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French Version

Ziad Doueri's growing pains

'Lila Says' looks great, but has trouble finding its voice

Reputations made with a first film, they say, can be lost with a second. The adage comes to mind when watching Ziad Doueri's latest. "Lila dit a" ("Lila Says") is a less-satisfying, less-successful work than "West Beyrouth," but it has its moments of beauty and should not be dismissed out of hand.

"Lila" is a coming-of-age tale that focuses on Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), a sensitive young man emerging from adolescence in a working class, largely immigrant quarter of Marseilles. Like many sensitive young men, he doesn't spend his whole day sitting around reading poetry - he knocks around town getting into mischief with three pals.

Since all four are Franco-Arabs in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, universe, being hassled by the cops is part of the process as much as getting drunk. So is sticking their noses into the local mosque to check out what the sheikh has to say. None of this business is pursued in any detail. Though they evidently have pious friends, none of Chimo's pals seems to be serious-minded enough to either engage with Islam or reject it.

More importantly, though, Doueri isn't interested in examining the sociology of underclass frustration that helps form these characters - a la Mathieu Kassovitz' "La Haine" (1995), for instance.

The travails of the Lebanese civil war provided a context for the family drama-cum-coming-of-age comedy of "West Beyrouth." Similarly, the issues of integration, racism and community that have come to define urban France's immigrant poor are kept in the background here. They provide a scenic setting for Doueri's story, a thing to be engagingly photographed.

The film is more interested in what makes Chimo more redeemable than his pals. On one hand he has a close relationship with his mother (Carmen Lebbos) - who is mourning the loss of her husband (he abandoned her for a French woman) and seems to be on the road to becoming a devout Muslim.

Chimo also stands out because of his talent as a writer, which attracts the attention of his teacher. She encourages Chimo to move to Paris to develop his craft but he's looking for reasons not to go - a not-altogether convincing feint, since Chimo is narrating his story for us.

It is into these amicable surroundings that Lila (Vahina Giocante) arrives with her aunt. Beautiful, preternaturally blon-de and fond of riding her moped in above-the-knee dresses - occasionally without underwear - Lila becomes an object of lust for the four lads. Chimo's best friend Wouloud (Karim Ben Haddou), the most thuggish of the four, is particularly smitten with her. She doesn't give him the time of day.

Much to Chimo's amazement, Lila does give him the time of day. He remains amazed, in fact, since seemingly every time Lila opens her mouth it's to share some sexual confidence. During their introductory conversation, for instance, she asks Chimo if he'd like to have a look at her "p***y." When he says yes, she gives him the option of a "long look" or a "short look."

You don't need to be Sigmund Freud to guess which one he chooses.

The balance of the film dwells on Chimo's evolving relationships with Lila, his mother, Wouloud and, ultimately, himself.

"Lila Says" has much to recommend it. Its greatest strength is visual, the first half of the film in particular confirming Doueri's visual imagination. The film's most effective scene follows Lila and Chimo on an erotic moped ride through Marseilles' port area. A voyeuristic steady cam follows the couple for what is probably the film's single best expression of the rush Chimo gets from Lila.

The camera work and direction are matched by a highly photogenic cast.

Yes, there are men who would watch Vahina Giocante if she stood in front of the camera and smiled for 90 minutes. Lila is a convincing character less because of her looks - or anything the script has her say, for that matter - than the repertoire of facial expressions Giocante deploys to suggest the complexities and contradictions of her enigmatic character.

Lila spends much of her time talking dirty but she seems less lascivious than simply enthused; Chimo's bewildered responses to her frank sexual declarations arouse expressions in her that range from mocking to chiding, from amusement to affection.

Mohammed Khouas is less impressive as Chimo, but this may have something to do with the restrictions of his character. He's seldom required to do more than look sensitive and/or confused and he's relieved of much need to act by the voice-over narration that burdens the film - and did not burden "West Beyrouth."

"Lila Says" is interesting when it's edgy - principally in its human relationships. "Shabaab," "mothers" and "sons" can be amusingly written but, if too conventional, they tend to verge on stock characters. Lila's relationships with Chimo - at least in its early, disorienting phases - and, even more, with her deranged aunt are refreshing by comparison.

We get the impression that Lila's fixation on her genitals, for instance, derives in no small part from her aunt's sexual-religious eccentricities (played with crackpot relish by Edmonde Franchi).

It's quite rare to find such a daring treatment of sexuality in the cinema of Arab immigrant experience. You never get the chance to see an Arab filmmaker rub male and female sexualities against each other this way, in any language (some might disqualify Doueri from "Arab filmmaker" status because he studied in the U.S. and mastered his trade working with Quentin Tarantino but no one would say this about Youssef Chahine - the doyen of Egyptian cinema - who also studied in America).

The problem with second films is that they're invariably compared to the first film. Erotic elements aside, "Lila Says" is particularly amenable to comparison with "West Beyrouth." Both are coming-of-age stories in which the relationship of two young men is tried by the arrival of a young woman; in both, the principle male character has a strained family life involving Carmen Lebbos.

Such comparisons aren't necessarily instructive except insofar as they highlight how much Doueri's cinematography has improved relative to his writing.

"Lila" is at once over-written and under-written. In this the director shares responsibility with his source material - a novel of the same name written under the pseudonym "Chimo" - and Joelle Touma, who worked with him to adapt the novel.

Most of the characters besides Lila herself are underwritten. In the case of Chimo any "showing" that might have been built into his character has been given the lazy replacement of "telling," via voice-over narration.

For her part Lila is interesting because she is generally enigmatic. She is provocative without ever feeling the need to explain herself. She never gives Chimo any reason to abandon his suspended disbelief in her fantasies. When she does talk straight, telling Chimo how she feels about him, the lines fall out of her mouth like a lug wrench.

Over-writing - in this case the result of the writers' efforts to package all the story's loose ends - also makes for an unfortunate final act. The end of "West Beyrouth" was masterfully inconclusive by comparison, and altogether more evocative as a result.

One thing the writing of both Doueri's films share is naivete - in their stories as much as their characters. Because the characters in "Lila" are older and "intercultural," the naivete causes problems here that did not arise in the first film.

Doueri and Touma were not interested in the politics of the source material and simply excised it from the film - trying to escape it by moving the setting from Paris to Marseilles. In this regard the writers likely wanted their characters to embody nothing but "a boy" and "a girl."

Unfortunately, "Arab men" (or "immigrant men") and "blonde European woman" are types that do have political significance - in a politics that goes far deeper than party allegiances. No audience can disentangle that significance from a story, particularly from an erotic tale of love, lust and misperception.

Lust and misperception, prejudice and violence, were part of the East-West discourse long before writers starting talking about "discourse." It's worked both ways - Orientalism and Occidentalism - but its most common expression among "Middle Eastern" men is the myth that all "Western women" are sluts.

"Lila Says" does not perpetuate such myths. It actually issues an 11th-hour challenge to them. Unfortunately, the execution of this challenge is embarrassingly pat and cliched.

"Lila dit a" suggests Ziad Doueri is not quite as good as we remember from "West Beyrouth." On the other hand filmmakers, artists generally, only get better by taking risks. Chances are Doueri's work will improve to surpass his first.

Ziad Doueiri's "Lila dit a," in French with English subtitles, is screening in Beirut at Circuit Empire cinemas. Releases will follow in Tunis and Morocco

Beirut 07-02-2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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