Explorations of identity, celebrity and our own oral histories often make compelling films. At this year’s festival, three films tackled these themes within three very different genres. In documentarian Alice Diop’s first fiction film “Saint Omer,” a novelist attending the trial of a woman accused of infanticide meditates on the ways their shared immigrant history connects them but does not define them. IN Maïmouna Doucouré‘s “Hawa,” a teenage girl on the verge of becoming an orphan seeks an audience with Michelle Obama, but instead finds his own inner courage. IN Mary Harron‘s “Dalíland,” an angelic-faced young curator discovers the hard way that you never get to meet your heroes.
Documentary Alice Diop’s Narrative Debut “Saint Omer” is a visually arresting courtroom drama that explores the similarities (and stark differences) between two young women of Senegalese descent living in France. Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist, is drawn to the story of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young woman accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter. Both women are academically inclined, with complicated relationships with their own mothers. Both women occupy a liminal space between Senegal and France. While Rama is shown as an accepted academic, Laurence is constantly different, and those observing the trial are shocked by her “sophisticated” command of French (to which Rama tells her agent that she just sounds like any other educated woman).
As the trial continues – shot with a seductive patience past Claire Mathon— Rama’s steadfast facade begins to crumble. Rama, who originally intended to use the trial for research while working on a modern retelling of Medea, slowly discovers repressed emotions bubbling to the surface. As she listens to Laurence’s story, Rama’s worries about her impending motherhood and memories of her stormy relationship with her own mother occupy her mind. Here, Rama finds some peace, knowing that unlike Laurence, she has a support system to lean on.
As the details of Laurence’s eerie isolation are revealed, Diop allows the white characters to stew in their own bias; they see malevolent intent in Laurence’s hidden life, rather than the systematic neglect at its core. This is where Diop’s years of work focused on exploring the immigrant communities on the fringes of French society come into sharp focus. Laurence tells her story in intricate detail, down to the tiniest bits about her life in Senegal, her immigration history, even her inner feelings, but she herself is never sure why she did what she did. Diop allows this ambiguity to remain, a specter hovering over the matter. But despite everything she shares about herself, to those who work in the justice system and in the university system, she is always just “African”. This is where Rama and Laurence truly meet, knowing that these people will never truly understand what it’s like to be them.
Which transitions nicely to what works so beautifully about “Wow,” Maïmouna Doucouré’s follow-up to her Sundance hit “Cuties.” As in her debut film, Doucouré’s film follows a young first-generation girl as she navigates modern France. Born to stand out from the crowd, the titular Hawa (a fierce Sania Halifa) moves with her voluminous blonde Afro and Coke bottle glass through the world with such innate strength and determination that soon after meeting her everyone calls her “extraordinary” or “extraordinary”.
Hawa lives in Paris with her grandmother Maminata (Oumou Sangaré), a Cameroonian griot who spends her life singing the stories of the past. In the final stages of a terminal illness, Maminata is determined to find a new home for her rebellious 15-year-old grandson. Unable to cope with this impending loss, Hawa rejects all the opportunities offered and eventually sets her sights on the impossible goal of being adopted by Michelle Obama. While the former first lady is in town on her book tour, Hawa sets out to meet her, a journey that takes her around Paris.
Peppered with cameos from contemporary celebrities such as Grammy-winning chanteuse Yseult, rapper Mister V and astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Doucouré’s film explores the allure of celebrity and the escape it can offer us. In a particularly beautiful sequence, Yseult and Hawa look up at the stars in the sky and share stories about their connection to Cameroon, the people and the languages and the land that is always a part of them, like their bones and their blood.
At its core, “Hawa” is a film about the importance of connecting through shared experiences and shared stories. Doucouré expertly explores this theme through the lens of celebrity, asking why we are so drawn to icons for guidance when they are just as lost as everyone else.
Mary Harron takes up the same theme with her closing night film, “Dalíland“, a biographical look at the life of iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his spouse Gala (Barbara Sukowa) in the last decade of his life through the eyes of a young art curator named James (Christopher Briney). Although James allows the audience a surrogate into the wild world that Dalí and Gala live in, he unfortunately doesn’t prove to be that interesting as an observer, nor does Briney prove to be a convincing leading man.
Sukowa is always a commanding presence, but Gala, as written here, is more of a youth-obsessed harpy than a powerful tastemaker and businesswoman. Kingsley adds gravitas and pathos to his Dalí, who at this point in his life is always “on” performing the Dalí everyone expects him to be. The runtime is also overextended by redundant flashback sequences with a truly awful performance from Ezra Miller like a younger Dalí.
“Dalíland” shines in the party sequences where Harron and production designer Isona Rigau Heras painstakingly recreates the famously wild art parties the two would host in their hotel suite. It’s a shame, then, that Harron chooses to focus on a character as boring as James traveling through this world when a deadpan-supporting turn from Mark McKenna as Dalí’s unlikely friend Alice Cooperand Andreja Pejic’s evocative performance as Dalí’s muse Amanda Lear, both offer glimpses of what could have been a much more interesting path into this story.