- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

"Satin Rouge," exclusively at the Cinema Arts in Fairfax, is the sexiest Tunisian movie I have ever seen. Of course, I could have missed a few, so I'll be glad to catch up with similarly insinuating examples when alerted to their availability. A few of the seniors who keep flocking to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" might find it agreeable to buy a ticket to "Satin Rouge" instead. There are affinities: The Tunisian movie is an exotic empowerment fable about another sort of lovelorn heroine.
Raja Amari's provocative "Sleeping Beauty" update celebrates the professional-erotic awakening of Lilia, a handsome and respectable widow in her middle to late 30s. Hiam Abbass embodies her with an impressive blend of the shy and the sultry. She is a seamstress with a teenage daughter named Salma (Hend El Farhem). Salma has begun to prolong study dates with a classmate, Hela (Nadra Lamloum), and to fancy a young bongo player, Chokri (Maher Kamoun), who moonlights at their belly-dancing classes.
It turns out to be a small world in Lilia's part of Tunis. Concerned about her daughter's infatuation but uncertain of the young man's identity, Lilia blunders into the cabaret where Chokri helps provide the rhythmic accompaniment for professional belly dancers. The atmosphere is so smoky and overwhelming that she faints. A headliner named Folla (Monia Hichri) volunteers her dressing room as a recovery room.
The women become friendly, and for a time, Lilia agrees to sew Folla's outfits and becomes more comfortable at the club in that capacity. However, in mad moments when alone before the mirror, Lilia has simulated the sort of dance moves that Folla and the other performers at the Satin Rouge do on a regular basis.
Her irresistible urge to lose herself in dance is detected one night by Folla, who coaxes Lilia onto the floor for a promising duet. She perceives a potential money machine, assuming that Lilia's desire to gyrate can be reconciled with enough discipline and mercenary interest to sustain a performing career. She has no doubt that they can drive the customers crazy and profit very handsomely in the process.
There's no discernible reason to question this evaluation. Indeed, Lilia is so much better-looking than the cabaret's resident dancers, Folla included, that it's easy to imagine a quantum leap in popularity. It does your heart good to see that the other women are untainted by show-biz jealousy or resentment; they regard Lilia as a desirable addition to the club.
There is a slight problem on the romantic front. Chokri has been consorting with Lilia's daughter, who expects to become his bride ere long. Despite this alliance, the nearness of Lilia on the job has prompted Chokri to fall hard for the mother. Lilia returns Chokri's ardor so passionately that Miss Amari is able to stage a cleverly convulsive sex scene in which her leading lady doesn't need to disrobe because she's too carried away to bother removing her dress. This, I surmise, is an ingenious way of outfoxing censorship norms in Tunisia.
Because Chokri is unaware that he's two-timing Salma with her mother and Lilia is unaware that Chokri is her daughter's beau, the scene is set for a humdinger of a showdown. At this point, Miss Amari pushes her luck and allows the denouement to become a soft-core joke, although a better joke than many competitors can bring off, especially the hacks hired to sex up cable television on weekend evenings.
Even with the overcalculated kicker, it's impossible to ruin the pathos generated by Miss Abbass while spending nights alone and the pleasure generated when she discovers that gotta-dance impulse and becomes glad all over.
Obviously, the movie benefits from an exotic setting and the shadow of social taboos that could prove costly to an aroused heroine. It would seem quaint to authenticate similar constraints in an American setting, although not quite everything goes a generation after porn emerged as a film industry of its own.
I suppose the closest equivalent among recent Hollywood movies was "Striptease," and the context was too coarse for Demi Moore to remain modestly seminaked. Hiam Abbass reminds us that actresses were reliably sexy for decades before it became commonplace to strip for the movie camera. Moreover, the becoming hesitation she exhibits while being persuaded to slip into a belly dancer's costume has become a lost seductive art on the screen.
The popularity of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" suggests that many "lost" moviegoers might be ready for an update of "Abie's Irish Rose." I don't care to backslide in that direction, but if actresses as attractive as Hiam Abbass want to rediscover the joys of the hypnotic dancing girl, I think one should give them a fair, open-minded ogle.

TITLE: "Satin Rouge"
RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, with a sustained interlude of simulated intercourse)
Written and directed by Raja Amari. Cinematography by Diane Baratier. Music by Nawfel El Manaa. In Arabic with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

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