After the musical glamour of 8 Femmes (2002), it is a bump down to earth to encounter the opening scene of Satin Rouge. Lilia (Hiam Abbass), a widow, cleans her house; gradually she begins to move to the sound of music playing from a radio.
But this is not the kind of movie where the music swells and dancing enchants its environment. We remain aware of the humbleness of the surroundings and the fragility of Lilia's gesture. She remains caught in her world.
Satin Rouge has, like several contemporaneous films, been compared with the '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Yet there is scarcely more than a slight plot resemblance between this tale and the widow's plight in All That Heaven Allows (1955). Tunisian writer-director Raja Amari eschews stylised gloss for a different sort of dramatic reality.
Lilia frets about the secret life of her daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem). So she goes looking in a belly-dancing club. At first shocked, Lilia is encouraged by regular dancer Folla (Monia Hichri) to liberate herself and join in the exhibitionistic fun.
The intrigue here is that Salma's boyfriend, Chokri (Maher Kamoun), is a backing musician at the club, and powerfully attracted to Lilia.
This film never quite goes in the direction you expect, and that is what makes it unique. Amari shows both the daily mundanity and the illicit thrill of belly dancing culture. Dancing, music and sex provide physical release for these characters, but do not open a magic road to utopia. They still have their problems to deal with.
Slowly, Amari builds an excruciating suspense. When will Lilia's double life be exposed to all, and with what catastrophic consequences? But, near the end, the story takes a surprising, indeed perverse, turn. What we assumed to be the rigid lines of gender and power in this social microcosm rearrange themselves stealthily. The ending is as disquieting as it is pleasing.
We see few films from Tunisia in Australia, and fewer by Tunisian women. Amari is a major talent to watch.
© Adrian Martin January 2003