×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Papicha’

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

Director:
Mounia Meddour
With:
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.

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

  • Disney Pandora World Of Avatar, Lake

    The Piano Guys Play 'Avatar' Theme in Disney World (Watch)

    The YouTube sensation The Piano Guys have taken a trip to the world of Pandora for a performance of the theme to “Avatar.” Shot in the bioluminescent floating forest in Disney World, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and pianist Jon Schmidt put their spin on the score to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster. The video immerses the [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Billy Drago, 'Untouchables' Star, Dies at 73

    Billy Drago, who often played harming but chilling gangster roles and appeared in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” and Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider,” died Monday in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke. He was 73. The character actor played Al Capone’s henchman Frank Nitti in 1987’s “The Untouchables.” More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga [...]

  • Grant Sputore

    'I Am Mother' Director Tackles Margot Robbie-Produced Thriller 'Augmented'

    Warner Bros. has hired “I Am Mother” director Grant Sputore to helm the science-fiction thriller “Augmented” which Margot Robbie is producing, Variety has learned exclusively. Michael Lloyd Green is rewriting an original script by Mark Townend. Denise Di Novi and Tom Ackerley are also producing. Production companies are Robbie’s LuckyChap and Di Novi’s eponymous Di [...]

  • Miley Cyrus

    Miley Cyrus Teases 'Charlie's Angels' Collaboration with Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey

    Three of the biggest female pop stars have joined forces in a new song for the Elizabeth Banks-directed reboot of “Charlie’s Angels.” In a tweet posted Wednesday, Miley Cyrus hinted at a collaboration between herself, Lana Del Rey, and Ariana Grande in the forthcoming film. Alongside a 14-second teaser, originally posted by Sony Pictures, the [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Subscription Program Hits 860k Members

    AMC’s subscription service, launched in 2018 as a challenger to MoviePass, has reached 860,129 members in its first 12 months. Given the unwieldy moniker of AMC Stubs A-List, the service costs between $19.95 to $23.95 per month depending on where users live. The company initially said it had hoped to sign up 500,000 members in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content