After watching The Lighthouse in early November 2019 I remember thinking “This is the best movie of the year.” Then a week later I saw Parasite and thought “Sorry The Lighthouse, but THIS is the best movie of the year.” It’s been a light year for new films, and my deepest apologies to Bill & Ted Face the Music, but I think there’s a new ‘best new movie of the year’.
Mignonnes is the story of Amy, an 11-year-old girl girl struggling to balance her religiously conservative family’s expectations with her desires to fit in at school. Amy’s future is framed for her as a false dichotomy of either becoming her mother or a sexualized social media/entertainment star. A devoted but self sacrificing woman of faith or an image-conscious entrepreneurial young woman who capitalizes on a sex obsessed society for fortune and fame.
This dichotomy isn’t expressly laid out to the audience. It’s shown, not told to us. We see her at religious services, playing on her phone, learning what social media ‘likes’ are, and how they equate not only to self worth but to social capital. We see her exposed to hyper sexualized music videos and YouTube clips of young dancers exposing their breasts online, not to condemnation or shaming, but to thousands of ‘likes’. Amy pursues her dreams of fame and fortune by competing in a dancing competition with a group of her peers. The competition is fierce and if Amy and her friends want to win they’re going to have to emulate the style of successful dancers. Like those in the hyper sexualized music videos, and YouTube clips.
This is precisely why this film is so important. In Mignonnes we’re shown the perils of growing up in a sex-obsessed world where capitalizing on your looks can be a ticket to wealth but also scorn. Mignonnes asks us if we’re ok with being complicit in a society that puts young women through this gauntlet. Every time you eat at Carl’s Jr. after seeing a commercial that preys on your base desires, consider that 11-year-old girls see those ads too. Where you might see eye candy, they might see a role model. God forbid those girls actually attempt to attain that idol status lest they be subjected to the scorn of the self-righteous who’ve called equivalently victimized woman ‘harlot’ and ‘whore’ for thousands of years. That is the question asked by Mignonnes, aren’t we all complicit?
I imagine the title Mignonnes and the image on the poster are unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t seen it, yet on an otherwise unremarkable Monday in September you’d have thought it was the second coming of the anti-christ. Maybe it was just me, but everywhere I looked on the digital Golgotha that is Facebook, I saw the feculent expressions of the great unwashed spraying out over their keyboards and into my eyes, and all that vitriol was in response to Mignonnes.
More accurately, it was in response to the rebranded version of Mignonnes that shot to Netflix’s Top 10 list retitled as Cuties. I couldn’t possibly read every single article written about this film or every caption or comment about those article or video clips that set Facebook and Twitter on fire for one night only, but at least I could be bothered to watch the movie. This is entirely anecdotal but nearly everyone I saw posting about it seemed to just be virtue-signaling about how they don’t approve of Cuties because it “sexualizes 11-year-old girls”. Also anecdotal, when pressed, none of these people had watched the movie at the time of their initial outrage. They’d seen clips though, and read articles where other people tell them all about why they should be upset. I hope that if most of them actually watched the movie they’d see how it doesn’t celebrate sexualizing 11-year-old girls, it makes you confront that our society gives 11-year-old girls a disproportionately large number of sexualized idols and that has consequences. Consider this too, perhaps you’re supposed to feel upset by what you see in the movie. Maybe that’s intentional.
Former director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Elizabeth Broun said “Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how our lives are affected.” Dean of Secondary School Programs at Harvard University Cesar A. Cruz said “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” French Novelist Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly said “A portrait is always moral when it is tragic and shows the horror of the things it represents.” Is it pretentious to quote great minds I’ve only just hastily googled to support my point? Yes. Are you supposed to feel uncomfortable, sick and unsettled by the journey Amy takes in Mignonnes? Yes. That’s how you know you’re sane, being uncomfortable means you’re sane. Being mad at the movie for making you feel something doesn’t mean you’re righteous.
Spoilers: In the end, Amy rejects both paths toward adulthood. The movie ends with her jumping on a trampoline and smiling, embracing the certainty of childhood for as long as possible.