satin rouge (2002)


director: raja amari

hiam abbass, hend el fahem, maher kamoun

Almost everything about Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge is familiar from a hundred years of movie melodramas, except for one very subtle but important thing, which only becomes apparent near the movie’s conclusion. The film opens on Lilia, a widow with a teenage daughter, as she obesessively tidies up their apartment. Everything about Lilia, from her shapeless gray dress to the way she shyly dances to the radio, looking at herself in the mirror, tells us that, by the end of the film, Lilia will be a very different woman.

Hiam Abbass plays Lilia in the tradition of Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk’s classic melodramas, full of a simmering unhappiness seeking release, and the film’s entire story is concerned with her finding it. Discovering her daughter’s budding relationship with Chokri (Maher Kamoun),a hunky young cabaret musician, she ends up attracted to the world of bellydancers at his place of work, but not before she faints, then flees home ashamed, exactly as the venerable storyline dictates she should.

But she’s drawn back, attracted by the dancer’s freedom and sensuality, and the strange sense of power they have over their clientele. She becomes a star at the cabaret, and when the camera suddenly cuts to her walking down a busy shopping street in a bright red dress, we know Lilia’s transformation has begun. In no time, she’s wearing high heels and seducing her daughter’s beau, which would be normally be the catastrophic cue for confrontations, tears, perhaps even violence.

None of which happens, mostly because the tone of Amari’s film is consistently unhysterical, and thus a key piece of the melodramatic formula is discarded, allowing for Lilia to deal with her affair, her rejection by Chokri, and her daughter’s wedding to her lover, with an eerie sense of calm. Besides Lilia’s red dress, the other moment that defines her changed life is when, returning from a night with Chokri, she quietly turns her husband’s photo face down on her bureau, delicately placing a flower on top.

Tunisia, the movie’s setting, is a muslim country that resembles Spain or Italy more than any middle eastern country with repressive fundamentalist laws and morals. Thirty or forty years ago, Lilia would have been played by Melina Mercouri or Anna Magnani, but even then Lilia would have been punished for her rebellion. In Amari’s film, however, we see her dance at her daughter’s wedding, with a hint that things may not be quite over for Lilia and Chokri.