Nadine Labaki's second slice of Lebanese life conjures an intoxicating mess of jarring themes.
What worked so well in Nadine Labaki’s first film, 2007’s Caramel, was that amid the bustle and colour of Beirut existed a microcosmic sanctuary, a beauty parlour, in which the five principle characters could retreat to commiserate, bicker and administer grooming sessions. In her second feature, the multi-talented Labaki presents a story that has a lot of merit but lacks such a centre of gravity.
Location is an unspecified small village in Lebanon where Muslims and Christians work side-by-side, hauling watermelons in buckets and transporting chairs stacked perilously high. You can almost smell the dust and sweat of honest toil under the sun.
This is Eden but elsewhere in the country Muslims and Christians are killing each other. The Queen Bees of the village headed by Afaf (Leyla Hakim) and Amale (Labaki) hear first and invest considerable effort in concealing news of the bloodshed from their hotheaded menfolk.
What might conceivably hit the same stark tone as Jafar Panahi’s The Circle is more of a sassy melodrama in the vein of Ozon’s 8 Women, complete with a few ditties and a jaunty sound design, via Labaki’s husband, Khaled Mouzannar.
Charming and surreal set pieces abound. Most bizarre in show are the five Ukrainian strippers brought in as the ultimate in male distraction techniques. Dialogue crackles with witticisms as Labaki proves, again, that growing up beside violence has not made her people grey.
It’s the spunky, soap opera edition of the idea behind The Beach and The Dreamers. How do you block out the world and preserve a personal sanctuary? When the ladies burn newspapers a chill undercuts the jokey atmosphere.
Where this chill should turn to ice is when tragedy hits, yet the event and its consequences are curiously weightless. Scenes that are rationally heart wrenching cannot compete with the hand-wringing melodrama that has gone before. Where Do We Go Now? plays its aces too soon robbing the story of a believable emotional landscape.
In the absence of meaning, chaos emerges as the dominant narrative force. This is disorientating and – in a perhaps unintentional, nihilistic sense-profound.
An award-winning film by a respected new name.
Intoxicating mess of jarring themes.
Baffling nonsense but beautiful and profound. We’re conflicted.