Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Karin Albou's THE WEDDING SONG begins its New York City theatrical run

To male American eyes of a certain age, there is some-
thing strange and wonderfully "foreign" that hangs over THE WEDDING SONG, a new film by Karin Albou (the director who gave us La petite Jérusalem a few years back). This foreignness has to do primarily with the setting of the film -- both its time and place (Tunis, North Africa, in 1942, as WWII raged) -- but

also with the fact that the film is so woman-centric. Without unduly beating the feminist drum, Ms Albou (shown, left) takes us into the realm of women -- their hopes, fears, feelings and thoughts -- as well as any director whose work I've seen of late.

Perhaps the first thing you'll notice, during what looks like competing bachelor and bachelorette parties of their day, is that the guys get a real woman doing a provocative dance to entertain and amuse them. The gals? Well, rather than the real thing, they must make do with another female, in drag, pretending (quite well and with some scathing humor) to be male. It's all here: chauvinism, sexism, tradition and religion combining to keep women underfoot. Yet Albou does not harp; she simply shows -- with irony, humor, understanding and even affection.

Her story is of two young girls, best friends on the cusp of adulthood -- one Muslim, the other Jewish -- the former of whom is about to marry the boy she loves (somewhat haltingly, due to inexperience). That her fiance is not gainfully employed adds to the uncertainty of the situation and provides a pivotal plot point. With the Germans now in control of the area, the situation for Jews, while not as dire as for those in Europe, is worsening. The Jewish girl's mother, played with reticence and ebbing strength by the writer/director, is trying to marry her daughter off -- for protection, economic and otherwise -- to a middle-aged doctor/son of one of the area's more powerful Jewish families.

All this would be more than enough to provide plenty of plot for any film, and while Albou tells her story proficiently enough, she is more interested in the emotional life of, and the connection between, the two girls. Because of religion, circumstance and the longing for acceptance, betrayals occur among both families and friends, but the strength of Albou's film-making comes through her refusal to demonize anyone. Yes, the men are sexist and the women too accepting; what else is new? Plenty, in that we can understand how each individual act has been prepared for, and how and why characters behave as they do, emotionally and intellectually. We may not like this but Albou sees to it that we must accept and deal with it, just as do her characters.

To properly capture the specific time and place, the writer/
director places her cameras in the home with the family at prayer and play, in the girls' school, with particularly interes-
ting scenes -- some relaxed and char-
ming, others grim -- in the women's bath house (below). To bring her film to life Albou has garnered a splendid cast, beginning with Lizzie Brocheré (above, left), as the young Jewess and Olympe Borval (with Ms Brocheré, at right) as her Muslim friend. Both are on-point throughout, making it difficult for us to not to understand them, even when they're behaving very badly. The Muslim boyriend, full of the shallow wisdom, daring and stupidity of youth is well played by Najib Oudghiri (just above) and, as the wealthy Jewish doctor, Simon Abkarian (shown at right, third photo up, and currently to be seen in Sally Potter's Rage) proves an ideal mixture of decency and desire, able to convey his strong passion and strength, as well as his mixed feelings concerning the fact that this arrangement is his choice, not hers.

Within the film is one scene likely to receive the most attention: a 1940s-style pubic hair-removal done to bring the bride into the kind of shape preferred by her husband-to-be. The scene is initially a turn-on that turns into something fierce, shocking and powerful -- the audience reaction to which, though perhaps mixed, should prove close to unforgettable. The Wedding Song, from Strand Releasing, open this Friday, October 23, in New York City the Quad Cinemas; and on Friday, November 6, at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles and the Town Center Five in Encino.

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