'Of Skin and Men' (‘L'Amour des hommes'): Film Review

An intriguing look at female desire in the Muslim world.

Hafsia Herzi ('The Secret of the Grain') plays a provocative young photographer in Tunisia in director Mehdi Ben Attia’s third feature.

Exploring the female gaze in a unique and rather taboo fashion, Of Skin and Men (L’Amour des hommes) tells the story of a recent widow who begins taking eroticized photographs of the men around her Tunisian neighborhood.

Marked by an assured lead turn from The Secret of the Grain star Hafsia Herzi, this third feature by director Mehdi Ben Attia (I’m Not Dead) can be dramatically clunky in places and feels stretched a bit too thin. Yet it nonetheless offers an intriguing portrait of a young woman overcoming grief by exploring the flesh of the opposite sex, even if she does so primarily through the lens of a camera. After a fall festival tour and a theatrical release in France, the film could find additional pickups in Europe and elsewhere.

Amel (Herzi) is an aspiring photographer who, for her very first exhibition, has produced a series of provocative self-portraits where she wears everything from a hijab to a belly dancer’s costume. The show is promising, but Amel’s life is suddenly upended when — in an early scene that somewhat stretches credulity — a car runs over her husband, striking him dead. After the burial, Amel is left to grieve in the bourgeois apartment of her oversupportive father-in-law, Taieb (Raouf Ben Amor), and her shell-shocked mother-in-law, Souad (Sondoss Bel Hassen).

Yet instead of becoming a slave to her sorrow — which is something that Tunisia’s majority Muslim society seems to expect of her — Amel soon takes matters into her own hands, using her camera to shoot illicit photos of young men she meets through friends or picks up in the street. Why she does so is never entirely made clear, although it seems like these anonymous bodies are meant to fill the void created by her husband’s absence, even if Amel probes her desires in a strictly artistic fashion.

Attia depicts the different clandestine photo sessions with a mix of erotic tension and voyeuristic unease, taking his time to show how photographer and subject feel each other out in closed quarters. Some of the sequences can be quite tender, such as one involving a local worker, Rabah (Karim Ait M’Hand), whom Amel eventually befriends. Others are more disturbing, including a scene where one of the men suddenly gets aggressive, clearly expecting something more than a mere portrait. A later session feels like it could almost turn into a ménage à trois, but instead becomes vaguely homoerotic and even a bit comic. 

Those moments are the highlights of a film that sometimes feels less convincing as a drama, with one drawn-out plot involving Amel’s relationship to her increasingly lecherous benefactor Taieb, and another detailing the budding romance she has with a journalist, Sami (Haythem Achour), who turns out to be more than just a rebound guy. Attia gradually brings both storylines to their logical conclusions, yet they seem rather prosaic compared to the way he investigates Amel’s awakened photographic consciousness.

Herzia, who was discovered by Abdellatif Kechiche in his 2007 Venice winner, Grain, convincingly portrays a woman who crosses many boundaries — sexual, artistic, even religious — for the sake of her art and her well-being. The actress has a fearless way of playing scenes that are meant to be both suggestive and illuminating, reversing the male-dominated roles typically seen in movies about creative provocateurs. (Antonioni’s Blow-Up especially comes to mind in a sequence that seems to mimic the famous Jane Birkin photo session from that film, while switching up the sexes.)

Other performances are strong, with M’Hand (Smart Ass) memorable as a blue-collar kid who becomes a willing muse to Amel's obsessions. Tech credits are modest, with DP Antoine Parouty fitfully capturing the shadow-filled apartment that Amel turns into her own private studio.

Production companies: 4 A 4 Productions, Cinetelefilms
Cast: Hafsia Herzi, Raouf Ben Amor, Haythem Achour, Sondoss Bel Hassen, Karim Ait M’Hand
Director: Mehdi Ben Attia
Screenwriters: Mehdi Ben Attia, Martin Drouot
Producers: Mani Mortazavi, David Mathieu-Mahias, Andrea Queralt
Director of photography: Antoine Parouty
Production designer: Rauf Helioui
Costume designer: Nedra Gribaa
Editor: Raphael Lefevre
Composer: Karol Beffa
Casting director: Amel Guellaty
Sales: Loco Films

In French, Arabic
105 minutes