'Arab Blues' ('Un Divan à Tunis'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Amusing if not highly analytical.

A shrink (Golshifteh Farahani) moves from Paris to her hometown, Tunis, in this comedy from writer-director Manele Labidi.

Paterson's Golshifteh Farahani stars in this breezy comedy about a Tunis-born, France-reared psychoanalyst who comes back home to open a practice and help the locals in Tunisia's practically shrink-fee capital city. Although sold to the international market under the vague and strategically bland title Arab Blues when it premiered on the autumn festival circuit, writer-director Manele Labidi's wry work — with its mostly French dialogue — suits its French handle, Un Divan à Tunis, much better given the latter's evocation of Chantal Akerman's cross-cultural romantic farce A Couch in New York.

Either way, although respectful of those who choose more traditional lifestyles, the predominantly liberal, European-style sensibility that pervades the film will probably ensure much more box office success outside the Arab-speaking world.

Never quite explaining her backstory except to note that protagonist Selma (Farahani) emigrated with her family when she was 10, Labidi's script draws a discreet veil over Selma's past. Her teenage cousin Olfa (Aicha Ben Miled), who wears a headscarf not out of religious conviction but to hide a bad dye job on her hair, thinks Selma is crazy to leave Paris and come to Tunis. (Olfa herself is so keen to get the hell out of Dodge, she's willing to enter into an arranged marriage with a gay man.) Selma offers various explanations for the move at different points: There was just too much competition in the psychoanalysis business back in Paris; she wants to help people struggling to cope with the rapid social changes in the wake of the 2012 revolution, especially since psychoanalysis wouldn't even have been permitted in the old days; and it just feels right to be there.

Even so, Selma must do a lot of explaining about what her practice entails to family members, prospective clients and the authorities. Many are suspicious about this talking cure, and its secular approach to mental illness, while her uncle Mourad (Moncef Ajengui) advises her to keep quiet about the fact that the man in the picture on her wall — Sigmund Freud, whom Selma calls her "boss" — is a Jew. Once the clients start lining up at the door and taking their turns in the obligatory comic montage sequences, Selma has to explain repeatedly the rules of engagement, which means appointments must start on time and are paid for in full, even if the client is late. And no, the use of the couch does not mean that Selma is actually a prostitute.

The dramatic stakes are raised when Selma finds out that she has to have a license to practice, and getting one requires a drawn-out application process with a chatty administrator (Najoua Zouhair, delightful) at the relevant ministry. Local cop Naim (Majd Mastoura) won't let Selma's lack of a license slide, even if he still wants her to go out on a date with him — a prospect she's not entirely resistant to, although helping her new clients comes first.

Their various anxieties and problems are played here mostly for laughs, which some viewers may find problematic in specific cases. For example, many might not find the distress potentially gay or trans local baker Raouf (Hichem Yacoubi) feels about dreaming about kissing male dictators and his desire to cross-dress all that funny. And what are we to make of a quick closing shot showing him smiling as he serves customers? That he's found peace somehow in a culture that's still very homophobic? That Selma has somehow "cured" him? That he's just gone back into the closet? His bread looks delicious, but the subplot leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

If that storyline can be ignored, then the rest of the film is jaunty enough, mildly amusing froth, kept all the more buoyant by Farahani's deadpan reactions and immensely watchable face and fine comic timing from the rest of the ensemble, especially Feriel Chamari as a bossy hairdresser with mother issues.

Venue: Toronto  Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema; also in Venice) 
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Majd Mastoura, Aicha Ben Miled, Feriel Chamari, Hichem Yacoubi, Najoura Zouhair, Jamel Sassi, Ramla Ayari, Moncef Ajengui, Zied Mekki, Oussama Kochkar
Production: A Kazak Productions production in co-production with Arte France Cinema, in collaboration with Diaphana, MK2 Films
Director-screenwriter: Manele Labidi
Producers: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Director of photography: Lauren Brunet
Production designer: Mila Preli, Raouf Helioui
Costume designer: Hyat Luszpinski
Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos
Music: Flemming Nordkrog
Sales: MK2 Films
No rating; 88 minutes