Peculiarly timely in the days when the film industry is questioning the abuse of actresses by powerful men, writer-director Ahmed Amer’s Kiss Me Not (Balash Tbousny) flips the coin, as it were, in a satire lampooning the abrupt conversion to religious modesty by certain Egyptian actresses. The film’s secular stance and casual daring uncover some of the mega-contradictions in Egyptian society. But apart from curious festival-goers like those at its bow in Dubai’s Arabian Nights section, its comedy is too broad and local for most art house audiences to digest. Lacking the sophistication of last year’s The Preacher by Magdi Ahmed Ali, which touched on the unholy alliance between religion and state in Egypt, Kiss Me Not should have a mostly regional career.
Still, the subject is perfect for comic treatment. The trend toward conservative onscreen dressing, which began in the early years of the millenium on a wave of politically--inspired emotion, involved actresses like rising young star Hanan Turk, who suddenly announced she would not shoot any more films without being fully covered up. She ended up starring in TV soaps, and the confused young heroine of Amer’s comedy appears headed towards a similar fate.
Though touted as a mockumentary in the PR materials, its genre is better described as a film within a film, within a film. It tells the story of how the earnest Tamer, a first-time director shooting the final script of a revered, deceased screenwriter, makes his first art movie. At the same time, one of his pals from film school shoots an intrusive making-of doc that reveals the young director’s ineptitude in handling a major crisis with his lead actress, Fagr (Yasmine Rais).
As the film opens we find her on set, fully made up in screaming red lipstick, under satin sheets and in bed with the narcissistic actor who is playing her husband. The fictional film’s denouement depends on husband and wife resolving their marital issues in a passionate kiss in bed, but at the crucial moment, Fagr makes a disgusted face and draws back.
What at first seems to be a personal issue with her co-star turns into something much more serious as, take after take, she flubs her lines and/or refuses to kiss him. Audience sympathy goes out to the nervous young director, certainly not to her. Almost everyone on the set is an impatient male, and even Fagr’s mother and a lone makeup woman urge her to kiss the guy and get it over with. The only exploration of her deeper motivations happens in some heavily satirized meetings with a religiously inclined shrink, to whom she recounts her Freudian dreams. He just advises her to hold fast to her purity and stay veiled.
Outside the Arab countries, most viewers will probably agree that the movies are a tough place for actresses who will only play roles wearing a hijab that covers their head and shoulders, or a full black niqab dress that leave only their eyes visible. But given the spirit of the times, it’s also uncomfortable to see women negatively and permanently branded as “seductive” because they have done a love scene or performed a belly dancing number onscreen, as Fagr has. Perhaps it’s part of Amer’s game to keep the audience drawing lines and making value judgments about her decision, even as the fictional director Tamer’s film and reputation lie in ruins.
Rais (who starred in the late Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl and played a talented ingenue in Shirin Neshat’s Looking for Oum Kalthoum) has plenty of charisma but presents Fagr as more clueless starlet than film pro, seriously reducing sympathy for her character. Meanwhile, Tamer is further befuddled by his lecherous elderly producer who remembers the good old days, when he was the lover of a big star who later veiled up, then apparently changed her mind. Interestingly, she is played by Sawsan Badr, an actress whose real-life choice was to cover up at the height of her career.
So there are things to mull over, like young Fagr’s psychological vulnerability to her religious guide, but they will be most obvious to local audiences.
Technically the film suffers from an overly lit, brightly colored look that makes the gags seem even more facile. Very nicely done, instead, is a long opening montage of passionate kisses compiled from classic Egyptian movies of yore, which heightens the anomaly of the country’s return to puritanism.
Cast: Yasmine Rais, Sawsan Badr, Mohamed Mahran, Aida Riad, Salwa Mohamed Ali
Director, screenwriter: Ahmed Amer
Producers: Wael Omar, Dina Farouk, Ahmed Amer, Alaa Karkouti, Maher Diab
Director of photography: Hossam Shahine
Editor: Emad Maher
Music: Omar Fadel
World sales: MAD Distribution
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)