American filmgoers who see new French films in movie
theaters often encounter movies made by well-known directors and featuring
established stars. Critics who experience the abundant offerings at
international film festivals, though, often see another kind of French film:
first features by young directors who mount loosely autobiographical
coming-of-age tales in a briskly naturalistic style.
There are three intertwined reasons why these films are so
numerous and so similar to each other. One is that, by all appearances, a chunk
of the young French population feels it’s their birthright as citizens of the
Republic to make a movie, and what better subject than the obvious: one’s own
youth. The second is that the Republic apparently agrees with this belief, and
heavily funds movies that represent “young cinema.” The third reason is that
producers desirous of government munificence—and of helping young talent, of
course—gladly rally to the task of mounting such fledgling efforts.
The fact that France is the capital of auteur theory additionally
means that these producers rarely have much creative input or control over the
films. It’s all about the vision of the young filmmaker, and that freedom,
together with the propensity for autobiographical tales, is why so many of
these films feel stamped from the same mold.
Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes” is one of this very
familiar type, but there’s a reason why it’s one of the few examples headed
into America cinemas. That’s because it was made by a young Arab woman and
reflects on her experiences in Tunisia during the lead-up to the Arab Spring—or
Jasmine Revolution, is it was called there.
This political/cultural dimension is indeed interesting and
noteworthy, but the way it’s presented here makes “As I Open My Eyes” feel like
two films rather oddly stitched together. For much of its length, it’s a
coming-of-age tale that has Tunisian characters but feels like the standard
French type (Bouzid studied filmmaking in Paris and French literature at the
Sorbonne). Then, in the last act, political paranoia and revolutionary ferment
burst into the story, and a different sort of film emerges.
Bouzid centers her story on 18-year-old Farah (Baya
Medhaffer), a middle-class girl torn between her mother and her boyfriend and
the two life paths they represent. Hayet (Ghalia Benali), her mom, is a kindly
but very practical sort, and she’s understandably thrilled that her daughter’s
been accepted to medical school. Farah, though, sings in a band—one of Patti
Smith’s album covers hangs in her bedroom—and that’s the more romantic road
associated with her boyfriend Bohrène (Montassar Ayari).
Not surprisingly, Farah devotes more time to her band and
Bohrène than to mom. The band (which performs songs by Iraqi musician Khyam
Allami) seems off to a strong start, and the same might said of Farah’s first
big romance. The passion is new and obviously exhilarating. After making love,
she kicks the sheet off Bohrène, saying she wants to see what a man’s penis
looks like. (One wonders if this scene could be shown in Tunisia, or if it
indicates the extent to which the film is meant for foreign viewers.)
Curiously, there’s virtually no mention of religion in the
film. For that matter, politics creep into the tale only obliquely, and later.
It appears we’re meant to understand that the band’s music and Farah’s lyrics
have an edge of protest, but this is registered only as a very general sort of
frustration and discontent.
This reviewer was in Tunisia during the time the film
depicts and remembers the repressive atmosphere and sense of omnipresent
surveillance prior to the popular uprising and the flight of the dictator Ben
Ali. Again, though, there’s practically no discussion of politics anywhere in
the film. This element enters the story only in the last act, when the band
begins to think that one of its members is a police informant, and then Farah
disappears into the Kafkaesque grip of the state security apparatus.
The latter event occasions the film’s two strongest scenes.
In one, Farah’s mom takes her to a crowded bus station and manages to buy her
the last ticket on an inter-city bus, but then Farah’s goes off to buy a drink
and never returns. The mother’s frantic search through the station for her
missing child has a pulse of Hitchcockian dread. The other scene, which comes
soon after, shows Farah’s interrogation by two policemen. It’s done in a single
take and is harrowing enough for a Costa-Gavras film.
These scenes show that Bouzid has real filmmaking talent, as
do the strong performances she gets out of newcomer Medhaffer as Farah and
Benali as her mother. When these two are in top form at the story’s climax, it
makes you wish a strong producer had induced Bouzid to toss the coming-of-age
clichés and focus the entire film on the nascent political drama that makes its
latter third so much more compelling than the rest.