A star is born

In <i>Satin Rouge</i>, widow Lilia (Hiam Abbass) secretly evolves from furniture duster to seductive dancer.

In Satin Rouge, widow Lilia (Hiam Abbass) secretly evolves from furniture duster to seductive dancer.

Rated 3.0

Former belly dancer Raja Amari gently escorts us into a modern Tunisian cabaret with Satin Rouge, a lean, sensuous story of self-reinvention and sexual awakening. Amari has written and directed an odd but alluring convergence of melodrama and fable about the lives of a bored widowed seamstress and her young-adult daughter. From their stories can be lifted the fingerprints and credibility stretches of such empowerment extravaganzas as Footloose (taboo busting), Flashdance (unfurled ambition) and Dirty Dancing (desire and emerging adulthood).

In the local cabaret, belly dancers suck in their tummies, gyrate their hips and sway their arms high in the air to the beat of live music and the ebullient metronome claps of mostly males who award their sequin-costumed objects of desire with streams of bank notes. In a modest nearby home, widow Lilia (Hiam Abbass) dusts furniture while wearing plain housedresses and attempts to monitor the social life of her rather spoiled Salma (Hend El Fahem). These two worlds soon intersect and then commingle as each woman embraces a double life that clashes with the area’s predominant Muslim customs, attitudes and mores.

Lilia suspects that her daughter is delving into much more than just homework when she claims to be spending evenings and entire nights at the home of a fellow student. So, Lilia follows Salma to her daytime dance class and gradually ingests some clues that the young lady may be dating a drummer (Maher Kamoun). She coincidentally sees the percussionist later on the street and follows him to the aforementioned nightspot. She returns to the watering hole at night, looking for an AWOL Salma, makes a halting tour of the club and faints amid the hoopla from sensory overload that Lilia herself attributes to “the smoke, the men, the atmosphere. I don’t know.”

The formerly sedate and proper widow awakens in the dressing room of veteran belly dancer Folla (Monia Hichri), who takes Lilia under her wing. The whole experience is both shocking and seductive to Lilia. She adopts Folla as her mentor and slowly becomes a semi-regular star performer at the club. Now it is both mother and daughter who are sneaking out of the house at nights, until their double lives and concurrent love affairs threaten to combust simultaneously.

Amari only thinly explores the darker side of cabaret life, much in the same way Pretty Woman barely acknowledged the seamier side of what is arguably the world’s oldest profession. Amari also fails to flesh out Lilia’s inner desires and conflicts fully. The leap from anonymity ("Her life is dedicated to my father’s memory,” says Salma) into the spotlight of fringe entertainment could have been a huge laugh ("Quit acting like a nervous virgin,” she is even admonished) if not given a magnetic, refreshing interpretation by Abbas.

The film has a fabulous introduction in which Lilia cleans her house, dances for a moment to the radio and inspects herself in a mirror. It’s a fetching glimpse of a woman who unleashes a trapped alter ego by both actually and figuratively letting her hair down. The nocturnal, deserted, neon-lit streets and several townscapes give the film a storybook feel. There are also many jewels embedded in the film that generate an impressive sparkle. A character on TV is chastised for having her impressions of the world shaped by watching too much TV. Short exchanges between club dancers are revelatory and funny. And Folla’s casual references, such as to her longevity as a star (they will be bringing in blond and cheap younger girls soon, she says), give the proceedings a necessary resonance.

Satin Rouge is about self-liberation, peer pressure, reputation and the sometimes-gray line that separates “good girls” from “bad girls.” It is set in an exotic locale in which open-air market goods are sold by the kilo and paid for in dinars. The story lacks high drama, so it simmers when it should percolate, but its open ending, which some audiences do not like, is provocative and intriguing.

“It’s a dangerous age," says a neighbor about Salma. "She smokes. I saw her with a boy." That statement just as readily applies to Lilia. It’s actually the movie that may be a little too tame.