Smell the Garden in Your Hair
From its announced setting of fabled Marrakech, one might expect Raja to have a physically exotic backdrop out of Durrell or Bowles or the false eye-candy of Lelouche's recent And Now Ladies & Gentlemen. From a bare-bones summary of the love-anguish between a fortyish man and a nineteen-year-old, perhaps there promises a desert Last Tango. But the blanched brown dryness is hardly glimpsed, the city itself never seen, and the colors sun-washed in the garden, pool and rooms of the house that is nearly exclusive backdrop. And while love permutations and perversion dominate, there is no flesh and only scant, discretely covered coupling.
Rather, director-screenwriter Jacques Doillon's movie centers on faces and body language to depict the obsessive power games played by characters conditioned by mental scars and forces they suspect but cannot fully comprehend. Communicating through translators who deliberately alter the message, they are "emotional cripples" who want and at the same time fear what they want. "A hint of danger" is what is desired, absence of suffering, control over the being of another, but one by one characters mating-dance around the goal, willfully avoiding consummation or commitment, and do not so much ruin each other -- "It's too late. I was destroyed already before. . . . It won't work." -- as force the beloved back onto an unpleasant past and empty future.
Too long and slowly serpentine for most palates, the story concerns the idly wealthy "Frenchy," a stubbly European Fred (Pascal Greggory) mothered by a pair of jealous kitchen harridans and voyeuristically attracted to young girls, particularly Raja (Najat Benssallem, in her cinema début), who joins friends and sisters to work in the garden. Orphaned at eight, "left alone too early" and bullied by her older brother (Abdelilah Lamrani), she seeks maternal love in friend Nadira's (Ilham Abdelwahed) mother, has casually sold her body, been raped by two "clients," and keeps up an unsteady relationship with macho leech Youssef (Hassan Khissal).
Worlds and cultures apart, Raja and Fred cat-and-mouse, touch and draw apart, torture one another and themselves with fearful emotional coldness while all about them offer advice and warnings. Far from perfect, he happily notes, she is a woman-child -- losing an opening bet, Raja ties donkey-ear shoes round her head and laughingly parades the narrow streets -- yet adult enough to fantasize about and simultaneously distrust respectability, money, leisure and skin creams, flight from a bleak tomorrow. Voicing at first a disdain for things European, she is fascinated by wristwatches and wears jeans and sleeveless midriff-revealing tops and comes to dream of Western marriage.
Or does she? For what she gives she takes back; and when she can, with tears she won't. And he -- marriage and a baby by her, yet he offers untrustworthy Youssef a job with a convenient bedroom and pays exorbitantly for his own love's wedding to another.
Together with fear, or synonymous with it, is the inability to trust and so leave oneself vulnerable to rejection or ridicule, to betrayal or control by an outside ego. There is no stopping the carousel, and though one wants to get off one still clings to illusion -- the final seconds catch Fred's breaking down but then, in one of his several talks to himself, saying that she will come back when she needs money.
Working with no scripted stage directions, "no indication as to how it should be spoken, . . . like a musical score that can be performed in many different ways," Doillon has coaxed a fluidity and truthfulness from his mixed bag of actors. His theme is delusion, that part of the individual that eludes his or her control. In their undefined, seemingly cross-purposed acts and words, Raja and Fred are fatally complex in a sea of others whose one-sided motives include greed, jealousy, reputation, security or merely a job. The language, subtitled from Arabic and French, is spare and functions integrally as a defensive shield between the protagonists, but Raja is in essence too talky and non-conclusive for general tastes. Ambiguous and elusive, however, its soft-focus may strike a chord with those who do not look for clear spoon-fed answers.
(Released by Film Movement; not rated by MPAA.)