Look in virtually every neighborhood on Earth and you'll discover restless youth playing pointless games and obsessing over sex. The erotic, culture-crossing film Lila Says finds unique pressures in the Arab quarter of Marseilles. Not only do young Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) and his scofflaw pals deal with boredom, joblessness and raging hormones, they routinely face anti-Muslim police harassment. "Since those fuckers blew up New York, we're paying for it here," Chimo remarks.
Newcomer Lila (Vahina Giocante) would set temperatures rising in any community, but she's especially provocative in Chimo's impoverished inner-city neighborhood, where the traditional Muslims believe it's sinful to display your thighs. Blonde and immodestly dressed, the girl first chats up Chimo and turns out to be a shockingly brazen coquette, sparking a love affair that's both charged with lust, yet strangely chaste.
Lebanese-American director Ziad Doueiri photographed Quentin Tarantino's early films and makes Giocante one of the most gorgeous subjects in modern cinema. Lila knows she's got it going on, matter-of-factly declaring "I'm like a Ferrari in the middle of a junkyard."
Lila and Chimo's early meetings prove far from innocent. She flashes him from a playground swing and, later, reaches down his pants when they're both balanced on a bicycle. But otherwise, their encounters resemble in-person phone sex, with little physical contact. Lila's sexually graphic conversation becomes increasingly kinky as she expresses interest in multiple partners, voyeurism and amateur pornography. Lila becomes a kind of muse for Chimo, who shakes off his teenage malaise and begins writing (his introspective musings provide the film's narration). But whether constrained by Lila's aggressive words or his own low esteem issues, Chimo barely touches Lila and never pushes their intimacy any further.
Led by Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou), Chimo's none-too-bright buddies first offer strutting comic relief; increasingly, they emerge as sexual predators, and Mouloud become especially infuriated when Lila rebuffs him.
Doueiri's screenplay draws from a largely apolitical source, a raunchy, anonymously published novella that caused a brief sensation in France. From a post 9/11 perspective, Lila Says explores the attraction and tension in racial differences. In her first scene, Lila extols the beauty of her blue eyes and the "angelic" whiteness of her skin, as if fully aware that she fulfills a stereotypical Western ideal of beauty. She also tells Chimo that she likes his "olive skin," suggesting their "otherness" helps bring them together.
Chino and his friends are rebels without religious or political causes, and one even remarks that he'd take "pussy over Free Palestine." Implicitly, the likes of Mouloud share similar resentments with potential terrorists. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has written about young Islamist men torn between their convictions of spiritual superiority and their jealousy of the West's material riches. When Mouloud's wounded pride and hostility to Lila grows increasingly threatening, Lila Says could be an allegory for the cultural frustrations that build to unjustifiable acts of brutality.
At heart, Lila Says tells a simple story that takes few detours. Fortunately, the young leads and even Marseilles' old-world neighborhoods look so sumptuous that the film achieves a higher level of sensuality than the script alone would suggest. In many ways, Lila Says is all talk, but it's not a tease.
APRES VOUS -- Wispy but typically charming French romantic comedy about a well-meaning everyman (Daniel Auteuil) who literally stumbles upon a fellow trying to kill himself (Jose Garcia), takes him into his home to become his roommate, and eventually tries to get him back together with his ex-girlfriend (Sandrine Kiberlain), all to predictably zany results. Auteuil is a marvel of understated performance, but the movie lays on the odd couple shtick a little thick. -- Felicia Feaster
YES -- Director Sally Potter's film tackles Arab-Western politics through the prism of a love affair between a modern, self-confident, married scientist (Joan Allen) and a proud, devout Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian). It's hard not to come away with respect for a director so fundamentally challenging the conventions of filmmaking in her own original, fascinating way. In the end, Potter gets under your skin. -- Felicia Feaster
The Charlotte Film Society's November line-up begins this Friday at the Manor Theatre. For more info, call 704-334-1324 or go online to http://charlottefilmsociety.com.