Satin Rouge

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Satin Rouge

Directed by
Raja Amari

You can envision a number of ways this material might be played. It could be one of those superheated, so-serious-it's-silly movies that Adrian Lyne is always directing; or it could turn into something like The Full Monty or Strictly Ballroom?a well-crafted, borderline slick foreign film, the kind of art house picture your grandma would have enjoyed. Fortunately, Satin Rouge goes in a third, much more rewarding direction: it saturates the screen with humor, music and sex while remaining connected with (and committed to) reality. It's a delight from start to finish, but it never strains to be delightful; it just is. First-time writer-director Raja Amari takes the characters and their emotions seriously?never condescending to them, refusing to sacrifice emotional plausibility for quick laughs. Its situations are human-scaled (it's the kind of movie where viewers laugh a few seconds after something funny happens). Even though Satin Rouge is set in middle-class Arabic Tunisia?where conservative Islamic influences have created a split between bohemians and squares far more severe than anything in the United States?it could please anyone, anywhere. There's nothing "foreign" about it.

The film's heroine, Lilia (Hiam Abbass), has music in her body, but it's been trapped there since her husband died. She still talks to his picture sometimes. In the wordless opening, we're alone with her as she's cleaning her house. A song on the radio makes her sway, and after a moment she gives herself over to the music and dances in front of a mirror. Although flickers of doubt pass through her eyes as she seduces her own reflection, the flickers are fleeting. She knows she's still sexy, as well she should. Abbass is a mid-1960s sexpot?plush, stacked, with cello hips that let you know her body is real. Her hands and face are careworn; she looks like she's been around the block a couple of times and didn't mind the trip. In this brief opening, we're privy to a truthful moment movies rarely show us?a moment when an intelligent, responsible mother reconnects with memories of her own ripe adolescence.

The opening sets the tone of Satin Rouge and summarizes what's at stake. It's a film about a charming, intelligent but very constrained woman who opens up and becomes something else?a sinuous, earthy, ripe creature. The transformation is anything but trouble-free. Lilia's daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem), is a book-smart, responsible person who's tired of being book-smart and responsible. She tells her mom she's going over to a friend's house to study when she's really going to have sex with her boyfriend, Chokri (Maher Kamoun), the percussionist at her bellydancing class. In due time, Chokri will become the third point in a love triangle (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything the movie doesn't telegraph right off the bat). The relationship is complicated and credible. There is no bad guy; nobody "seduces" anybody; it's just a sexual tangle among grownups. Lilia's employment at the cabaret isn't a one-dimensional movie trip into "liberation." She's breaking a taboo (this is the Muslim world, after all), and she's aware that her own behavior gives her daughter license to break the rules, too. (There's a good scene late in the movie where mother and daughter give each other permission to stay out all night; each of them knows the other is up to no good.) Significantly, while Satin Rouge respects its heroine's renewed sexual vigor, it puts the lie to the notion that erotic entertainment puts men and women on equal footing. The male cabaretgoers are the watchers, the women are animated objects, performing for their pleasure.

It's just a short hop from there to a scene where the club owner asks Lilia, who's quickly become the club's star dancer, to favor a VIP with a bit of personal attention. The film appreciates its leading lady; you can tell by how close Amari is willing to get with the camera, and by how many important scenes and moments unfold without much dialogue. Whether the heroine is visiting her daughter's bellydancing class, snaking around the margins of the overwhelmingly male cabaret or practicing moves with her dancing mentor, the grinning hardcase Folla (Monia Hichri), the movie is confident enough to let us experience events through the heroine's eyes (and ears), minus exposition and editorializing music. Many of the scenes attain the eavesdropping intimacy of a good documentary. To that end, Amari and cinematographer Diane Baratier pull off some of the best handheld photography I've seen in a fiction feature. The slightly bleached, vibrant images (taken mostly in available light) somehow manage to seem soft and hard at once; the look complements the movie's tone and subject, treating its people and places with affection, but without condescension. The camera movements are kinetic yet graceful, framed and lit without affectation, so that actions that must have been rehearsed a dozen times appear to be occurring spontaneously before our eyes?so quickly that we can barely keep up.

There's a startling camera move late in the movie, after Lilia has gained confidence as a dancer (and a certain level of professionalism); dancing in the club, she's photographed with a long lens, which compresses the distance between her and the audience (us). When she whirls with abandon, the camera tracks around her from right to left. Because the image is handheld (or seems to be), there's a slight shake, which makes the moment feel both joyous and dangerous. The telephoto lens doesn't just caress her; it seems literally to make the world revolve around her.

Satin Rouge
is full of moments like that?moments of great filmmaking that you don't realize are great until later, because they were executed with subtlety. Like Monsoon Wedding, Last Resort and A Song for Martin, it owes more to neorealism, cinema verite and 1970s American dramas than to anything Hollywood is cranking out right now. It's stylish without being too clever, and even when its characters are experiencing dark nights of the soul, the movie keeps their emotions in perspective. The tone is that of a careworn older relative sizing up a family crisis and saying, "I know this situation seems unbearable right now, but believe me, I've seen worse. Things will get better. And in a few years, you'll find the whole thing pretty funny."

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