'Tlamess': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Existential thoughts from kindergarten.

In Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s experimental second feature, a soldier deserts his unit and lives on his instincts in the woods.

An experimental anomaly on the Tunisian film front, writer-director Ala Eddine Slim has won a following with two films that leave logic and realism behind to chart a muddy course through the minefield of experimental-apocalyptic narrative. Although their meaning is hard to grasp (perhaps on purpose?), they have attracted attention. After Eddine Slim’s first feature The Last of Us was shown in New Directors, New Films in New York, his new but cut-from-the-same-cloth Tlamess turned up in Cannes’ Directors' Fortnight. Wherever these enigmatic, schematic and often pretentious works are shown, their basic lack of dramatic truth haunts them and they run the risk of hearing frustrated audiences demand the emperor put some clothes on.

Nudity is actually quite germane to Eddine Slim’s world-view, as both films end up in forest wastelands uninhabited by human beings, where the hero strips to the buff to indicate he is disgusted with society and has discarded the false trappings of the modern world. In both cases, the decision to drop out has a social-political motivation. In the more controlled and comprehensible The Last of Us, a young African man risks life and limb crossing the desert in a desperate attempt to reach Europe but fails; he ends up becoming part of the forest in which he takes refuge.

Tlamess takes the trick of using characters as abstract ideas even farther, into more puzzling dimensions. A young soldier known only as S. (played by poet and musician Abdullah Miniawy) is deeply disturbed by the violence of the army and the way his unit is forced to hunt down and kill terrorists. When he is given leave to attend his mother’s funeral, he holes up in his empty family house until the MPs come after him. Then he flees in a long, engrossing manhunt sequence, until he realizes that there is no place in the civilized world to hide. A long tracking shot follows him, now completely naked, into the woods to meet his destiny, while the stirring music of Oiseux-Tempete announces a fateful turning point.

This leaves the film at exactly the place where The Last of Us became a metaphorical rejection of the cruel contemporary world. But instead of meeting an experienced woodsman/shaman like the hero of the first film, S. himself, now long-bearded and wearing rags and primitive weapons, becomes the silent guru for a young wife (Souhir Ben Amara) who has grave misgivings about sharing a luxurious bourgeois life with her husband. S. frightens her in the woods one day and when she regains consciousness, she is his prisoner in an old well. Though life on a camp bed ankle-deep in water can’t be pleasant, she comes “under his spell” (the meaning of "tlamess") and accepts her captivity under his Tarzan-like protection with happy passivity. She is also pregnant, a fact S. pins his hopes on for some reason. The future of humanity?

It should be mentioned that the woods are magical. Yes, there is a big black screen meant to be some kind of portal in a hidden part of the forest, protected by a giant and genuinely frightening CGI snake. When this creature licks the woman’s swollen belly, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. Though the director has boldly compared his black rectangle to Stanley Kubrick’s alien monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it remains a clumsy citation whose meaning is totally unclear. The whole setup of the escaped soldier reverting to a wild state seems lifted from Jerzy Skolimowski’s thriller Essential Killing, which features an escaped Taliban soldier surviving in the forests of Poland. And just like Vincent Gallo’s terrorist in that pic, S. opts to remain silent throughout Tlamess, though he's not a mute. A scene in which he and the woman communicate with their eyes alone, in subtitled dialogue, is something neither Kubrick nor Skolimowski thought of.

Production companies: Still Moving, Exit Productions in association with Madbox Studios, Inside Productions
Cast: Abdullah Miniawy, Souhir Ben Amara, Khaled Benaissa
Director-screenwriter-editor: Ala Eddine Slim
Producers: Ala Eddine Slim, Juliette Lepoutre, Pierre Menahem
Director of photography: Amine Messadi
Production designer: Malek Gnaoui
Music: Oiseaux-Tempete
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
World sales: Be for Films


120 minutes