Culture

Ruminations on mystery and memory, cruelty and desire

Review

BEIRUT: Early critics of Danielle Arbid's film "Un Homme Perdu (A Lost Man)" have not been kind when reviewing her feature-length ruminations on mystery and memory spiked with cruelty and desire. When the film premiered at the Cannes film festival this spring, as part of the Director's Fortnight lineup, the trade publication Variety deemed it "a pointless exercise" and "a big step back" for Arbid after her "flawed but promising" debut feature, "Maarek Hob (In the Battlefields)." The "typically Gallic mix of erotica and existentialism looks like it might get, rightfully, lost beyond fleeting [festival] dates."

One of those fleeting festival dates fell on Thursday, when "Un Homme Perdu" closed out the sixth edition of the Ne a Beyrouth Festival of Lebanese Film. Indeed, Arbid's raw and occasionally rough treatment of sexuality and prostitution in the Arab world means the film is unlikely to get local distribution anytime soon.

But rather than rightful, this is a shame, for Arbid's film is worth seeing. "Un Homme Perdu" is a visceral experience in mood and style, and the politics that underpin Arbid's enterprise are daring and subversive.

The film opens in with a flashback to 1985. A jerking camera catches the lost man of the title (Alexander Siddig) running through the war-torn streets of Downtown Beirut.

Skip ahead some 20 years and the man, who answers to the name Fouad Saleh, is weeding a cabbage field in northern Syria. Cast into the part of a bitter day laborer, he picks a fight with his boss (the ubiquitous Fadi Abi Samra), spits at his feet, then in his face and stalks off.

He hails a shared taxi to the Jordanian border, and en route, Arbid threads the scene with taught sexual tension between Fouad and a female passenger, both of whom are so hungry for the merest touch that a clutched knee or, later, a deep embrace, flood them both with feeling. Their strange, silent exchange behind the border control building, however, does not go unnoticed.

Enter Thomas Kore (Melvil Poupaud), a photographer and traveler in pursuit of extreme experiences who tries to capture this odd coupling on film. Both men get hauled off by the police - the woman disappears - and, once released, they catch a ride to Amman together. The weird twists and turns of their terse relationship constitute the core of Arbid's film.

Thomas' character is heavily based on the French photographer Antoine d'Agata, who served as an adviser on Arbid's film. Born in Marseille and based in Paris, d'Agata studied at the International Center for Photography in New York with the likes of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, and his take on documentary images is, like theirs, dystopic, brutal and stripped of gloss.

D'Agata's obsessions are the street, fear, obscurity and sex, all captured memorably in series such as "Insomnia," "Stigma" and "Mala Noche." In a text penned in 2006, he described his practice as "a ride into photography to the vanishing point of orgasm and death."

In Amman, Fouad and Thomas descend into the underground of the Jordanian capital's super nightclubs, the seedy vibe and rustic funk of which Arbid re-creates with great precision. Thomas beds and forcefully photographs a string of prostitutes. Both harsh and steamy, these scenes fix Thomas' character - cruel, careless and ruthless - and replicate the look and feel of d'Agata's style - cropped, grainy and coarse.

Thomas tries to enlist Fouad as his translator and assistant, but the latter balks at the insensitivity of the former. Fouad's recalcitrance only stirs Thomas' curiosity more. Who is this man? What is his story? Where is he from? What is he suffering, amnesia or a surfeit of memory?

From that point on, "Un Homme Perdu" takes a dramatic downward turn. Arbid suddenly drops the plot back into Beirut, where Thomas finds and beds Fouad's wife (Darina al-Jundi). With the help of a woman (Julia Kassar) based on Waddad Halwani, who heads a committee on the missing and the disappeared in Lebanon, Thomas engineers a reunion between Fouad and the life he left long ago.

The artist Walid Sadek has written powerfully on how the missing in Lebanon prohibit the crucial shift from melancholy to mourning that would allow a society addled by conflict to recover.

In the essay "Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse," however, Sadek draws on the story of Lazarus to imagine the dead returned as a stinking corpse that cannot be assimilated into the present.

Fouad's return to Beirut, in its own way, is like that stinking corpse. As soon as he can, strolling in the Sanayeh Garden one day, he runs. A lost man, he doesn't want to be found or returned or reinstated. He wants out of his story.

For the first three quarters of "Un Homme Perdu," Arbid sustains a remarkably charged atmosphere. In Beirut, the film suddenly bottoms out and limps along like a conventional narrative. This could be deliberate. Both men achieve a certain freedom - one through sex and orchestrated risk, the other through obscurity and existence made spare - but then Thomas robs Fouad by bringing him back to Lebanon. In doing so he utterly deflates the film.

Arbid's second feature has probably been met with such damp criticism because it doesn't conform to expectations of what Lebanese film should be. She doesn't offer a tidy fable that maintains the country's conflicts as removed or other. Rather she implicates her viewers through Thomas' actions, in situations where there are no voyeurs, only participants.

In fact, Arbid's film doesn't really belong to the edifice of Lebanese cinema at all but rather to a handful of brash, invigorating films that bring an artist's work and vision to life on screen. The dismal plot resolution of "Un Homme Perdu" essentially trashes the engagements with history and memory that have been so prevalent in Lebanese culture since the close of the Civil War.

In a mark of great talent and skill, Arbid finds a loophole, a lifeline to bolder experiments in form and content and the ways and means to get totally, productively and irreversibly lost.

 

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