Dir: Nabil Ayouch, France/Canada. 2007. 110 mins.
French-produced, set between New York and Cairo, scored by an Indian-born French composer and directed by a Moroccan, Whatever Lola Wants practices the same enlightened multiculturalism that it so passionately preaches. But although Nabil Ayouch's mid-budget third feature has its heart in the right place, and builds some emotional heft, this yarn about a US postwoman's quest to become a top Egyptian belly-dancer is too sweet for its own good, replacing the Western Arab stereotypes that the director deplores with home-grown stereotypes of its own.
For all its sincere desire to appeal to both sides of the Islamic-Western divide, the film may fall into the audience crack, with Stateside audiences finding its US scenes too hokey and its dramatic structure too old-fashioned, while Egyptians may be offended by its critique of deep-rooted hypocrisy in society's attitude towards women. But the film was well-received at this year's Dubai festival, where it opened the 'Arabian Nights' section, and should play well in the director's Morocco (where his first two outings, Mektoub and Ali Zaoua, went exponential) and in more Westernised Middle Eastern territories like Lebanon. It should also attract attention in France, where Pathe is due to release in April 2008.
The film's weakest section is its US prologue, which presents cutesy boho postwoman Lola (Laura Ramsey, co-star of Lords of Dogtown) and her cutesy boho life in New York, where she delivers mail in the morning and auditions for dance roles in the afternoon. Lola's cookie-cutter gay best friend Yussef (Achmed Akkabi) serves mostly to introduce her, via some old VHS recordings, to his idol, oriental dancer Ismahane - and to make a point about the Arab world's intolerance of sexual diversity (he can never go back to Cairo, he tells her).
Bored by her job and unable to break into the professional dance scene, Laura is lifted by an affair with another Egyptian in New York, handsome graduate student Zack (Assaad Bouab): though this America, the affair has all the love-at-first-sight subtlety of a Maghrebi TV soap (there's even a slow fade to black when they tumble onto the bed). When Zack suddenly bolts back to Egypt, Laura blows her savings on a plane ticket and follows him.
Perhaps the film's neatest intuition is the way it reverses expectations by taking a poor white American and throwing her into the outwardly polite but inwardly hostile world of Egyptian high society. Rich-kid Zack turns out to be otherwise engaged (at the Dubai premiere, the most cathartic laugh was reserved for the line 'in the West, you fall in love and get married; over here, we fall in love and marry someone else').
But by this time Laura has already put Plan B into action: tracking down Ismahane and persuading the retired and reclusive dancer to give her belly-dancing lessons. It's here that the film shakes off its schematic plot and becomes dramatically engaging, largely thanks to the magnificently controlled performance of Lebanese actress Carmen Lebbos as a once-famous dancer whose career was ended and reputation ruined when she was caught having an extramarital affair.
Ismahane's tragic dignity and initial contempt for this perky American upstart is the point where the film comes closest to articulating something deeper about the cultural divide, and the older diva's gradual thawing is convincingly managed - partly through the visual metaphor of her gated villa, which gradually loses its mask of weeds and creepers as Lola brings Ismahane out of her shell.
Ramsey herself is fesity and engaging but there's little emotional shading about her performance, and though she has obviously put in the hours of dance training she grins far too much to make a convincingly seductive oriental dancer. Shot brightly in artsy-melodrama mode and garnished with an Arab-fusion soundtrack by Krishna Levy and TransGlobal Underground, Whatever Lola Wants is a polished film, but in the end it never really decides whether it wants to be a prettily packaged star-is-born tale or an all-guns-blazing social critique.
BC Films (France)
Pathe Renn Production (France)
Ali'n Productions (France)
Herve de Luze