days before the film’s scheduled outing this Friday. The film, about a Chinese American family who hide their aging matriarch’s cancer diagnosis from her, was scheduled to be released in China some four months after its [...]

  • Adam Driver poses for photographers upon

    Film News Roundup: Adam Driver Honored With SFFILM Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Adam Driver is honored, Robocop will be reborn and Hola Mexico Film Festival and The Montalbán Theatre are teaming for a screening series for potential Oscar nominees. HONORS SFFILM has selected Adam Driver as the recipient of the SFFILM award for acting, formerly the Peter J. Owens Award. Driver, who [...]

  • Paul Downs Colaizzo

    'Perfect Nanny' Movie Adaptation Taps 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Director (EXCLUSIVE)

    Leila Slimani’s critically acclaimed, international bestseller “The Perfect Nanny” — aka “Chanson Douce” — is coming to the big screen. Legendary has closed a deal for Paul Downs Colaizzo to adapt and direct the English-language adaptation. Legendary will produce the pic alongside Pascal Caucheteux of Why Not Productions and Philippe Godeau of Pan-Européenne. The story [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content