Dir: Danielle Arbid. Lebanon-France. 2011. 98mins
This could be a romantic thriller, a political love story or a veiled portrait of Lebanese life today. It could, but writer-director Danielle Arbid seems unable to make up her mind. She hints at a number of routes but never commits one way or another and finally, as evidenced by a quote at the end of the film - “If you think you know Lebanon, you’ve been misinformed” - seems to suggest that it is impossible to know anything for certain about Lebanon, even after seeing her film.
Behind every door there is a family relative who is a super spy. No one can keep a secret in such a place and yet nothing is out in the open. Not quite the right climate for a tender and illicit romance.
Limp and loosely edited, Charles Berling looks lost in a plot he apparently can’t make head nor tail of, with intrusions of Sibelius’ Valse Triste thrown in out of context. With a bit of luck Arbid’s film, screening in Locarno this week, may find a few more festival spots before it reaches the small screen.
Zoha (played by Darine Hamze, who is probably a better singer than actor) is a bountiful young singer who falls in love with unusual Frenchman Mathieu (Berling), who claims to be a lawyer for a French telecom company on his way to draw up a contract in Syria. The two fall into each other’s arms almost instantly, and there are a couple daring but torrid scenes between them.
But life isn’t simple for the couple: Zoha’s husband, whom she intends to divorce, isn’t happy about the relationship; one of Mathieu’s former flames is in town; and a man called Abbas comes out of the woodwork demanding that Mathieu arrange for him a French passport in exchange for information about an assassination attempt on president Rafic Hariri’s. Hoodlums masquerading as secret police are threatening people on the street, the television keeps reporting on unsolved kidnappings, and the complicated political situation is alluded to but not explored.
All the characters are shadowed by at least one if not both Lebanese security services and everyone is suspected of working for the Israelis and selling information to the highest bidder. Behind every door there is a family relative who is a super spy. No one can keep a secret in such a place and yet nothing is out in the open. Not quite the right climate for a tender but illicit romance.
Arbid’s script carefully preserves everything in a haze, the only certainties being that Zoha sings in a restaurant, that Mathieu is not Lebanese, and that no one can be trusted at any time. The intention was to convey that particular feeling of insecurity which makes life unbearable in a security-obsessed city, but when the plot itself is unclear and the characters are barely more than unexplored clichés, with neither Hamze nor Berling very convincing, there is little for an audience to do except bide its time waiting for a gust of wind to blow the uncertainties away. But that’s one thing Arbid does not unleash on the screen.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Maia Cinema, Orjouane Productions
International Sales: Films Distribution, www.filmsdistribution.com
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion, Gilles Sandoz, Sabine Sidawi
Cinematography: Pierric Gantelmi D’Ille
Editor: Julien Leloup
Music: Zeid Hamdan
Main cast: Darine Hamze, Charles Berling, Fadi Abi Samra, Rodney El Haddad