From her debut feature, French filmmaker Agathe Riedinger wants a sparkling yet still-realistic account of the thorny relationship between youth and fame. Wild Diamond is the first film to screen in this year’s Cannes Official Competition and it owns it, not least by including a quippy response about the main character potentially becoming an actress in a Croisette festival film. Riedinger knows the protagonist very well by now, having made Waiting for Jupiter in 2017, a short where she introduced Liane, a young girl living in the South of France who dreams of becoming a reality-TV star. Seven years later, Wild Diamond provides the canvas for a fuller character study with a wonderfully dedicated Malou Khebizi in its lead role. 

From its opening sequence, Liane is the center of attention: we see her sway around a light pole of sorts in a wide shot. It’s pitch-black, but her high-heeled platform shoes still glisten as she twirls; there is no audience in sight. This scene characterizes Liane as an ambitious, self-sufficient 19-year-old whose fears almost never make it to the surface of a glossy full-face make-up look and confident stride (stilettos are a must). Khebizi, an acting newcomer, delivers a performance that’s this close to perfection, using her sparse dialogue and highly stylized gestures to make Liane appear almost untouchable. If only the script could live up to the level of complexity her first role achieves.

Wild Diamond is a wonder to behold in its textured handheld cinematography by Noé Bach (who also shot Mona Achache’s Little Girl Blue last year) and production design by Betrand Mandico collaborator Astrid Tonnellier; together they make sure the film glows like a diamond in the rough. Small-town life is rough for Liane: living in the port town of Fréjus means walking through forests and dirt roads, between her mother’s house and the shopping mall (her occasional shoplifting gig). At home Liane takes care of her younger sister and is in perpetual conflict with her mother, who, as we learn, has insisted on having her older daughter in foster care for being “impossible.” Even though the girl does not speak of her abandonment trauma, it manifests in her headstrong, aggressive demeanor towards everyone who stands in her way to a better life. And a better life means a life away from home––until a callback for a reality-show audition offers an even better one.

A lot can be made of Liane’s fascination with reality TV––Riedinger has been outspoken about her own––but making a compelling character out of their desire to escape (both virtually, as a TikTok influencer, and physically, to move away) requires more than a simple narrative drive. Even with Khebizi’s seemingly endless potential to express the inexpressible tensions brewing in Liane, Riedinger’s script ends up burying it all under layers of mesh, foundation, and glitter. Portraying the main character as someone who is not only committed to her influencer present and future––to being beautiful, to being perceived as such––is only the first step. Yes, we see Liane dressing up, undressing, even tattooing herself with a needle and ink, but her bejeweled acrylic nails barely scratch the surface of what she’s actually about. 

The film exposes itself as unable to handle its own lead’s ambivalence by relying on Dino (Idir Azougli), an old friend from the foster home who now professes his love for Liane. There’s nothing wrong with a good-natured outcast who is capable of pure love (he is the only man in the film who doesn’t want her only for her looks), but when we see the love interest scoring way more brownie points than the jealous, fame-thirsty girlfriends, it’s only natural to get a little bit suspicious. Not long after, Dino (like the others) makes a move on Liane and becomes embittered by her stoicism. At that moment it becomes clear there is another issue looming over this protagonist that is not the male gaze. 

While Wild Diamond is literate enough to position itself in the female subjectivity and to address the misogyny associated with the sexualization of young women (whether or not they have plastic surgery and wear mini skirts), it ends up being surprisingly conservative regarding sensuality. There’s a stereotype of “done-up” women (the so-called “bimbofication” of femininity) that places them at a perilous removal from their own sensual self. In this scenario, fake nails, hair extensions, and butt and breast implants are seen as a barrier to the physical act of touch. That logic traps feminine aesthetics like Liane’s into a “woman-doll” cliché, refusing any possibility to reclaim that aesthetic as something not only sensual, but also erotic and truly empowering. 

Wild Diamond premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Grade: C-

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