JUST LIKE A WOMAN B-
France Great Britain USA (90 mi) 2012 d: Rachid Bouchareb
European directors coming to America have a mixed record, especially those on the arthouse or independent film circuit, as they bring with them a different sensibility that doesn’t always translate well on the screen, often initially ignored and misunderstood by American filmgoers. Certainly from a sociological point of view, Europeans aren’t shackled by the same history and bring not only fresh insight but a sense of openness into the racial and cultural divisions that tend to separate us. Call them visionary, if you will, as these are certainly unusual glimpses of America.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) comes to mind, considered a huge financial flop at the time, now viewed as a beautifully abstract, experimental, ballet-like homage to violence, where his picture of America consisted of vintage automobiles, giant street billboards, radicals, police violence, capitalist cronies, endless desert landscapes and discontented youth, conceiving images that remain unique to cinema, an unforgettable image of out of control violence that remains a symbol of America, and a powerful reminder of what America exports around the world.
Wim Wenders’ HAMMETT (1982), something of an oddity, an homage to noir films and pulp fiction, was another critical and commercial disaster, initially shot as an introverted, location-based character study where a writer disappears into his own fiction, but demands by American producer Francis Ford Coppola for protracted re-shoots while making wholesale cuts of the original film only led to a protracted fallout between the two artists. By the time the film hit the screen, only 30% of Wenders’ footage allegedly remained, while the rest was re-shot by Coppola himself as the executive producer.
Mira Nair’s MISSISSIPPI MASALA (1991), a film where the Indian director reportedly received substantial pressure by financial backers to cast a white in the lead role. This is a sociologically edgy, multi-layered, and unconventional romance set primarily in rural Mississippi, gently probing the difficulties of a relationship between a black American and an Indian immigrant, still regarded for its poignant interracial observations.
Bruno Dumont’s 29 PALMS (2003), shot on the fly in Death Valley and the Joshua Tree Desert in a landscape resembling Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, the first of Dumont’s films to be set outside his native Bailleul, France, and remains his most divisive work to date, exquisitely photographed with a master’s eye for composition, featuring a sexually charged, but bored and loveless couple adrift in the American desert, but make no mistake, this is confrontational cinema of the highest order.
Wong Kar-wai’s MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (2007), where the unusual casting choice of American singer Norah Jones seems to have faded from our memories, as the Hong Kong director never seemed to find his footing on American soil, lacking his customary depth and any real emotional involvement, but the film still demonstrates his trademark cinematography and stylized visualization.
Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place (2011), a weirdly elusive and strangely intoxicating road movie of the American west, as seen from an often amusing European vantage point. The Italian director is one of the most original visual stylists working today, where his kinetically inspiring visualizations hold the key to the film, using the desolate emptiness of a desert landscape encased in wintry snow as a place that may as well be the end of the world, creating a highly impressionistic Americanized landscape and a revelatory road to redemption.
But the film this most resembles may be Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985), a French director normally known for his subtlety and tender observations, but instead offers a particularly heavy handed illustration of American racism, showing how Vietnamese refugees transported to a particularly impoverished poor white region in southern Texas are subjected to hatred, open racial hostility, and unending violence. While it’s a fictionalized recreation of true events, his clumsy depiction of ethnic strife feels overly contrived and awkwardly staged, missing the natural rhythm and grace of his earlier films.
In a similar manner, Rachid Bouchareb, a Parisian born director of Algerian descent, whose earlier films DAYS OF GLORY (2006) and OUTSIDE THE LAW (2010) are somewhat strident historical observations recalling the 20th century clashes between Algerian and French cultures, yet his films are a strangely contemporary depiction of racism. This film also has a clumsy, overbearing, painting by the numbers feel to it, feeling overly cliché’d, not to mention a host of other problems, yet there is something oddly compelling to be found if viewers stick around for the finish, as the film has a killer ending, changing the entire complexity of the film.
A blend of Americana with the Arab world that combines anti-Muslim bigotry with sexism, the film takes place in Chicago following the routine life patterns of two distinctly different women in their 20’s, Marilyn, Sienna Miller, a free-thinking receptionist at a small computer repair firm, and Mona, Golshifteh Farahani, Best Actress winner at the Iranian Fajr Film Festival at the age of 14 for Dariush Mehrjui’s THE PEAR TREE (1998), also starring in Asghar Farhadi’s ABOUT ELLY (2009), a more reclusive, arranged bride from Egypt who is married to her husband Mourad (Roschdy Zem), where both live with his hostile and overbearing mother, Chafia Boudraa, while running a corner mini mart grocery story. In a running parallel of racist anti-Arabic taunts, while the store has “Go home Sandniggers” painted on the window by vandals, Mona receives endless insults and threats of replacement from her vicious mother-in-law, complaining she’s damaged goods because after five years she can’t get pregnant, considered a fate worse than death in her culture. In order to have time away from her, Mona takes evening belly dancing classes, as does Marilyn, an aspiring professional dancer with hopes of entering a Santa Fe dance contest.
In quick order, both undergo major upheavals in their lives, where Marilyn loses her job and finds her layabout husband in bed with another bimbo, while Mona finds herself under a barrage of insults from Mourad’s mother, inadvertently mixing up her heart medicine, discovering her mother-in-law is not breathing in the morning, sending her away in an ambulance. The oppressive situation literally buries both women in their own personal anguish, where both end up on the run in Marilyn’s convertible car heading for Santa Fe, where Marilyn hopes to turn her life around, dancing in several restaurants and bars along the way to earn a little spare cash. Initially there’s nothing whatsoever subtle about Bouchareb’s direction, holding the bigotry and male dominated oppression in our faces, where the differing cultures take some getting used to, also the not so likeable characters, as well as the situations, where they’re dancing in redneck bars that inevitably explode into drunken mayhem, causing quick exits into the night.
But once they’re out on the road, away from the hassles of an urban environment, the largesse of the landscape slowly starts to intrude, where the characters aren’t as rushed or in a state of nervous anxiety, feeling a newly discovered sense of freedom. While the pastoral stops along the road may seem intentionally idyllic, setting up their tent alongside small lakes or in the middle of a majestic plateau, an odd place to see women belly dancing under the stars, and even the director himself seems to overemphasize exposure of the female anatomy, where liberation may also be viewed as objectification, their lives, however, remain in turmoil, especially when Mona reveals what she’s escaping from. While the film bombards the viewer throughout with overwrought melodrama, initially the two actresses feel too lightweight, unable to adequately project the crushing weight of the world they’re carrying on their shoulders. But as the film slows to a near crawl, where we witness the last of a series of seemingly unending, racially tinged atrocities, the oppressive tone of the film shifts, no longer moralizing or force-feeding the audience, having gotten that out of the director’s system, shifting to a greater use of abstract visualization, becoming a haunting tone poem of quiet reflection. The somber tone at the end is stunning, beautifully realized in a montage of America that finally feels genuine and sincere, the first part of a planned Arab-American trilogy.