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Taking Back the Night

61st BFI London Film Festival

Beauty and the Dogs (2017)

Two young women are jammed together in a toilet stall. Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) has ripped her dress; her roommate has brought a blue one for her to borrow. She gets changed; they fix their makeup and take some selfies after Mariam dodges a call from her father. They enter a club for a private party, which is in a beachfront hotel; and after a little welcome chat from someone at their university get down to dancing. There’s a cute guy. Mariam gets to talking to him and they go outside together.

This meet-cute-gone-wrong between Mariam and the cute guy (Ghanem Zrelli), whose name turns out to be Youssef, is depicted in nine single steadicam shots lasting around 11 minutes each. The technical skill it must have taken to put these shots together is worn extremely lightly. The pacing is not always great, but that gives us some breathing room during the worst night of Mariam’s life. Because once she left the hotel, she became the victim of a crime.

It’s not shown – a level of restraint that Hollywood films would do well to emulate – but the rest of the film is the aftermath. Initially Youssef seems to be the problem, but his immediate action is to take her to a private clinic, to get her in front of a doctor as quickly as possible. But the clinic is indifferent to her obvious trauma and sends her to a nearby emergency room, which sends her to a specialist doctor, who send her to two policemen who type their statement on a computer that isn’t plugged in. Youssef is apparently a known radical, well used to standing up to authority; and initially Mariam allows herself to be swept along. But as her head clears, she starts to think and speak for herself again.

Ms. Al Ferjani has the onscreen presence rarely seen since Renée Zellweger charmed everyone in “Jerry Maguire;” she projects an honesty that makes you feel extremely protective. She knows the deck is stacked against her, but even when she whimpers and cries she is incredibly brave. At one point she is chased into the police kennels (the shot which gives the movie its English-language title), but she turns around, picks up a cudgel and brazens her way out. While some of the policemen she encounters are raw evil, others are simply too lazy to fill in the necessary paperwork. Some are jaded, some – including a heavily pregnant one – are officious, and a few are thoroughly decent and kind. There is an understanding of human nature on display that is becoming unusual in Western cinema. The nurse with the headscarf who asks a bunch of rude questions is also visibly fretting over how little she can do to help. The mustachioed cop who interrupts Mariam’s medical exam and then insults her country background projects the sense that he doesn’t care about anybody except himself. When was the last time a Western movie made sure its characters were also people?

The exceptional moments, like the bloodcurdling one where Mariam hears her lost mobile, are unfortunately outnumbered by generic complaints about the state of the Tunisian nation. Even for viewers who know almost nothing about Tunisia, a little primer goes a long way. It’s hard to tell how much director Kaouther Ben Hania, who also wrote the script, slowed down the action to pander to an international audience. This over-explaining almost swallows the film’s considerable technical achievements, too. How difficult must it have been to get workable shots for each sequence? And several of these were obviously filmed outdoors, not on soundstages: one moves from a taxi to the inside of a police station; another loops through a crowded hospital; another follows Mariam as she attempts to break into a gated compound.

But for all its skill, “Beauty and the Dogs” would have been sharper if the audience had been trusted a little more. A good example is how, while it’s obvious this is a Muslim city, no one mentions Mariam’s clothes. The comment that goads Mariam into her final confrontation wouldn’t be a transgression in the West. But in this context, it’s the final insult, which we immediately understand when the other men in the room hold their breath in shock. When they stop yelling at her, and she has a moment to pull herself together, Mariam proves herself more than capable of walking back from the edge of the abyss. Her next, small action is so shocking in its ordinary bravery it’s – to use an overused word – awesome.

Audiences are stupefied under a relentless stream of movies based around people with superpowers, who battle imaginary opponents so no one gets hurt and nothing is really at stake. This ramshackle film where a little country nobody asserts her own importance and her everyday power is worth the whole lot of them.


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