An accomplished debut feature from filmmaker Kamir Ainouz, with a terrific central performance from 17 year old Zoe Adjani opens up the world as experienced by a teenage girl who, as if coping with impending adulthood is not enough, has to deal with the demands of both French and Algerian cultures.
Set in 1993 Paris, Selma (Adjani) lives at home with her parents (Amira Casar, Lyes Salem). The family speak French at home, mother is keen for her to have a good education, and father sees himself as a liberally minded man. I’m sure audiences – particularly female audiences – will side with his wife and daughter in disagreeing with his assessment of himself.
The quest for education leads to Selma applying to a prestigious business school and an interview with two openly racist male professors who are more concerned with her looks “You don’t look Algerian” than her entry qualifications. (Hands up if you’ve had to suffer that situation).
What we see on screen, though is Selma’s emotional and sexual education rather than her scholastic one. Though her parents insist they don’t believe in arranged marriages, they do believe in arranging meetings with potential suitors. None of these are remotely suitable, particularly the singularly unpleasant Luka. At school, she meets fellow student Julien (Louis Peres), whose opening gambit of “Nice smile, nice boobs” seems to work better than one might think. But given the competition, I suppose it didn’t matter what he said.
Their relationship changes on almost a daily basis, usually on Selma’s terms. Another signifier of the confusion she feels as she moves between her two worlds. And time with him must feel like time well spent when compared with the increasingly tight grip her parents try to impose on her behaviour.
But this is Selma’s story, and she determines to take as much control of her life as she can. Somewhat embarrassed at school by her inexperience of sex, she deals with her virginity herself before sleeping with Julien. The sex scenes throughout are handled by showing Adjani’s face in close-up, the emotions of the moment can be read in her expressions with no need for words. Too often, though, it’s the face of someone who is settling for what she can get rather than the love she seeks.
But in the end, perhaps partly inspired by her mother’s return to Algeria, and to her former profession as a gynecologist, Selma makes her own choices. As you leave the cinema, your hopes go with her.