Dir: Jacques Doillon. France-Morocco. 2003. 112mins.
The latest excursion by the director of Ponette - which scooped a Venice Best Actress prize in 1996 for underage star Victoire Thivisol - is a prickly and at times inaccessible meditation on the nature of colonial and sexual power in present-day Morocco. Though its pessimistic view of human relationships and resolutely downbeat ending will not recommend the film to fans of Grant-and-Roberts-style romantic comedies, Raja is thought-provoking enough to have some arthouse legs. These legs, though, may turn out to be mainly at home - with the exception of Ponette, Doillon's films have not generally travelled well outside of Francophone territories - and Raja promises to be no exception.
The director would probably claim - indeed has claimed - that this is simply a film about love and loneliness, and it certainly adds two more emotionally damaged characters to Doillon's long roster. But the Moroccan setting is no accident, and neither is the racial, social and financial imbalance between the film's two lovers.
Fred (Gregory) - despite his name - is a burnt-out French intellectual who lives alone in a luxurious riad, or townhouse, in Marrakech. He is not short of a few bob, and as he already has the big house, the delicious garden and the cool swimming-pool, he uses his money to buy people. Like the two old cooks, whose function is as much to keep Fred anchored in the cliche-ridden folk wisdom of the working-class as it is to serve up tajine for their master's dinner. Or the girls who come in every day to work on the garden.
One of these, Raja (Bensallem), catches Fred's fancy. It's difficult to see why, as there is nothing remotely prepossessing about her. But Fred himself is no looker, with his stubble and his hair combed across the bald patch; and the removal of the glamour motive serves to focus our attention on the rootless Frenchman's peculiar, self-destructive passions. There is a touch of Malkovich in Pascal Gregorry's cold, sardonic account of this latter day colonialist's flirtation with the local colour - especially the Malkovich of a previous exercise in post-colonial angst, Bertolucci's Sheltering Sky, which was also set in the aimless netherworld of expatriate Morocco.
Fred's bleak worldview is fed by his observations of his servants' obsession with money - which apparently extends to the object of his love, a 19-year-old orphan who occasionally sells her body to make ends meet. But this is also a film about the near impossibility of communicating across languages and across cultures (without the misunderstandings thrown up by the language barrier, the director would have been hard-put to go the full ninety minutes). And in the end, the artificial, imagined nature of the obstacles to true love, and of the hero's emotions (who, like many intellectuals, is unable to play anything open, honest and straight, even when he thinks he is) become faintly irritating.
Colonial power-plays are present even in the casting: Pascal Greggory is the only European face we see in the film, and the only professional actor. The imbalance works well in the scenes with the two old cooks, whose camera-shyness adds another level to Fred's frustration at not being able to tune into the local psyche.
But although first-timer Najat Benssallem projects a refreshing sense of innocent determination as Raja, she doesn't give us the access to the characters' inner feelings that would help the audience to commit. Perhaps this is the whole point: in which case, the film pushes its sophistication a notch too far for this viewer.
Prod cos: Les Films du Losange
Co-prod: Agora Films, France 3 Cinema
Int'l sales: Les Films du Losange
Prod: Margaret Menegoz
Co-prods: Souad Lamriki, Benedicte Bellocq
Scr: Jacques Doillon
Cinematography: Helene Louvart
Ed: Gladys Joujou
Music: Philippe Sarde
Main cast: Pascal Gregory, Najat Bensallem, Ilham Abdelwahed, Hassan Khissal, Oum El Aid Ait Yousiss, Zineb Ouchita