‘Much Loved’: Cannes Review

More sexy than sociological

Director Nabil Ayouch realistically portrays the humiliations and joie de vivre of four Moroccan prostitutes.

The world of Moroccan prostitutes is given an overly glossy finish in director Nabil Ayouch’s Marrakech-based drama, Much Loved (Zine li Fik). Most charitably viewed in comparison to the director’s fine Horses of God, which traced the rise of Islamic terrorism to the underprivileged backgrounds of slum boys, the story of Noha and her swinging band of hookers is set against a social backdrop that is only marginally better, and from which there seems to be no exit. Beyond that sociological thought, the greatest appeal of this piquant slice-of-lifer will probably be to male viewers wanting close-ups of pretty girls, naked flesh and dirty pillow talk. Days after its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, it has already raised a flurry of protest in Morocco about encouraging sexual tourism, mixed with support for the director’s courage in breaking a social taboo and bringing this sad, sordid reality out into the open.

From Pretty Woman to Taxi Driver, portraying uninhibited, happy-go-lucky girls who appear to enjoy their work (when they’re not being beaten up or verbally humiliated) has lured directors too numerous to mention, and rarely has the politically correct prevailed. (Maybe Europeans have done a better job; for example, the Romy Schneider character in Visconti’s The Job or Annie Girardot in the same director’s Rocco and His Brothers.) It’s not a question of sympathy for the ladies, but of going beyond conventional ideas about them, and on this score Much Loved generally fails the test. As hopeless as addicts and as vulgar as sailors, his pros (played by a mostly non-pro cast) show how much fun it is be an outsider to society and rake it in — when things go well, at least.

The oldest at 28, Noha (Loubna Abidar) is the bossy leader of a little group of call girls who live together. (Painfully, Noha also has a son she is banned from visiting, who lives at her mother’s.) We first see them in action — an understatement — at a wild party thrown by some rich Saudis. The handful of men ogle the girls, dance with them, feel them up. But when it’s time to head for the bedroom, Ahmed (played by American actor Danny Boushebel) shyly prefers to recite beautiful poetry to the skeptical beauty Soukaina (Halima Karaouane). She boasts to her pals that it’s her lucky night — money without sex. But in a subsequent encounter Ahmed appears in a very different light.

Ayouch is generous in revealing body parts (but only of the female members of the cast) and the girls are amazingly vulgar when they talk, adding a sense of heightened realism to their characters. Randa (Asmaa Lazrak), who dresses less seductively than the others, is apparently gay, but for some reason this angle is told but not seen. When a plump country bumpkin, Hlima (Sara Elhamdi Elalaoui) joins forces with them and their trusty Egyptian chauffeur and bodyguard, they are a complete off-beat dysfunctional family, who even go on a vacation together.

Ayouch has a hypnotic ability to immerse the viewer in scenes, and the film — while not a revelation — is certainly an easy watch.

 

Production companies: Les Films du Nouveau Monde in association with Barney Productions, New District, Ali n’ Productions
Cast: Loubna Abidar, Halima Karaouane, Asmaa Lazrak, Sara Elmhamdi Elalaoui, Abdellah Didane, Danny Boushebel
Director, Screenwriter: Nabil Ayouch
Producers: Said Hamich, Eric Poulet, Nabil Ayouch
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Production designer: Hind Ghazali
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Music: Mike Kourtzer
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 108 minutes

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