Writer-director Nora Hamidi's characters and their italicised lives may have certain familiar cookie contours, but Dolls and Angels' players do pull off an engaging depth and credibility for each of their playees.
Dolls and Angels’ French-born “père” and his wife, both of Kabyle Algerian descent, live in "the projects" (courtesy of American subtitling), one of the heaving cités on the porous outskirts of Paris. He (Samy Naceri) works for long stretches on distant and perilous construction sites while “la mère” (Fejria Deliba) stays home to rear their three unfeasibly attractive daughters. Chirine, almost 18, is a wet dream in stretch fabric and repels daddy dearest with her increasingly rampant sexual potency. Lya, around 15, is savvy, sporty and expressive, while Inès circumvents an excess of character interplay by being pie-sweet, under five and under three dimensions. The full complement is rounded out by father’s tendency toward remorseless, incandescent violence and mother's resignation to it. Writer-director Nora Hamidi's characters and their italicised lives may have certain familiar cookie contours, playing safely inside the bounds of studies of domestic life within rapidly changing societies, but Dolls and Angels' players do pull off an engaging depth and credibility for each of their playees. Karina Testa's Chirine starts out all pout and poitrine, swaying her impressive derrière right down the rue and into the arms of oncoming model talent scout Alex (Gianni Giardinelli). While their initial encounter sees her lips and eyelashes do most of the heavy thesping, a subsequent revelation re Alex precipitates some very serviceable scenes as Chirine peels back even more layers than usual to reveal a young woman who divorced herself from her surroundings long before she has the means to do so. These means arrive in the form of Simon (Samuel Le Bihan), an ad agency boss and vaguely wounded divorcé who is determined to staunch the flow of catalogue blondes trotting into his campaigns. Chirine's encounters of the "I'll make you a star" variety have different if not wildly divergent results and offer some reassurance that if at first you don't succeed in seducing a dependable PR daddy, try try again. Lya claims the other half of the film’s narrative and opens proceedings with superimposed musings on her older sister. Where Chirine offers momentum, Lya is the story's voice, at times quite literally. This is a not unwelcome ingredient - particularly when conveyed as part of the action - and Leila Bekhti affords her character a good deal with which to flesh herself out. However, the reinforcement of largely self-evident developments through breathless, pseudo-rapped diary entries on occasion leaves one feeling that the audience has been awarded a poor credit rating. The contents of these brooding soliloquies do progressively ameliorate, though, and are at least an inventive vessel for time-saving exposition. Naceri and Deliba's parental presences – notably, left unnamed throughout - are well drawn and while the tension of impossibly deep and irreparably disfigured love is perhaps not permitted much illumination until the end, each etches a strong enough character for the eventual moment of subtle confrontation to have some gravity. Inès (Dalia Serradj) and her genetic jackpot for the most part get cuddled and tickled, and float poignant questions up in little bubbles of innocence to be popped in the eyes of her consequently humbled elders. The decision to focus on a family born in France of non-European extraction can't have been made by the flip of a euro but nor is socio-economic circumstance a significant focus, much to the film's benefit. We are not guided to view the characters as being of a certain group, rather it feels that they happen to have a particular ancestry and happen to live under financial constraints. It is not dictated that one follows the other and the question of race is only touched upon once or twice, admittedly with a slight gaucheness of touch. The audience is made aware of the situation, but not so forcefully as to be alienating. It is, as it happens, Inès' gurgling enquiry as to their financial status that prompts Chirine to wryly comment that families such as theirs are "A new kind of poor… We're not rich". Never on the street, never out of debt. Dolls and Angels positions itself at a number of angles but its principal aim is not always clear. As a look at one of the innumerable varieties of contemporary French families, it is engaging and worthwhile. As an exploration of anything further, it loses its way somewhat. An uneasy happy ending seems intended to proffer awkward hope, though what might happen next is left ajar. Better ask Inès. Dolls and Angels is presented as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, running nationally from 4 March until 5 April. For further information and session details, see the website. Dolls and Angels (Des Poupées et des Anges) Director: Nora Hamidi 102 mins / 2008

Liz Seymour

Monday 23 February, 2009

About the author

Liz Seymour writes occasionally and has a black belt in sleep. She co-edits a magazine and shares an outdoor toilet with Sean Wilson. Check it out at the address below (the magazine).