“When they hear our female voices, they shake in fear.” So says Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), the leader of an all-female battalion in French director Eva Husson’s “Girls of the Sun,” and it’s a rallying cry that echoes throughout the movie — almost to the detriment of the story itself. Loosely based on reporting about Iraqi and Syrian women who escaped kidnapping at the hands of Islamic Fighters, Husson’s second feature veers from taut showdowns of gun-wielding women reclaiming their lives to the weaker sentimental plot that surrounds them. But while it’s less than the sum of its parts, those parts know how to deliver.
It begins with a bleak symbol of life during wartime: a plume of smoke slowly expanding as a dust-caked Bahar watches it fill the frame. From this gloomy foreshadowing, the story shifts to Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), a veteran war reporter with an eyepatch that proves she’s done her fair share of work on the frontlines. She helicopters into a remote region of Kurdistan where Bahar has already gathered her women warriors as they fend off enemies in the hills and plot out a means of reclaiming their village. Bahar’s tough exterior belies the personal stakes of her mission, which finds her hoping against hope that her kidnapped son remains alive behind enemy lines.
This material marks a dramatic shift for Husson, whose previous feature “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” follows horny teens who host sex parties. However, “Bang Gang” showed the director’s capacity for juggling a large ensemble while maintaining an intimate focus on a few characters’ journeys, and “Girls of the Sun” follows a similar trajectory. Unfortunately, we never get to know most of Bahar’s troupe, but she emerges as a tantalizing central character, and the eventual flashback that brought her to this far takes central stage. It’s here that we learn about her husband’s execution, and the brutal conditions of her incarcerated life that lead to chart a path to freedom.
Many of these moments maintain a taut quality that rises above the more blunter storytelling beats that Husson uses in place of more earned emotional payoffs — especially in the treacly finale, which arrives at the end of a flashback runs far too long. Farahani, an Iranian actress best known for “The Patience Stone,” brings such alacrity to her character’s fierce survival instincts that she often elevates entire scenes with a single frantic look.
And while Husson could have used some help ironing out a sometimes-clumsy screenplay, she excels at framing the action in tense, sudden bursts that should catapult her name to the top of lists at any Hollywood studio looking to beef up its roster of women directors. These stretches provide a welcome reprieve from blander exchanges between Mathilde, who sags into the cliché of the sympathetic white witness dragged along for the ride. Fortunately, she’s frequently upstaged by the slow-burn tension of watching the battalion creep through corridors where one misstep could cause their numbers to dwindle.
Yet “Girls of the Sun” can’t help feeling like two inspired movies at odds with each other, and the escape holds so much more appeal that drama doesn’t really need the extra baggage of the modern-day showdowns. Some may find one subplot, involving a pregnant companion whose impending birth threatens to jeopardize their plans, a bit too trite; however, it sets the stage for a unique (if outrageous) moment that’s specific to the focus on revising war-movie tropes from a female point of view. Told by a male peer that the birth threatens their survival, Bahar shoots back, “You can explain to the baby that its timing is bad.” You won’t find dialogue like that in “Saving Private Ryan.” Similarly, Husson finds a startling image in the women cowering together after dark, watching American bombers light up the sky, and it’s a striking expressionistic moment that rises far above the material’s constraints.
Barreling forward with fits of strong drama and underwritten characters, “Girls of the Sun” features just enough good scenes to make one wish they held together as a whole. As Husson winds her way back to the conditions surrounding the explosion, the movie ends with a hasty afterthought, and a recounting of the reporter’s story that plays out over the credits. That shrug of a finale suggests that Husson didn’t feel pressure to polish the movie’s rough edges; its very existence marks a kind of triumph on par with the one its empowered women chase from scene to scene. Maybe it does. The best possible outcome for “Girls of the Sun” receiving the global exposure of a Cannes competition slot has less to do with its specific merits than the way they might inspire better variations down the line.
“Girls of the Sun” premiered in Official Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.