For Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s fourth film, the director uses a subject taken straight from the news headlines to explore the phenomenon of the thousands of young French women leaving home to join the ranks of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Just as with her last film, Les Heritiers, which used the backdrop of the Holocaust to call for racial and religious tolerance, and was one of my favourite films of 2014, she again shows an unrivalled talent for grappling with the confusion and contradictions of the teenage mind. Alongside a stellar cast of older established French actors including Sandrine Bonnaire and Yvan Attal, she has coaxed outstanding performances from two young female newcomers in the lead roles Noémie Merlant and Naomi Amarger.
Who are these women? What motivates them? Where have they come from? These are the questions at the centre of Mention-Schaar’s disturbing account of two French teenagers Sonia and Mélanie who never meet, but whose stories are intrinsically linked. Seventeen-year-old Sonia is arrested by the authorities as she is about to leave France for Syria and placed under a form of house arrest. This situation makes life extremely difficult for her family but especially her mother Catherine, played by Bonnaire. Sonia’s anger at being prevented from joining her ‘sisters’ in Syria has turned her into an agressive manipulativea young woman who wants no part of her former life.
The other teenager Mélanie is a model student and cellist whose internet searches for personal connection and meaning have led her into an online relationship with a young man who gradually seduces her into embracing Islam. Her mother has no idea of the double life her daughter is leading and the discovery of her radicalisation carries an unbearable burden of guilt.
While the film carefully explains the methods used by jihadist groups to recruit young women and shows these women often come surprisingly from stable family backgrounds, Mention-Schaar also flips the coin to portray the incomprehension and devastation wrought on families by the discovery of their daughter’s secret lives.
To help them cope the film shows parents attending group sessions to understand how their daughters were recruited and how they can help them reintegrate back into French life. These groups are led in in the film by a counsellor played by Dounia Bouzar who is in real life a French anthropologist who heads up a centre in France aimed at combatting the radicalisation of young people. It’s true the scenes where she explains to the traumatised families exaclty what has happened to their offspring do have an air of the classroom about them and the film has been criticised by some for being too didactic. But her explanations are fascinating and don’t detract one instant from the emotional heart of the film.
Mention-Schaar makes it all feel so scarily realistic that two young women with everything to live for should take to wearing traditional muslim dress, pray five times a day and leave behind all they have known of life in the West. In fact one of films most enduring images brilliantly marks the cultural gulf between the West and the arab world. In it Mélanie is sitting in her room playing the cello dressed in a Niqab. Both Merlant and Amarger are excellent yet Amarger’s Mélanie goes one step further and is a chilling portroyal of a young woman’s calm, cold rejection of her family and friends for the fictional love of a man she has never met.
Does it take a female director to get into the minds of young women today? This was arguably the case with Céline Sciamma’s award winning Girlhood and I think it’s certainly in evidence here with Mention-Schaar’s Le Ciel Attendra.