'My Favorite Fabric' ('Mon tissu prefere'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Fine material, poor tailoring.

Syrian writer-director Gaya Jiji applies feminist critique to sexual double standards with her autobiographical Cannes debut.

A sexually frustrated young Syrian woman comes of age just as her country slides into civil war in My Favorite Fabric, which premieres in Cannes today. Impressively, Paris-based Syrian writer-director Gaya Jiji has landed a prestigious slot in the festival's Un Certain Regard section with her autobiographical debut feature. But her career-boosting coup may prove a mixed blessing, because this French-German-Turkish co-production is an unpolished, underpowered, navel-gazing affair which strains too hard to map private emotional angst onto the genocidal horrors of Syria's civil war. Noble intentions and timely feminist themes should ensure healthy festival interest, but theatrical potential will be at the narrow end of niche.

My Favorite Fabric opens in Damascus in early 2011, the start of the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising which will later escalate in full-blown war. Nahla (Franco-Lebanese actress Manal Issa) is a sullen 25-year-old who yearns for escape from her suffocatingly conventional life. Railing quietly against the conservative norms that police female behavior in a patriarchal society, she works a dull job in a clothes store by day before returning to the drab family apartment she shares with her two sisters (Mariah Tannoury, Nathalie Issa) and widowed mother (Ula Tabari). Meanwhile, on the streets outside, an army of protestors is facing brutal pushback from Bashar Al-Assad's security forces.

Eager to lose her burdensome virginity, Nahla has constructed a vivid dream life of sexual intimacy and fantasy romance with an idealized male partner (Metin Akdulger). But when her family steer her towards arranged marriage with Syrian-American emigre Samir (Saad Lostan), secretly hoping this will provide them all with an escape route to the U.S. before war engulfs Damascus, Nahla rebuffs his ineffectual overtures with amusingly haughty indifference. Instead she turns to her exotic upstairs neighbor Madame Jiji (Ula Tabari), who runs a clandestine brothel from her apartment, to ease her overdue passage into the realm of sensual pleasure.

My Favorite Fabric is stitched together from potentially fasccinating material, but it hangs together very awkwardly as a narrative. Jiji seems to be chiefly interested in suppressed female desire, sexual double standards and emerging feminist resistance in conservative Arab societies. But she frequently veers off course into stilted fantasy and soapy family drama. One bizarre sequence centers on an erotic encounter between Nahla and a uniformed army officer involving blindfolds and Old Testament storytelling. Fifty Shades of Camouflage, anyone? Wild imaginative swerves can breathe life into lackluster films, but it helps if they make sense to audience as well as director.

In stylistic terms, the film is an ungainly patchwork. The dramatic scenes, apparently shot in France and Turkey, mostly take place in dimly lit domestic interiors. Interstitial clips of bombs falling on Damascus, and police beating protestors to a bloody pulp, are drawn from second-hand newsreel and shaky phone-cam footage. But because Syria's civil war is really no more than a background detail that scarcely encroaches on the central plot, these cut-away glimpses of real-life atrocity feel clumsy at best, opportunistic at worst.

In fairness to Jiji, her debut feature has commendably grand ambitions and chews on some heavyweight themes. Issa is also a magnetic screen presence, her perpetually sulky performance just about holding the untidy narrative together. But My Favorite Fabric still suffers from too many debutant flaws in tone, character and plot. A charitable reviewer might conclude that Nahla's needy, narcissistic behavior reflects the nightmarish dislocation of living under the shadow of war in an repressive police state. But others might find her a self-absorbed drama queen whose minor sexual anxieties don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Gloria Films, Katuh Studio, Dublin Films, Les Films de la Capitaine, Liman Film, ZDF
Cast: Manal Issa, Ula Tabari, Souraya Baghdadi, Mariah Tannoury, Nathalie Issa, Saad Lostan, Wissam Fares, Amani Ibrahim, Metin Akdulger
Director: Gaya Jiji
Screenwriter: Gaya Jiji in collaboration with Eiji Yamazaki
Producers: Laurent Lavole, Vanessa Ciszewski, David Hurst, Eiji Yamazaki, Nadir Operli
Cinematographer: Antoine Heberle
Editor: Jeanne Oberson
Music: Peer Kleinschmidt
Sales company: Urban Distribution International
95 minutes