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Auf der Couch in Tunis / Arab Blues

Selma wears jeans and chain smokes. She is returning from Paris to Tunis to set up a practise as a psychotherapist. She brings with her a large picture of “the boss”, Sigmund Freud in a fez. At first. everyone scoffs at her – doesn’t she know that Arabs talk all the time and wouldn’t need to pay for the privilege. But, whaddaya know? Suddenly everyone wants to lie on her couch.

Selma’s teenage cousin Olfa is less pleased by her return. Olfa wears a headscarf to disguise her cropped hair and bad dye job. She was counting on escaping by moving to Selma’s flat in Paris. Now Olfa has to arrange a wedding with her gay mate to get away. If this all sounds a little clichéd, just wait for the transphobic “they’re trying to take over our toilets, er saunas” scene.

Selma encounters all sorts of bureaucratic problems, not least from a trio of policemen – a couple of brainless thugs and their chief who keeps trying to chat her up. As with the wild teen and the, er, weird trans wannabe, the stupid cops are played entirely for laughs, meaning we don’t even consider whether any of this is true. As Selma studied in Israel (or maybe she didn’t), they accuse her of being sponsored by Mossad, but don’t seem to know what Mossad is. There may be a sort of person who finds this hilarious.

Here’s what I think the problem is. The film sells itself as an analysis of Tunisia after the Arab Spring, but there is no sense of empathy with any of the feelings coming out of Tunisia. There is no sense of jublilation at the uprisings of the past decade, more a fear that the Islamists are taking over. Instead, we get a permanent insinuation that the problem with Tunisia is that it’s not sophisticated Paris (well known for its fair minded treatment of its North African population). The cliched Arab characters are largely figures of fun.

Director Manele Labidi is Tunisian, well sort of. She comes from a Tunisian family, but was born and brought up in France. You get the feeling that the film is not celebrating an in joke, showing Arab stereotypes to an audience which recognizes the foibles of their friends and families. This seems to be more a film made for a Western audience, which can’t help punching down at the funny Muslims.

It is quite possible that I have completely misread the film – it is often difficult to be sure exactly what it is trying to say. But this is where the thoughtless “comedy” does it no favours. If you have depicted all your characters to be unbelievably stupid or self-serving, then you can’t really take offence if an audience doesn’t understand your subtle political analysis [alternative reading: there is no subtle political analysis].

Its all a bit of a shame really, because as Selma, Golshifteh Farahani is a captivating presence. I remember her from Paterson, though apparently she was in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films made after many people stopped bothering. I would guess that neither film gave her the chance to do much more than to gaze on the male stars.

Golshifteh does everything that she can here, and Selma is a rounded character, caught between two cultures, and not feeling fully at home in either. The problem is that she is entirely surrounded by stereotypes who offer her very little with which she can react. And so, she just walks through implausible scenes, with not much more to do than retain her dignity.

I guess the film ultimately succeeds or fails on whether you find its jokes funny. And to me they were just too weak, too obvious, too dependent on inaccurate stereotypes. But as soon as you pull that card away, the whole tower comes tumbling down and leaves you with a sorry mess.

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