Cannes 2021 review: The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luàna Bajrami)

The Hill Where Lionesses Roar marks the directorial feature film debut of Luàna Bajrami, the young French-Kosovan actress who is best known to international audiences as Sophie in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The film is about three young women, Qe, Jeta, and Li, and their struggles to break free from small-town life. When the three women are not shooting the breeze on a hill or hanging out on the open patio of an abandoned house, they are busy grappling with the conflicts of their hardscrabble, everyday lives. Wild child Qe expresses open disdain for her mother, who is dead-set on Qe inheriting the family’s hair salon business. The orphaned Jeta lives with a negligent uncle and defiantly rebuffs his sleazy advances. And Li has a boyfriend who gets into financial trouble, inadvertently dragging the girls into his mess. When their plans to attend university fall apart, the three women decide to take charge of their lives by forming a gang and committing armed robberies for material gain.

Although The Hill Where Lionesses Roar has drawn early comparisons to the 2015 Turkish-French film Mustang (both films feature free-spirited young women who are eager to escape rural village life), the dramatic beats of the second half, as Qe, Jeta, and Li abruptly break into a life of crime, are strongly reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. But whereas Korine’s film unfolds like an intoxicated acid-dream that has been turned up to 11, Bajrami’s film moves towards a climax that is less of a roar and more of a whimper.

Unlike Spring Breakers, however, which comes alive during its frenzied moments of neon-colored debauchery, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar works best in its quieter moments. Lena, a French-Kosovan teenager who is visiting her grandmother, laments about her future to Qe: “You are carefree… living day by day, not thinking ahead.” Qe finds Lena’s complaints hard to relate to. Lena has everything Qe wants to have: a college education to work towards and a future to look forward to. But Qe finds such pressure stifling and overbearing. For Bajrami, who assumes the role of Lena, the desire to be more than what society demands of them, to gain independence, and to establish their own identity is universal. Such thoughtful, wistful fly-on-the-wall observations are the best part of Bajrami’s film, a portrait of young Kosovans – those who are living in the country as well as those in the diaspora – as they come of age.