There’s nothing more effective at igniting interest than controversy. Such are the paradoxes and manipulations of the present age that cancel culture provides free advertising. Censorship always piques curiosity.
And so it is with the predictable course of Netflix Cuties. Commentators and congressmen fulminate against its pornographic abominations and sanctimoniously call for investigations. Fox News incendiaries cry that the movie pours gasoline on the flames of rampant pedophilia. Never mind that most of the right-wing fire-brigade has only seen the initial poster used by Netflix to promote the film. Asbestos clad moralists have nonetheless doused the whole movie and the broader threat it represents. Far from quelling the blaze, these actions only fan it.
The poster was provocative, and very different from the one used when the film premiered at Sundance in January of 2020. The original image showed the preteen dance troupe—a quartet made up of the children of immigrants to France—skipping down a Parisian street wearing tight-fitting outfits with bras and panties on the outside. As they go they toss purple confetti, a festive allusion, perhaps, to a wedding. The street in front of these girls is dark and cobbled and tips steeply down—a metaphor for the girls’ own trajectory if they keep to their increasingly excessive mimicry of eroticized video routines.
The Netflix advertisement by contrast showed girl dancers in hypersexualized costumes and poses. Faced with a firestorm of cancellations, Netflix issued an apology and suppressed their offending poster. The streaming platform nonetheless saw an exodus of subscribers fleeing under the banner of #CancelNetflix. Even more predictable was the aid all this outrage gave to the films’ viewing numbers, droves calling up this independent foreign film on their screens just to see what all the fuss was about.
The Musical Patriot was among the liberal lemmings running to Cuties. Feeling yourself in the tractor beam of the Zeitgeist during the isolating pandemic is not pleasant. Rather than scuttling to my living room screen with Fox jeremiads ringing in my ears, I yearned for the days of cinematic controversy in the streets and seats.
Back in in 1985 Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary got its first big boost when Pope John II branded it a desecration. Many American Catholics mobilized against the movie, and the Boston movie house chain that had originally planned to screen the film cancelled its engagement, and so the celluloid contrabanded absconded across the Charles River to the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge. Even though my friends and I styled ourselves cineastes, we would likely have given Godard’s Mother of God picture a pass. Indeed, the auteur had been pied at Cannes earlier that year, not for the crime of frisking the naked form of the Virgin (played by Myriem Roussel) with his camera, but for dabbling in religion.
Moved to Friday-night action by the uproar, we joined the November line that snaked far down the block from the Orson Welles. Placard and rosary bead wielding protesters shouted from across the street at the godless moviegoers. There were bomb threats. It was all great fun, though the movie was utterly dull. The furor had rebranded Hail Mary as an “erotic drama,” but there was nothing arousing about it. Godard had lofted a cinematic canticle to Mary, which was not what this pod of twenty-year-old college students had been hoping for.
The Orson Welles burned down a few months later as winter gave way to spring. The popcorn maker in the lobby was blamed for the blaze, but I still suspect covert divine intervention. Last time I was in Cambridge I walked by the site in necessary pilgrimage. An upscale furniture store of glass and steel now occupied the lot—no reclining nudes in the display window.
During my couple of years frequenting the Orson Welles in the mid-80s, it remained proud of having been raided by police for showing Oh? Calcutta in 1970. You can bet that if it were still standing and open for business, the theater would have screened Cuties, the requisite protests adding their color to the evening’s entertainment.
Cuties is an expertly crafted movie, with powerful performances from its largely female cast, from pre-teens to seniors. It is a model of diversity in every way: of subject, cast, geography, religion, artistic collaboration, themes. The writer-director, Maïmouna Doucouré, born in Paris to Senegalese parents, is a careful thinker, and has done her research in this imaginative exploration of difficult topics. She also excels in the vanishing art of polite public discourse. It is heartening to hear her speak about Cuties (in beautiful English) and of the stifling notion of femininity in which she came of age, while also criticizing the objectification women that prevails in the “enlightened West.” Her rhetorical warmth and rigor shine all the more brightly when compared to strident tone of the harpies of Fox News. But it is also impossible to forget that Doucouré’s audience amounts to only a fraction of its detractors.
In contrast to the conservative attack on it, the film is complex and difficult. It is a deeply moral, even moralizing, story whose messages come into stark relief in its soundtrack in which long stretches of musical silence are broken by moments of sung prayer, continual eruptions of hip hop excess, and unexpectedly lyrical set pieces, the most important one accompanying the scene from which the original poster’s image was taken.
For the first half of Cuties there is no music except that heard by the poor immigrant characters thesmelves. The world they inhabit is closely, often claustrophobically observed with hand-held camera. Contrasted with the thump of the western beat, the beautiful voice of a female Muslim prayer leader sounds as if it comes not just from another continent and culture, but from another world entirely. A portal to heaven opens for a moment, then shuts. Amy (played by the then eleven-year-old Fathia Youssouf) is nearly delirious with the desire to be accepted by her destructively boisterous would-be friend group of dancers, and later she will pull her hijab over her head in the midst of the women’s prayer group and watch lurid videos on her stolen phone while the others continue their devotions.
(Doucouré auditioned some 650 girls for the lead role before choosing Youssouf, who gives a gripping performance. Art requires artists to tackle the most difficult themes. That hundreds of parents would send their daughters to audition for such a part makes me pause. I would never let mine do it, however laudable the filmmaker’s goals.)
The lack of any framing music over the first half of the film’s ninety-minute duration makes it difficult to watch: the quasi-documentary approach renders the unfolding story all the more troubling. Without the passport provided by non-diegetic music there can be no escape. The young heroine’s self-sexualization, abetted by the modern culture and its enslaving technologies, tips towards destruction, even if that path might lead to a kind of escape from the misogynistic perils of her own household. In this often suffocating milieu, her mother has been devasted by recent news that her husband is bringing back a second wife from Senegal to Paris.
Amy soon becomes an even more rabid dancer than the girls, who at first had barred her from their clique. With the zeal of the convert, she now teaches them bumps, grinds, and finger-licking gestures that anticipate the current contretemps surrounding the viral WAP video. It is difficult to watch these scenes, which are supposedly those to be devoured by predators with Netflix subscriptions.
Amy becomes the choreographer who will lead the group in a dance competition. (Doucouré got the idea for the film after seeing a band of young girls doing this sort of thing at an open-air event in Paris). Suddenly, the documentary feel of the film gives way to a slow motion shot of the girls skipping down the cobbled street tossing that celebratory confetti. The soundtrack disengages itself from the thumping, overproduced dance music that has ensnared the girls, and we hear, bizarrely, a baroque lament. A throbbing repeated bass notes paints a bleak undertone above which dark strings emit anguished sighs of doubt and doom. As the girls continue on their carefree way towards oblivion we are hearing the central Largo verse of Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127, Nisi Dominus (RV 608). A countertenor voice enters, that of Andreas Scholl, praised by many for the purity of his sound, and criticized by others for its supposed lack of sensuality—its heavenliness rather than earthiness. It is a prayer that begins simply then unfurls in long arcs of plaintive melody:
For so he giveth his beloved sleep.
Lo, children and the fruit of the womb:
Are a heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.
Vivaldi composed the music for a girls orphanage in Venice which was itself a destination for eighteenth-century musical tourists eager to bask in this sensual sound and perhaps catch arousing glimpses of the cloistered musicians through the rood screen that kept them partly hidden from view. Even this ethereal, sublimely chaste music has an erotic past.
Doucouré’s decision to shift stylistic gear for this original “poster scene” allows her to declare her ethical stance with respect to that which she portrays. Even if one doesn’t know the text being sung or the origins of the music, it is clear that these strains momentarily safeguard the threatened girls in suspended, timeless space. There are other ghosts in the film, but none more powerful than that represented by music. In these moments realism gives way to the numinous.
A similar turn to music as salvation comes in the closing scene where the soundtrack conjures the possibility of literally rising above the innumerable pitfalls and depredations of Amy’s world. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that these benedictions also represent a loss of nerve, a convenient solution to the problems posed by the movie and without which even many of the admirers (including myself) of this unsettling film would have been unable to watch or listen. However modern, Doucouré can’t help but turn from cinematic realism to movie magic.