Not so cute.
American conservatives are up in arms about this French Netflix movie about a group of tween girls from the projects in Paris who like to dance like strippers. Politicians like Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, those paragons of moral probity, have chimed in, and people are calling the FBI, rallying the country to cancel Netflix, and alerting Congress about the perils of child pornography. It seems to me that their outrage serves as a convenient distraction from the devastation committed daily by Trump and the Republican party, but let’s take a look at the film.
Directed by Maimouna Doucouré, a woman, Cuties is the story of Amy, a 11 year-old Senegalese girl from a traditional Muslim family in a working class neighborhood in Paris, who has troubles at home and is fascinated by a gang of unruly classmates who are training for a dance contest. Amy sees the humiliation that her mother endures due to some of her religious customs, while she herself tries to integrate at school, torn between two worlds where she doesn’t quite fit. She is drawn to the tween bullies who dance with fierce abandon and wear tight-fitting skimpy clothes.
Some movies aim to denounce certain social issues while painstakingly depicting precisely what offends them, undermining their own argument. Cuties is such a film. Doucouré wants to call attention to the way young girls are sexualized by our culture and social media. But Cuties has a problem with the camera’s gaze. In films, the camera functions as the gaze of the audience. Through it, we see what the filmmakers want us to see and how they want us to see it. The camera is a very powerful expressive tool. It creates emotional states in the story and elicits emotional responses in us. We are not always aware of its effect on us. The intention of the camera’s gaze has tremendous influence on the audience. We can’t look the other way.
It’s hard to watch Cuties and not be alarmed by the camera’s insistent focus on the girls’ bodies and their lewd pantomimes, which, even if they are made in innocence, are even more lewd since they are performed by children. I‘m surprised that Doucouré, being a female director, allows the camera to ogle the girls. If she thinks that she’s using that gaze to drive home her point, she seems unaware that by doing so she sexualizes and objectifies her young actresses even more. For all its good intentions, because of what it shows and how, this movie is a nightmare for parents and a wet dream for pedophiles.
But is it straight pornography as its detractors claim? No. It was made with the opposite intention. It tries to show the ridiculousness of the girls’ posturing. It tells a sympathetic story about Amy and her family. Porn is just concerned with arousal, not with story or context, or social realism. But this is precisely why Cuties is a problematic film. Already children who act in movies are at the risk of being exploited, and I’m not even talking sexually. They are working, they are asked to do a number of things, some of them emotionally taxing, and they may not have the maturity and resilience of adults to comprehend or question what is being asked of them and for what purpose. I was shocked by a random scene in Cuties in which one of the girls has quite a realistic catfight with a classmate. They looked like they were really going at it. Is this not exploitation? A documentary is one thing; making children do things in the name of realism in a fictional story is another. Perhaps a documentary could have been a safer way for Doucouré to express her concerns.
I wish we knew more about the world of Amy and her family, and more about the girls themselves. But they are thinly sketched characters because they exist to serve the idea of protesting the sexualization of female children. Amy’s motivations are a bit confusing. She wants badly to join the clique, but because she is the most innocent she ends up being the most transgressive, an interesting point, luridly made. Amy has an unconvincing change of heart. Does she realize that what she is doing is inappropriate? What makes her change her mind? It’s not clear. A positive ending feels pegged on. Doucouré lacks the artistic vision to articulate her argument without resorting to exposing the girls and putting them in the very same situation she aims to criticize. It can’t be easy. How can you tell a story about pubescent girls who imitate x-rated dancers without exploiting them? How can you explore what you criticize without showing it? Certainly not by training the camera to follow their young writhing bodies so keenly.
Doucouré captures the chaotic energy of girls that are just getting to know their sexuality, and there is many a scene of them shrieking and acting up. Like all early adolescents, they are in a hormonal, emotional period of transition and they are testing boundaries. The movie makes clear they are still very immature. But it’s shocking to see them imitate the gestures of sexual dancing over and over. I get the point that the sexualization of young girls is bizarre, sad, and wrong, but this point can be conveyed visually more succinctly. It can be intimated. There is no need to dwell on it. Yet Cuties dwells quite literally, not critically or sarcastically. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is very pretty; the girls are attractive .The movie is nicely shot by Yann Maritaud, and I can’t help but wonder if the male cinematographer got a bit carried away. The visuals work against the point the movie is trying to make. The dance scenes are disturbing not only because of what they show but because of how they show it. Doucuré cannot guarantee that the effect on us is going to be one of revulsion. I can bet that some people are going to find it arousing. Doucouré is stabbing herself with her own knife.
I doubt that the young actresses were aware of how these directorial choices would look like, and how they would make them look. I understand that some of the girls were chosen in an open casting call. It is one thing to do this in their crummy arrondissement in front of their neighbors and another to be streamed in the homes of millions of people around the world. Tweens and teens lack the maturity to give full consent. Isn’t this true of the girls in this movie?