Director Maïmouna Doucouré tells TheWrap that Netflix’s U.S. poster “gave a wrong impression to a lot of people”
The director of “Cuties,” a French-language Netflix film that has drawn criticism from right-wing U.S. politicians who say the film sexualizes preteen girls, has opened up in her first interview since the film’s volatile reception in the U.S. earlier this month.
In a phone interview Thursday from her native France, Maïmouna Doucouré said the controversy began with the poster that Netflix used to promote the film ahead of its Sept. 9 release to U.S. subscribers. “Using this image on its own, out of context, in effect does not allow you to understand the theme in its entirety,” she said, arguing that the poster created a false impression about her intentions in depicting the challenges for young preteen girls in Western society to “grow up too fast.”
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“As soon as this poster was put out publicly, it gave a wrong impression to a lot of people,” she said. “They made it seem as if the director was advocating for this hyper sexualized culture. … Then some people saw clips of the film outside of the context of the whole film, notably the dance contest scene, and people judged it without understanding the real message.”
Doucouré said she has been surprised by the torrent of criticism of the film from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz and Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, after it debuted to acclaim earlier this year at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and after a successful release in European theaters. (Doucouré even won a directing award at Sundance in January.)
Netflix chief Ted Sarandos has already apologized to Doucouré for creating confusion around the theme of the film with a poster that shows the four main characters, preteen girls, dressed in sexy outfits for a dance routine. The image comes from a climactic scene in the film that, rather than exploiting their sexuality, underscores the inappropriate nature of the girls’ routine. Reviews of the film have consistently understood that message, including TheWrap’s review that praised Doucouré for an “explosive” feature debut.
“In the end, we are all in agreement at Netflix,” she said. “It’s important to be vigilant at all stages of the making of a film.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Doucouré described the marketing challenges for the film, what inspired her to focus on the pressures on young girls and what lessons she’s learned from the experience.
Have things calmed down?
Things change from day to day. I’m getting more and more messages of support, and when people see the film they realize there’s been an error in communication here.
Why do you think the film got this reaction in the United States, after opening without any issues in Europe?
Before Europe, the film started its journey in the United States, at Sundance. It was seen dozens of time in full theaters, and it went very well. People really liked the film. At Sundance, I won the award for best director (in the World Cinema category). It went to Berlin — people there saw the film and it went very well, similarly. “Cuties” is universal, and it raises concerns that involve all world societies.
We did a lot previews in France and in the same way, we had a great reception from the French public, the press. The criticism of society (in the film) was very well understood by the public.
Why was this not the case in the United States?
I don’t think it’s the U.S. It’s really a positioning, a marketing issue. As soon as this poster was put out publicly, it gave a wrong impression to a lot of people. People reversed the message of the film. They made it seem as if the director was advocating for this hyper sexualized culture. And people who saw (the poster) became convinced of this. Then some people saw clips of the film outside of the context of the whole film, notably the dance contest scene, and people judged it without understanding the real message.
Were you aware of the poster before it was distributed?
About the poster — I discovered it on social media. I didn’t know anything about it before.
Would you have objected had you known?
Most definitely. I think this poster, without the story of the film — which follows the evolution of the main characters, their emotional journeys, that tries to understand someone trying to build themselves in a contemporary society through dance — it doesn’t make sense. Using this image on its own, out of context, in effect does not allow you to understand the theme in its entirety. In the end, we are all in agreement at Netflix.
They also agree about this. It feels like there is pressure in marketing departments to break through the noise of all the content being made.
I don’t know what pressures pushed to this decision. The French poster was the four girls walking down the street with joy and freshness, throwing undergarments around. It’s a snapshot of the age of preadolescence. They’re looking for their identities — it’s almost like they’re wearing costumes as they pretend to be adults.
We ask these young girls to grow up too fast. In the society where they grow up, they are asked to grow up too fast, and everything pushes them in that direction. The media creates pressure.
When you did your 2015 short film “Maman(s),” you were already thinking about these issues…
Yes, because I saw young girls dancing suggestively at a neighborhood party — a dance that clearly wasn’t for their age. They were mimicking images they saw in American videos. This is where I decided to try and understand how these young girls see their femininity. And the violence they feel through these images that are so accessible, in a click.
In my research I met young girls, I learned things that go far beyond the things you see in the film. The film is limited to what they show in their dance, but in reality, it goes much further. You have young girls at 12 who becomes prostitutes. I didn’t have the artistic courage to go that far. In all these stories, I felt an urgency to understand these girls without judging them.
What lesson do you learn from this experience in the U.S.?
I have the hope that this polemic, this discussion allows people to really look at the problems of our society. And to go beyond the film. If it creates energy to combat against the sexualization of young girls, I’d feel I succeeded.
And have you drawn a lesson about controlling the marketing process?
It’s important to be vigilant at all stages of the making of a film. The theme of a work should be represented properly.
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