Tunisian films are sufficiently rare to assure a welcome for Raja Amari’s “Satin Rouge,” but it must be said that it’s a peculiar film indeed. The picture might be described as a North African version of Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour,” except that in this case instead of a housewife who works in a brothel by day, the story concerns Lilia, a repressed single mother who becomes a cabaret belly dancer by night. To add to the oddity, she also takes up with the musician who’s the secret lover of her young daughter. (Her venturing out into the street at all was to find out where the mildly rebellious girl was spending her time.) By the time the narrative ends, she’s become a seasoned woman of the world–scandalizing some of the conservative neighbors–and minds not that the man she’s recently bedded with much passion is about to wed her own child; indeed, she dances at the reception.
That might all sound a bit ripe, but as Amari depicts it, the story resembles a 1940s Joan Crawford domestic melodrama more than Bunuel’s sharp, saucy satire. Hiam Abbass transforms herself skillfully from a dowdy near-recluse to a liberated celebrity as Lilia, and she carries off the dancing sequences with aplomb. The remainder of the cast handles itself well enough, with Hend El Fahmen nicely sullen as Lilia’s daughter Salma and Maher Kamoun gruffly handsome as the cafe musician Chokri; Monia Hichri, however, is a bit too broad as the professional dancer who takes Lilia under her wing. Technically the picture, if a bit rough around the edges, is certainly acceptable.
Still, “Satin Rouge” is likely to stand out in your mind mostly as a curiosity–a florid Hollywood women’s picture set in a stunningly different locale. It takes you somewhere you’re not likely to have seen before, but beneath the exotic surface (and exotic dancing) it’s surprisingly old-fashioned.