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A resourceful but undocumented girl who escaped from Tunisia finds a job in Lyon as the aid and companion of a French-Arabic widow in Foreign Body (Jassad Gharib/Corps Etranger), the fourth feature from Maghrebi director Raja Amari. Though Palestinian star Hiam Abbass again plays a mourning widow — like in Amari’s much-lauded debut, 2002’s liberation-through-bellydancing drama Red Satin — this is nonetheless a rather different animal. Touching on themes such as jihadism, class differences, power games, complex family relationships and unexpected sexual affinity (with the younger and older woman both intrigued by each other and an enigmatic but handsome Tunisian), the film tries but often struggles to properly fuse the personal and the political.
This Toronto Special Presentation will especially appeal to Arab cinema showcases and festivals spotlighting female directors and protagonists. Indeed — and despite the fact that the two leads are potentially interested in the same man — this feature passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.
The film opens with underwater shots of a Tunisian passport and a family photo drifting by and then shows people being thrown or jumping overboard. Not much later, a young woman, Samia (Sarra Hannachi), somehow makes it to the French shore of the Mediterranean and then, finally, to Lyon, where she is taken in by Imed (Lyon-born Algerian stud Salim Kechiouche), a waiter at a café who used to know Samia’s brother. Though the opening scenes feel more like a bid to be topical than a true part of Samia’s story, Amari does remain committed to a gritty handheld aesthetic even after her protagonist has reached the city.
Very independent-minded, the young protagonist is determined to find a job quickly so she can move out of the home Imed shares with several other Tunisian men. Though Samia speaks some French, she’s in the country illegally, so finding a job is complicated. She finally manages to convince Madame Berteau (Abbass) to take her on and take her in, as the refined older woman needs help to sort out the things of her French husband, who died two months earlier.
The two women’s unlikely companionship forms the backbone of the narrative, with the duo initially delicately sniffing each other out and Amari playing up the differences between the aristocratic manners of Berteau and Samia’s unrefined ways. Madame Berteau, whose first name is Leila, become Frencher than the French after her marriage but her roots are clearly Arabic, so she likely sees something of herself in the young woman. Meanwhile, her streetwise charge hopes to one day possess everything that her bourgeois employer has. (The use of the formal “vous” and familiar “tu” to say “you” in French suggests volumes about their dynamic, though this is completely ignored in the subtitles.)
The narrative’s first major misstep comes in the form of Samia’s rapport with Imed, which inexplicably sours, prompting Leila to suggest she’ll go and talk to the man who Samia has made out to practically be a stalker (he seems like a nice if perhaps not always very consistent guy). The triangle that then develops and romantically overheats is also not entirely credible, as is the Sapphic tension between the two female leads (which suggests a female version of Ferzan Ozpetek’s debut feature, Steam: The Turkish Bath).
But Amari, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t only want to make a romantic drama, so on top of all that she also provides a rather unconvincing backstory involving Samia’s very religious brother, who’s in jail back home and who used to be best friends with Imed. At this point, any focal point the narrative might have had is lost and the characters and their thoughts and motivations disappear behind a pile-up of plot twists that diffuses the tension even further.
Newcomer Hannachi isn’t the most expressive of actresses — one wonders what someone like Parisienne revelation Manal Issa could have done with the role — which turns her character into too much of an opportunist to whom its hard to relate. Veteran Abbass effortlessly projects dignity, warmth and sensuality but there’s only so much she can do with a screenplay that doesn’t really know how to fully exploit her potentially very interesting character (this critic would love to see a film about how Madame Berteau feels about the post-Arab Spring wave of immigrants trying to make it to her adopted homeland but except for maybe a single scene, this is not that movie). Kechiouche, always a welcome presence, also struggles to make his character’s motivations credible, especially in a scene in which he storms out after things between the three leads have reached a fever pitch.
Production companies: Nomadis Images, Mon Voisin Productions
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Sarra Hannachi, Salim Kechiouche
Writer-Director: Raja Amari
Screenplay: Raja Amari
Producer: Lina Chaabane
Executive producers: Dora Bouchoucha, Dominique Besnehard
Director of photography: Aurelien Devaux
Production designer: Rauf Helioui
Editor: Guerric Catala
Music: Nicolas Becker
Sales: Urban Distribution International
No rating, 92 minutes
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