Stable Unstable (Tale’ Nezel): Dubai Review

A gentle, well-written comedy about a Beirut psychologist and his patients struggles to make its point.

Mahmoud Hojeij’s first feature comically depicts feelings of insecurity in Lebanon.

Getting some nice results on a limited budget, young writer-director Mahmoud Hojeij parades a slew of normal-wacky characters through the office of a Beirut psychologist in the talky comedy Stable Unstable. Given that a lot of the gags are tied to the Lebanese Arabic dialogue, this is a classic case of comedy struggling to cross borders. Even the metaphor in the title seems aimed at local viewers who have gone through the war years and have come to accept instability as the norm. Local audiences at the Dubai Film Festival laughed out loud, but appreciative smiles are as far as non-Arabic speakers are likely to go.

Smog covers Beirut, where a well-heeled residential building houses the tasteful office of a bearded psychologist. One by one, his patients salute the doorman, step into the elevator and come for their last appointment of the year on New Year’s Eve. The common theme is loneliness and lack of communication. A superficial young wife complains of feeling empty inside, but has no intention of giving up her lover.  A man who repairs store mannequins for a living goes wild in the office, yelling and kicking and breaking things; he’ll be spending New Year’s Eve at a dinner party with his dummies. No wonder he says no one listens to him.

There’s a silent, seductive teenage girl; a domineering mother who tyrannizes her son, and a youth worried about his sperm count. The funniest of the lot is a paranoid patient who comes all the way from Syria for his sessions. He claims it’s because people are always eavesdropping at home, where there’s no freedom of speech, but in the end his real purpose seems to be visiting a nearby massage parlor with a "happy ending."

The film is shot on a handful of sets with simplified visuals that are as easy to read as a cartoon drawing, and easy on the eyes thanks to cinematographer Philippe Van Leeuw’s soft colors. The style is pleasingly essential but one wonders about the number of heads that disappeared out of the frame in its Dubai festival screening. Charbel Haber’s musical score for a string quartet is as tasteful as the rest.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Arab Feature competition), Dec. 9, 2013
Production companies: About Productions in association with Doha Film Institute, AFAC
Cast: Camille Salameh, Fadi Abi Samra, Nada Abou Farhat, Hassan Mrad, Husam Chadat, Yara Abou Haidar, Monzer Baalbaki, Aida Sabra, Ziad Antar, Diamand Abou Abboud, Manal Khader
Director: Mahmoud Hojeij
Screenwriter: Mahmoud Hojeij
Producer: Georges Schoucair
Director of photography: Philippe Van Leeuw
Production designer: Petra Abou Sleiman

Editor: Gladys Joujou
Music: Charbel Haber
No rating, 87 minutes.