|Lebanese film noir behind a Parisian veil|
|Maroun Baghdadi's 'L'Homme Voile' returns to Beirut's Festival du Cinema Francophone at Metropolis Cinema
In one of many memorable scenes of Maroun Baghdadi's 1987 feature "L'Homme Voile" ("The Veiled Man"), a Lebanese gentleman named Kassar (Michel Piccoli) inspects a hunk of liver his employee has freshly excised from a cow carcass at the local abattoir. He sits and washes his hands and face in arak - the Levant's aniseed-flavored tipple - and later tucks into a hearty breakfast of raw sawda (liver). You wouldn't imagine he was in Paris.
As with the Middle East generally, there have been plenty of movies about Lebanon and Lebanese characters.
Critically minded types will tell you the movies made by locals are more authentic than foreign ones. Western filmmakers, they say, use cliches about Arabs in hackneyed tales about good guys and bad guys. It stands to reason that when local filmmakers tell their own stories, they'll do so with more nuance.
Filmmakers don't necessarily subscribe to the same identity politics as certain critics, though. Neither does film finance.
What to make, then, of "L'Homme Voile." Maroun Baghdadi, who was widely regarded as Lebanon's most talented filmmaker when he died in 1994, worked with a French-Lebanese but mostly French cast and crew to tell a story of Lebanese expatriates in Paris. The film is about the tension between appearance and reality, but viewers might have problems with its representation of Lebanese reality.
It's tempting to see "L'Homme" as a simple genre flick - a late-80s film noir with a typically francophone twist on the central love triangle. Pierre Roland (Bernard Giraudeau) arrives in Paris from Beirut, rents a room and seeks out his daughter Claire (Laure Marsac), who lives with his estranged wife. She's not the most affectionate of mothers - missing her daughter's birthday (and any role in the film) because she's gone to Rome with her boyfriend. Pierre, we learn from Claire, is a doctor (presumably a Lebanese expat) who returned to Lebanon during the Civil War.
But this isn't family drama. Kassar, the arak-and-sawda aficionado, has a keen interest in Pierre's arrival. For his part, Pierre seems as haunted as overjoyed to see his daughter after several years. We discover why when Pierre tracks down an Arab man and matter-of-factly executes him.
Pierre the loving father is also an assassin with a contract to eliminate some men hiding in Paris. Kassar represents the contractors. Pierre's last target is Kamal (Michel Albertini). He hangs out with his uncle Samir (Fouad Naim) at a nearby slaughterhouse - the same one that provides Kassar's daily nosh of raw liver.
The plot thickens when we realize Kamal and his underworld colleagues know Pierre's in Paris and are tracking him and Claire. Kamal twice kidnaps Claire, not entirely without her consent.
Baghdadi wrote and directed "L'Homme" in collaboration with Didier Decoin, credited with the dialogue, and photographer Patrick Blossier. It's tempting to seek out the twin poles of this Franco-Lebanese collaboration in the structure of the story itself, which hinges on the tension between an array of opposites and the dissolution of the distinct borders that bourgeois convention says should divide them.
The plot oscillates between the difference in how Claire narrates her father and what he actually is. When Pierre first returns to Paris, Claire's friend Julie says she's told her all about what a magnificent man he is - news Pierre greets grimly.
This dynamic repeats itself in several father-daughter exchanges. She will tell him something about himself, then explain how she had to invent these stories to compensate for not knowing anything about him.
When he greets these stories with silence, they become a source of tension. Pierre is never able to tell Claire exactly how he spent his time in Beirut. His insistence on protecting her from his past gives Kamal an opportunity to soil Claire's innocence, to his own advantage.
Generally, the filmmakers gleefully undermine normalcy in favor of heightened dramatic tension.
Baghdadi, Decoin and Blossier delight in playing up the latent sexuality between father and daughter. Laure Marsac's Claire is as innocently behaved a 16-year-old as you could imagine - as marked by her compulsive pee-pee ever since Pierre left Paris. Yet, as Baghdadi reveals in a doubly voyeuristic shower scene, Claire's a full-grown woman and her loss of innocence is integral to the plot resolution.
Innocent or otherwise, her behavior around Pierre may seem a bit too coquettish for (Anglo-Saxon) comfort. At one point, she surprises her dad with a belly dance. It's hard to discern whether Pierre's response is amazement at how his daughter has grown - and at her interest in her Middle Eastern heritage - or discomfort at how aroused she makes him feel.
The question isn't necessarily put to bed when Pierre's Kurtzian monologue - when he describes the traumatizing circumstances under which he mutated from being a doctor to its opposite - takes place while he's undressing Claire's school chum Julie.
Another polarity the filmmakers play with is East and West. Beirut and Paris are forever represented as opposites: the former as the embodiment of chaos; the latter the center of civilization. A character will say: "Things like this don't happen in Paris," only to be rejoined by another, who will tell him they do indeed.
During Claire's second kidnap, Kamal leers to her that, where he comes from, this is what you do if you want a woman: You take her. But here isn't where you come from, Claire objects, here is Paris. But the war isn't just in Beirut, he replies, it's everywhere.
When his uncle Samir walks in on Claire's interrogation, though, he says, "What are you doing? This isn't Beirut."
When Pierre warns Claire to always lock the door when she comes home, she asks, "Why?"
"Because the city's at war, he says, full of militiamen who would take over your house simply because your window looks over the right part of the street."
"But Papa," she says, "this is Paris. This is our house."
Later in the film, in one of Kassar's many efforts to coax Pierre into fulfilling his contract, the older man remarks: "Nothing will change us. Wherever we go, we turn the place into a whorehouse." It's enough to make a Lebanese visa applicant grimace.
Though Lebanon's Civil War - which had been going on for 12 years by then - is integral to the story, Baghdadi isn't concerned with informing his audience about the details of the conflict. It's likely he and his French cohorts simply evoked the then-ambient reality of an ever-simmering, internationally flavored civil conflict in Lebanon as shorthand for the existential evil of war and its reduction of civilized men to assassins. In 1979 Francis Ford Coppola made similar use of Vietnam in his film "Apocalypse Now" - a film to which "L'Homme" nods.
Similarly, though the film is gratuitously orientalist, that may be because sectarianism had become part of the Lebanon war's calculus, though in 1987 Islam wasn't the international bogyman that it is today. Audiences might keep that in mind when they consider Baghdadi's treatment of Kamal and Samir, the film's two overtly Muslim characters: neither is represented in unambiguously negative terms, any more than Pierre is.
Yet, at times, the present echoes uncomfortably in this film. Late in "L'Homme," Baghdadi's camera finds Kamal and his uncle Samir praying in a slaughterhouse's meat cooler. In the back of the room, a skinned cow, split in half, is hanging from meat hooks. It's hard not to wince at the implied equation.
Marseille,04 11 2007
The Daily Star