As numerous reviews have noted, Donoma not only marks the screen debut of Haitian-born, Paris-based writer-director Djinn Carrénard and much of his non-professional cast, but was reportedly made for around $200. (Carrénard intersperses the end-credit sequence with an abridged version of the film’s making, offering CliffsNotes for the Sunday feature articles that will inevitably be written on his underdog success story.) Remarkable as the micro-budget miracle of Donoma‘s production history is, the film’s supple handling of its somewhat familiar material proves even more noteworthy. Little in Donoma will seriously jostle those familiar with art-cinema trends, particularly its deployment of heterosexual romance as a canvas on which to layer issues of race, class, and gender in contemporary France. Carrénard’s deft interweaving of his various plot strands nevertheless sticks with you. The slowly revealed connections between characters is less a neat mosaic than a knotty web, with many threads left intriguingly blowing in the breeze.
Unlike similarly interconnected narratives, Donoma refuses to lay out its complete collection of characters up front. We open on Analia (Emilia Derou-Bernal), a frustrated high school Spanish teacher at odds with disruptive student Dacio (Vincente Perez). She lashes out at him at an after-class meeting, unexpectedly revealing the attraction undergirding Dacio’s insolence. As Analia callously stokes Dacio’s infatuation, he begins to drift away from girlfriend Salma (Salomé Blechmans). This prompts a lengthy turn away from the film’s initial narrative thrust, as Carrénard delves further into Salma’s messy personal life: the complicated sexual and economic undercurrents roiling her relationship with Dacio; her role as caregiver to her terminally ill sister; and, most mysteriously, the stigmata-like gashes on her hands and feet that prompt the atheistic Salma on a search for spiritual clarity. Carrénard occasionally toggles back to the Analia/Dacio plotline, before temporarily dropping both threads to follow Chris (Laura Kpegli), a Ghana-born photographer whose sexual and romantic inexperience prompts her to pick up handsome stranger Dama (Sékouba Doucoure) on a subway platform. They begin an idyllic month-long romance, vowing not to speak to one another except in hand-written notes. But Dama comes with his own baggage, including an unresolved relationship with ex-girlfriend Leelop (Laetitia Lopez).
Donoma does little to hide the recurring themes and character dynamics in its three stories. Each could be subtitled “Self-Sufficient, Occasionally Erratic Women and the Financially-Dependent Men Who (Perhaps) Love Them.” All three tales eventually overlap with the others, though only now and then, and not at the expense of developing such seemingly tangential characters as a mysterious young man whom Salma sees silently praying on a train. Indeed, Donoma never lets the schematic satisfactions of its network narrative outweigh its more improvisatory impulses. Early reviews have connected Donoma‘s patient long takes and tightly focused close-ups to Cassavetes and the mumblecore oeuvre, and Carrénard offers his cast ample space to riff in frequently fascinating ways. (Kpegli’s real-time breakdown when Dama reveals his former relationship has an especially jarring volatility.) Carrénard seems just as interested in impressionistic, time-skipping montage that owes a stylistic debt to someone like Claire Denis. Much of Donoma is recounted to others or told in voiceover from some undetermined present. Factor in Carrénard’s frequent insertion of a matte box to frame various images, and Donoma begins to resemble the associative structure of a photo collage or daydream, where connections between characters take on the casual surprise of post-facto discovery.
As is frequently the case in multi-strand films, some stories pique one’s interest more than others. For me, Analia’s headlong dive in self-destruction lingered the longest. There’s an extraordinary scene that occurs after Analia and Dacio spend a particularly intimate night together. She walks into class the next day, quickly discerning that Dacio has informed his fellow students of the previous evening’s passions. Rather than succumb to embarrassment, she removes her high heels, leaps onto her desk, and launches into a blistering freestyle Spanish rap that doubles as confession and lacerating denunciation of Dacio. It’s one woman’s blazing variation on a nervous breakdown. Who knows what kind of crazed character study Carrénard might have crafted had he given himself the space to really delve into her depths. If Donoma spreads itself a little thin overall, moments like this act as markers for what’s to (hopefully) come in Carrénard’s filmmaking. I’d speculate on what he’ll do with a larger budget, but it’s not like financial constraints have dulled his ambition and artistry thus far.