On the American poster for Karin Albou’s new film, “Le chant des mariées,” the tag line reads something like “a friendship nothing could destroy” (or some- thing like that). It’s a clichéd line that sells short this thematically bold and visually striking second feature by the director of “Little Jerusalem.”
Yes, this is a film about two teenage girls, and yes, it’s a period piece involving the Nazis, but surprisingly, it doesn’t take the well-tread paths of most other World War II dramas. The setting is Tunisia, 1942, a country deal- ing with issues of French colonization, German occupation and Allied bombings. History aside, at its core, this film is not about the Jews, though the feisty young Miriam (played by the sparkly- eyed Lizzie Brocheré) and her mother find themselves unable to pay the harsh tax imposed by the Germans. Neither is this film about Arabs, though Nour (compellingly acted by Olympe Borval) complains about having to wear an overbearing white sheet as a veil and not being able to go to school.
Essentially, it’s about two young girls becoming women within a historical space where religion, culture and war are all extensions of how men control, regulate and dominate women’s lives, prospects and bodies.
Nour and Miriam, growing up in the same courtyard and practically members of each other’s families, have grown intensely and dependently close to one another, until the adolescent dramatics emphasize the real differences in their situations. Nour is in love (and lust) with a caring, but ultimately domineeringly prideful cousin who can’t marry her until he finds a job, while Miriam’s mother, played by the director herself, is forcing her daughter to get real and get married to a rich and well-intentioned, but ultimately old and ugly doctor who expects babies by peacetime. Of course, the girls envy each other, but unlike most other coming-of-age dramas, there is no pettiness—only intense emotions mediated by piercing gazes, minimal dialogue and sensual, loving intimacy. It is a feminist film because there is no false feminism here—only real girls and women learning to navigate political and cultural terrains they didn’t choose, with, against, or among men trying to do the same. Perhaps it is because our protagonists are not always strong, because they cannot always stand up for themselves or each other (or don’t know that they should) that women will find them all the more sincere, all the more relatable.
Yes, there are slow points and a few overdramatic moments, and yes, much of the weight hangs on subtle looks, acts and gestures. But holding your gaze is what the film does best—the camera work is gorgeous, with incredible blues and grays, shadows, atmosphere and composition. A visual audacity characterizes the most memorable scenes—from the comfortably naked bodies in the bath house, welcoming us into a community of women, to the most disturbing scene of the wedding prep that made all the men in the audience flinch. The camera fixates unashamedly and unapologetically on an excruciatingly long held close-up of a scared, crying Miriam getting waxed for a wedding night she fears, cradled by Nour, helping her holding back screams. Such rituals are mediated by haunting traditional songs from both cultures. In the end, the film seems not so much about staying best friends against all (historical and cultural) odds, so much as it is about these women holding on to their friendship as another form of holding on to themselves.