‘Degrade’: Cannes Review

Not funny

A comedy about 13 Palestinian women trapped in a beauty salon in the Gaza Strip

A would-be metaphoric comedy set in Palestine's war-torn Gaza Strip turns into an unfunny free-for-all in the embarrassing Dégradé, a first feature written and directed by twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser. The film’s single set is an airless beauty salon crowded with disgruntled femmes, who look like they would have been more comfortable getting punchy around a cowboy bar in the Wild West. As a small war goes on outside, they continue to hurl catty insults at each other. What a fine actress like Hiam Abbass is doing here is a mystery, but not as great as how the film earned a slot in Cannes’ prestigious Critics Week. Any comparison with recent all-women films like the Lebanese Caramel or Tunisian Villa Touma is gratuitous.

In jargon, “degrade” is a technique to lighten hair (it is explained differently in the film), but here it obviously has a double meaning and refers to the degradation of the war in Gaza.  Apart from this rather sophisticated coiffeur reference, the filmmakers seem to know little about what women do at the hairdressers’. This is another film that comes dangerously close to failing the Bechdel test, even though there are 13 women locked in a room who do nothing but talk to each other and on their cell phones. Their topic, or rather obsession, is only one: men.  A young innocent (Dina Shebar) is getting her hair and make-up done in preparation for her wedding, with her mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law looking on.  Another is nine months pregnant and feels contractions start while waiting her turn. The beauty shop owner, a scowling Russian woman (Victoria Balitska), is counting the minutes until she can go home to hubby, and her surly young assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi) spends the whole film in tears or on the phone to her mobster boyfriend (sketchily portrayed by the long-haired, automatic rifle-toting Tarzan Nasser). He’s apparently stolen a lion (conveniently chained outside the salon) which Hamas, aka the government of Gaza, wants to recover. That is the plot line, and may be the spark that ignites a noisy battle outside the confines of the beauty parlor, trapping the women inside. But narrative clarity is an optional here.

Comic relief is supposedly afforded by two ill-matched sisters-in-law, one a batty addict (Manal Awad) and the other a poker-faced religious type (Mirna Sakhla) in a veil and big glasses. Abbass’s character is an aging but vain, soon-to-be divorcee with a sharp tongue, who launches into an unprovoked cat-fight with Awad as the action peaks.

Eric Devin’s lighting does no favors to any of the actresses, or to viewers forced to stare at the cramped, dark salon for over an hour.   

Production companies: Les Films du Tambour, Made in Palestine Project in association with Full House, Abbout Productions, Mille et Une Films
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Maisa Abd Elhaid, Manal Awad, Mirna Sakhla, Dina Shuhaiber, Victoria Balitska
Directors, Screenwriters: Arab Nasser, Tarzan Nasser
Producers: Rashid Abdelhamid, Marie Legrand, Rani Massalha
Director of photography: Eric Devin
Production designers: Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser
Editors: Sophie Reine, Eyas Salman
Music: Benjamin Grospiron
Sales: Elle Driver
No rating, 83 minutes