You Resemble Me: A daring attempt at humanising an extremist
Making its world premiere at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, You Resemble Me is a film that wants you to enter its world without any preconceived notions about who these characters are and would turn out to be.
That intent was made clear by the film’s publicist who, on behalf of filmmaker and journalist Dina Amer, requested critics avoided any specifics about the inspiration of this emotional drama.
I empathise with that entreaty; reviews can often take a reductive approach to a story when given an evocative label to hinge it on. You Resemble Me, the directorial debut of Amer, co-written by Omar Mullick and executive-produced by Spike Lee, Spike Jonze and Alma Har’el, deserves a far more nuanced read for the complex issues concerning womanhood, trauma, family, religion, identity, politics, loneliness and terror it is raising.
"Amer’s conviction in presenting this story of a splintered woman with the utmost humanity ensures your emotional investment"
It’s a story of two halves; one that begins in early ‘00s Paris where two child-sisters of Moroccan descent are celebrating the younger one’s birthday. Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo) is the eldest of four and is fiercely protective of Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo), her mini-me, as they explore the city in matching dresses.
The childlike wonder is captured with handheld camerawork and the use of natural light that always keeps the perspective at their grounded, adolescent level. As they watch a fight, steal food from a market and traverse the city, one gets the impression there was less of a script, more direction from Amer for how she wanted each scene to play out so the real-life sisters could improvise with the frantic, playful and candid energy stemming from their bond.
That authenticity certainly helps the Grimaudos make you feel every moment deeply especially when, after a fight with their neglectful mother causes them to run away, authorities pick them up and place them in separate foster homes. Mariam’s request to not be put with an Arab family highlights the internalised racism developed in a country that often does not make them feel welcome while Hasna’s break down at the thought of losing half of herself will reverberate throughout her harrowing journey.
Fast-forward to 2015 and that sisterly bond has now completely broken as we reunite with an adult Hasna (Mouna Soualem), a party girl and sometimes prostitute who works at a burger joint, is couch surfing at a friend’s home and is estranged from Mariam who is not taking her calls.
There’s a raw power to Soualem’s performance; the daughter of Hiam Abass and Zinedine Soualem conveys a simmering sense of rage and fragility as we witness the latent effects of her traumatic, unstable upbringing. In one scene, she tries to join the army but her intensity during an interview puts off the recruiter (played by her father) and triggers an emotional breakdown.
Earlier a confrontation occurs at her place of work but she is punished for the man’s toxic display. Every time Hasna tries to pick herself up, the world manages to knock her back down again and it is fracturing her soul.
The visual realisation of those fissures is the rare unnatural moments of the film with Amer herself and actress Sabrina Ouazani becoming the physical manifestation of the women Hasna turns into to survive. A distortion of her face to reveal another super-imposed injects an element of psychological horror before a full-body switch makes clear the mental transition has taken place with uncomfortable intrigue.
The underlying Anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment in the country only adds to Hasna’s identity crisis, making her a malleable target for radicalisation as she corresponds over Facebook in shadowy framed scenes with a charming cousin welding a dark influence.
Amer’s conviction in presenting this story of a splintered woman with the utmost humanity ensures your emotional investment as do the powerhouse performances from Soualem and Grimaudo.
Hasna’s extremist trajectory is heart-breaking to watch and when this fictionalised deconstruction morphs into the reality that she was, in fact, Hasna Aït Boulahce, it truly hits home how often the headline reports on terrorism are not so black and white.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint