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Satin Rouge (NR)
Zeitgeist Films
Official Site
Director: Raja Amari
Producers: Dora Bouchoucha Fourati, Alain RozenŤs, Pascal Verroust
Written by: Raja Amari
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Hend El Fahem, Maher Kammoun, Monia Hichri

Rating: out of 5

Fair warning: This review contains spoilers! Bad me.

Satin rouge is a Tunisian belly-dancing film. This I know for sure. What I canít quite figure out, though, is exactly what its agenda is. Doubtless, many viewers will see it and read it as an attempt at feminist empowerment amid a male-dominated society. Probably the majority, in fact. After all, itís the story of a de-sexed middle-aged widow who finds confidence and a more positive outlook on life through the world of dance. But then thereís the other side, the one that hints that the only way women can find themselves is by flaunting their sexuality. Obviously, this isnít such a positive message. And it wonít be a very popular interpretation either. But, really, Satin rouge never seems too sure of what message itís trying to get across. And therein lies the main problem.

Perhaps itís simply a case of the screenplay being stripped down to the basics in the translation process (the film is in Arabic with English subtitles). The script does seem very weak, and this would definitely account for the muddled and conflicting messages coming through. But in all honesty, this still doesnít excuse it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a bare-bones script and still managed to drive its point home. No, I think the problem here is the result of something quite different, and a little charming, even: Raja Amari is so in love with the art of belly-dancing, with the sheer expressionistic liberation the dancer can experience, that she just kind of forgets what sheís trying to say.

Satin rouge is the story of Lilia (Abbass), a widow who works out of her own home as a seamstress and cares for her college-student daughter Salma (El Fahem). And thatís about all she does. Thatís until she discovers that Salma is secretly seeing a cabaret band member named Chokri (Kammoun). After following Chokri to the cabaret, and of the suspicion that Salma is hanging out there when sheís supposed to be at a friendís house, Lilia goes to the cabaret to investigate. She doesnít find Salma there (whoís being a good girl and is in fact at the friendís house), but she does find a whole new culture, an almost underground world of sequins and beads and satin rouge. She makes friends with Folla (Hichri), the star belly-dancer at the cabaret, who helps Lilia find her own calling as a dancer.

Hiam Abbass has a very natural beauty, and in Lilia she creates a character whose beauty is enhanced by her sadness and is only lacking that animation that she eventually gets through dancing. With her high-arched, darkly defined eyebrows and tight facial features, itís like watching a prep school headmistress finally learn to cut loose, and itís awesome. In dancing, sheís practically learning to breathe, learning how to get the joy out of life that has eluded her for so long, and watching it, you canít think of anyone who deserves it more. Anytime Lilia is on the screen, itís easy to forget any flaws the film may have, because Abbass leaves no space between the audience and herself; itís the kind of performance that is able to honor the traditional female role even as it taps into the rawness of discovering that new you that you were always meant to find.

But thereís still those pesky message issues. Lilia starts her own affair with Chokri, who has no idea that he is sleeping with his girlfriendís mother. In the end, this gives Lilia power over Chokri, and in a scene of surprising Queen Bitchiness, Lilia basically tells Chokri that he will marry Salma or risk her finding everything out. What exactly is this trying to tell us? Supposedly, up until this point, the whole film has been built on the idea of a liberating kind of empowerment, a kind with the distinctly positive effect of helping a mourning woman overcome her pain, but now, suddenly weíre supposed to allow blackmail onto the list of privileges that come with this liberation? An entire film based on good intentions is suddenly turned on to a more dubious power definition, and weíre expected to swallow that. It mars an otherwise amiable little film that up until that point, gamely insists that breaking out is the only way to find happiness.

óCole Sowell


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