'Honey Cigar' ('Cigare au miel'): Film Review | Venice 2020

Honey Cigar
Azzedine Ait Kaci

‘Honey Cigar’

A coming-of-age debut that's already pretty fully formed.

Franco-Algerian director Kamir Ainouz' debut feature is a female coming-of-age tale set in the 1990s.

A girl living between countries and cultures, and between adolescence and adulthood, tries to come into her own in the Franco-Algerian coming-of-age drama Honey Cigar (Cigare au miel). This is the debut feature from filmmaker Kamir Ainouz and if that name sounds familiar, that’s because she’s the half-sister — and near-homophone — of Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Ainouz. The latter’s Invisible Lifewhich won Cannes' Un Certain Regard prize last year, incidentally also looked at women beaten down by the patriarchy who nonetheless try to forge ahead and build a life for themselves.

To get all the famous names involved directly out of the way, Honey Cigar’s 17-year-old protagonist is played by Zoe Adjani, the niece of Francophone, half-Algerian acting queen Isabelle Adjani. And the film has some familiar people on its crew list as well, with the companies of the Dardenne brothers and French comic megastar Dany Boon (Welcome to the Sticks) listed as co-producers.

This well-acted and intimate tale opened the Giornate degli autori sidebar in Venice this year, from where it should segue to a long list of festivals hungry for new (female) talents before landing at boutique distributors or a streaming platform.

The film’s opening sees 17-year-old Selma (Adjani) lying alone in the Algerian surf. In voiceover, we hear a passage from Gilbert Sinoue’s novel L’Egyptienne, which talks about a woman’s reaction, between revolt and submission, to the man of her dreams as they are about to make love. Ace cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM) almost exclusively fills the screen with a close-up of Adjani’s face, occasionally hit by the salty water, as if the sea represents her waves of desire.

By concentrating on her features, Ainouz suggests sex is about inner yearnings (while avoiding gratuitously sexualizing the body of her young protagonist). This first, intense close-up of her face will gain even more impact as the film unfolds. Several later close-ups, when Selma has actual sex with guys who aren’t exactly the men of her dreams, echo the earlier image but also contrast sharply with the idealized opening in telling ways that point to all of the character’s hurt and disappointment.

Most of the film unspools in 1993 Paris and Neuilly-sur-Seine, the latter an affluent suburb where Selma’s Algerian parents (Amira Casar, Lyes Salem) have settled. They speak French at home and her mom insists on a good education, which is why Selma has applied for a prestigious business school. Even during her interview there with two racist male professors — “Algerian? You don’t look it!” — she explains that, despite having been born in France, she feels Algerian. But she’s also French, of course. “I’m not unique but double,” she says.

But as the story progresses and we discover the details of her sentimental and sexual education, as well as her formal education, it becomes clear that Selma’s confidence in this scene was, if not a fluke, perhaps something caused by her devil-may-care attitude about her schooling. Because what’s the point of a good education for a girl if the only thing that really matters is whom you marry, as she pointedly asks her mother. Tellingly, she gets no reply.

Her parents, who seem to be largely secular — though they have a Christmas tree up — profess they don’t believe in arranged marriages. But her mom does believe in arranging informal meetings with men who could become  potential future husbands. These include shy Selim (Jud Bengana) and sophisticated but cruel Luka (Idir Chender). Though Selma is notionally intrigued by them as examples of a largely unfamiliar species — she’s still a virgin, which is taken care of in a sequence that will be talked about for sure — she doesn’t like being sized up like a piece of meat. What’s more, these men have to compete with very forward fellow student Julien (Louis Peres), whose first words to Selma are: “Nice smile. Nice boobs.”

Ainouz is also responsible for the screenplay, which loosely observes Selma’s life in the first act before the story’s themes finally start to crystallize. What the writer-director does best, especially through the push-pull relationship with Julien, is suggest how Selma might read novels about ideal love but has to make do with the less-than-perfect specimens she crosses paths with in real life (literary spoiler: Sadly, the protagonist of the book she’s reading, L’Egyptienne, doesn’t end up with the man of her dreams either). She wants to become her own person, but how do you assert your independence when you’re a woman and a second-generation immigrant in a world where men seem to control everything and don’t seem interested in letting women have much of a say?

Somewhat surprisingly, Selma generally has a good time with Julien, especially when compared to the untenable situation with her parents, who are increasingly policing her behavior and whereabouts. Ainouz and editor Albertine Lastera explain everything with a quick cut from a frosty chicken dinner at home to Selma and Julien munching on their sandwiches and sharing a laugh between classes.

The message is clear: Julien might not be the ideal man, but he feels like a better option than whoever might be the choice of her parents, who can’t even get through a meal together without a side of side-eye. And in 1993, without social media and apps but with your hormones raging, where do you find someone to experiment with if not at school? So Selma finds herself, by turns, attracted to and repulsed by Julien, a difficult-to-figure-out stance that has parallels in the confusing feelings generated by the extremely violent conflict in 1990s Algeria, a subject mostly heard about here from second-hand reports (and recently treated in more depth in titles such as Mounia Meddour’s Papicha and Amin Sidi-Boumediene’s Abou Leila).

In the final act, the action does shift to Selma’s parents’ native Kabylia, in Northern Algeria, despite the ongoing war. Once there, a revelation about her mother’s intentions for her own future transforms the story from a personal into a generational one. It’s a welcome development that adds a much broader perspective and suggests Selma’s struggles to define herself are not unfamiliar to her mother, who fought her own battles when trying to figure out to what extent she could compromise on the male-dominated societies that tried to define her, both in Algeria and in France. In a lovely detail, she actually studied to become a gynecologist, a job paradoxically more suited for women in Algeria, where most female citizens are not expected to work.

Adjani is impressively natural in her second lead role after 2015’s Cerise, shot when she was only 15, even if she does retain something inscrutable even by the film’s end. Casar, in a role so different from the caring mother in Call Me By Your Name, adds a more complex matriarch to her resume and is a joy to watch as we get to know her character better. Newcomer Peres is also believable as a man who no doubt thinks of himself as a liberal without ever really realizing to what extent the women in his life might have something to say about this — and, thankfully, sometimes do.  

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate degli autori)
Production companies: Eliph Productions, Willow Films, Les films du Fleuve, Les Productions du Ch’timi, Les Films du Mirakle, M.D. Cine
Cast: Zoe Adjani, Amira Casar, Lyes Salem, Louis Peres, Idir Chender, Axel Grandberger, Jud Bengana, Rym Takoucht, Samir El Hakim
Writer-Director: Kamir Ainouz
Producers: Christine Rouxel, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production design: Angelo Zamparutti
Costume design: Isabelle Pannetier
Editing: Albertine Lastera
Music: Julie Roue
Sales: Best Friend Forever

In French, Maghrebi Arabic, Kabyle
No rating, 100 minutes