Calcutta Club: On Mignonnes
Welcome to a new corner for my musings and observations. The Calcutta Club is the latest platform for me to speak my mind, only this time while enjoying my favorite vice: cigars. The name for the feature comes from the room where the writers of the 24 television series tossed ideas around and developed the script for the show.
Cigar of the Day: None
Drink of the Day: Johnnie Walker Black (Double – No Ice)
There are several discussions that should have been sparked by the American release of the French independent film Mignonnes (and I will only be referring to it by its French title…..sue me). We are having exactly none of them because of the near universal repulsion of both the film’s concept and American marketing. I too was disgusted by Netflix and their drive to grab attention by any means necessary. But I am also, if nothing else, a man who judges a piece of media based on its actual content, not on my perception of its actual content. So today, I want to talk about my experience watching the film, what I think it was going for, why I think it failed horribly and, honestly, why I disagree (for a lack of better term) with the outrage from the American Right. This isn’t going to be a comfortable discussion so I fully understand if people choose not to read this piece, however if you comment on this article without reading it, I will roast you. Let’s all know that going in, get appropriately smashed with the drink of your choice, and talk about this film.
Mignonnes is not a good film: let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. This is writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré’s (picture in header) second film and it shows in the script itself. Essentially, this is a youth-in-revolt story. The main character feels choked by her conservative family and rebels by becoming friends with a group of girls who, to put it VERY mildly, rebel using female sexuality. Note, they don’t rebel using ‘their’ sexuality. Rather, they adapt the hyper-sexualized version of female sexuality that has been tapped to great commercial effect. In taking this direction, the film never judges the main character or her group of ‘friends’ for their rebellion. Instead, this is written as a journey she has to go through to eventually reject both her family and the group she fell in with during the course of the film. So when the main character does things like put pictures of her genitals on social media, sexual harasses a grown man, or nearly kills a girl (THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENS IN THIS FILM), it is portrayed as more rebellious (psychotically rebellious) rather than a serious problem.
A lot of this is due to the fact that no one is really paying attention to any of these girls and if you want to argue the film had a central thesis, it would be here. The main character’s family are wrapped up in their own internal issues to focus on the fact that the main character is acting off, society at large doesn’t care and even the individuals who realize a bunch of young girls are acting this way, the common solution is to turn away rather than confront them. And by doing so, unfortunately and if anything, the girls exploit themselves: chasing after any form of attention, no matter what damage it does. But even that potential message is lost because the film wants you to be as uncomfortable as possible, rather than allowing the subtext of neglect and hyper-sexualization play out itself. The cinematography, especially for the dancing numbers, are as bad as you have heard. There are ways to objectively block and shoot a scene, especially scenes like these, where a more mature director would have been less blunt. Ultimately, there are much better coming of age stories than this and maybe, if Doucouré continues to direct, she will learn to be more subtle.
So, with all of that said, let’s get into something far more complicated: the reaction to the film. Again, this is a French film so let’s start there. France has a…..dubious record when it comes to the sexual exploitation of children. For those who are unaware, while the earliest someone can consent to sex in France is 15, the nation has had issues enforcing crimes of child exploitation. This story from 2018 in The Atlantic chronicles the failings of French law in this area. This is probably why the film has been embraced and awarded as it has been within France. Even as poorly made as it is, it puts a spotlight on an issue the nation has been reluctant to address. A nation that repeatedly turns the other way when children are exploited or, in the worst-case scenario, excusing said exploitation, needs blunt, dramatic examples to show them why its wrong. And if Mignonnes leads to any positive motion on taking this issue seriously in France, especially among immigrant children who are often at the top of the list of exploited children in ANY country, then we have a case of a flawed idea leading to positive change and that, for me, is a win.
The United States is a bit more complicated.
The film has been under the gun ever since it was promoted on Netflix, although that incoming fire has split since its launch. The American Right absolutely hates it. The push to cancel Netflix subscription has seen considerable growth using this as a major cause. As of yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has asked for the US Justice Department to investigate Netflix for potentially producing and distributing child pornography. This move will probably not gain traction as you have to establish intent first and foremost, but beyond that it shows just how toxic Mignonnes is to the American public at this point. From the reaction, you would assume that America is serious about child exploitation in media, translating to being serious about it in real life….and that’s where you would be dead wrong.
I don’t like this film and I certainly do not like that the country it comes from has such a disgustingly lax view on child exploitation. But, let’s be clear about something: the rage surrounding it isn’t all about child exploitation. To be clear, I think that the vast majority of people are disgusted by child exploitation and want the law to take it seriously. But we have many weak points as well. How many times have you watched random morons defend a child predator just because she was a slightly attractive woman and the victim was a young boy? How many times has a young female actress or singer been marketed based on how close they were to the age of eighteen? (This is also why the question of ‘Why they couldn’t just use older actresses?’ rings hollow with me). And, taking out of mainstream media and entertainment, how many controversies in the visual novel community come from developers riding that line as hard as they can? Yes, this is your annual reminder that Nekopara exists: a series where the in-universe logic is a picture of its characters naked could be considered child pornography. But, it doesn’t even need to be that explicit. Christine Love rode that line with Don’t Take it Personally Babe. Taosym did it The Menagerie. Fervent Studios did it in Cupid. Zetsubou did it in Sickness. Katawa Shoujo blew right pass that line laughing. And while the main story line of Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1 avoided all of theses issues, the Extras Gallery is….interesting.
Look, I’m not saying everyone named should be on a government watch list. I am saying that the overreaction to Mignonnes could just as easily be coming from a distinctly American/Western confusion on how to properly address the issue along with disgust on the subject matter. It’s the classic hammer in search for a nail: trying to fit every single situation into an out date paradigm of exploitation and not knowing what to do when it doesn’t. Addressing that is far more productive, especially in reaching out to the victims of exploitation and abuse, than trying to see who can go hardest in a Two Minute Hate for a fairly bad film. Ultimately, my greatest fear is that people think that they can just spend their energy hating this film and not address the root cause of that hate: the fear of what is happening in real life. If nothing else, we should try to take away from the film is its bare thread idea that the biggest aid to those who would target our children is to get angry that such a problem exists, then walk away.
To close I think it would be good to put a spotlight on a charity working to address this problem. Operation Underground Railroad works with governments around the world to identity criminal organizations that traffic in children, assists in bringing these predators to justice and helping to relocate their victims. Please click the link to learn more about their work and, if you can, donate to the cause. JP3: OUT.
Should “sexual harasses” be “sexually harasses”?
I’ve not watched the movie, someone posted a scene on Twitter and it put me off completely. I do find the idea that a different context in view of the possible change it could initiate in France is something to keep in mind interesting but I also wonder: doesn’t the US have really young girls compete in beauty pageants where they are really not any less sexualised? I would never suggest they can’t criticise the movie because of that, but I do hope the politicians that took exception with it look into those, they look horrifying.
Either way: measured and reasoned piece on a subject everyone else seems to want to scream about. We need more composure I think.