October 17, 2003
FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS; What Chance for Love Across the Divide?
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Jacques Doillon's serious comedy ''Raja'' gets to the bottom and stirs up all the mucky dregs of a question so complex and ticklish that movies tend to shy away from exploring it with any depth. When two potential partners have a glaring disparity in income, age and cultural sophistication, it wonders, what are the reasonable chances that love can flourish untainted by opportunism and exploitation? They're slim, of course. But in digging into the reality of a scenario that suggests a French-Moroccan ''Pretty Woman,'' the movie displays a remarkable empathy and even-handedness.
The possible lovers who are caught up in diabolical mind games are 19-year-old Raja (Najat Benssallem), a fiery-eyed, tomboyish Moroccan girl who lives on the streets of Marrakech, and Fred (Pascal Greggory), a wealthy, idle Frenchman of around 50 who lives like a prince, tended by servants in a villa surrounded by gardens and palm trees.
An orphan forced by poverty into occasional prostitution, Raja lives on and off with a boyfriend, Youssef (Hassan Khissal), who is unemployed and takes most of the money she can scrounge up. When not with Youssef, she stays with the family of her best friend, Nadira (Ilham Abdelwahed).
Handsome, balding and debonair, Fred has nothing better to do than to pursue his whims while considering whether to transform his home into a small hotel. When he first lays eyes on Raja, he is instantly infatuated. The two begin a wary, combative courtship in which they dance around each other, flirting, then freezing up and swapping personal information that is sometimes untrue and becomes even more garbled because of their French-Arabic language barrier. Eventually, Raja and Fred become so hopelessly tangled in their games that winning a point becomes an end in itself. The movie, to be shown tonight and tomorrow as part of the New York Film Festival, suggests that from the beginning the relationship is corrupted by unequal power.
Fred, besotted and narcissistic, imagines himself the more vulnerable one. Raja, who is penniless, knows that the one holding the purse strings will always have the advantage. She makes up the gap in a furiously defensive, ultimately self-defeating pride.
Raja can never shake her suspicion that Fred really just wants to buy her body, then drop her. Fred becomes so impatient for a sign of her favor that he goes to desperate, contradictory extremes. He hires Raja to work in his garden and lavishes her with gifts and money. At one point he even offers to pay for her marriage to Youssef, and then to set up the couple in his house. The catch, of course, is that then he would own Raja, who is more in love with Fred than she lets on but instinctively recoils at the idea of being bought.
At the same time, the hardheaded Moroccans observing the courtship understand that Raja has the opportunity of a lifetime if she plays her cards right. The more she waffles, the more impatient they become with her. The two Moroccan crones who cook and keep house for Fred warn him that Raja is unreliable and thieving.
What distinguishes ''Raja'' from every other movie to contemplate the treacherous intersection of passion, avarice and power is its unsettling emotional honesty. The two central performances (especially Ms. Benssallem's Raja, who has the intensity of a cornered wild animal) are so spontaneous and mercurial that the reckless flirtation seems to be unfolding before your eyes.
Mr. Doillon is not a complete cynic. His screenplay gives credence to the genuinely tender feelings both characters harbor for each other. At the same time, he recognizes how desire, especially when thwarted, can make a fool of anybody.
--Stephen Holden/ New York Times - Review
August 29, 2003
By David Stratton
Jacques Doillon's latest exploration into the sexuality of the young unfolds in a setting very different from those of his other films. Against a burnished backdrop of contemporary Marrakesh, "Raja" centers on the relationship between a rich white man and a poor Arab girl young enough to be his daughter. Yet nothing's as simple as it may at first seem in this intriguing, provocative and very well acted pic, which will need positive reviews to grab a slice of the crowded arthouse market worldwide.
Fred (Pascal Greggory) is a left-over colonial living in a degree of luxury outside the city; he may or may not be married but, at any rate, his wife, if he has one, is back in France. This middle-aged Frenchman has plenty of time and plenty of money at his disposal, and he's cared for by two plump, elderly women (Oum El Aid Ait Youss and Zineb Ouchita, both splendid). But Fred is bored; when he hires a small group of women to care for his garden, he's immediately smitten with 19-year-old Raja (Najat Benssallem).
Raja is an orphan literally and figuratively scarred by life. Though she appears virginal, she has been raped and has worked as a hooker and now more or less lives with Youssef (Hassan Khissal). Fred is determined to conquer this apparently shy, innocent girl. But, he hardly speaks any Arabic and she hardly speaks any French.
What starts as a game becomes gradually more serious as Fred grows obsessed with Raja. He offers her permanent work in his house, gives her presents and money, and makes every effort to win her over.
While Helene Louvart's Scope camera evocatively captures the washed-out look of a hot and humid atmosphere, Doillon takes his time developing the sexual tension, which becomes quite palpable. He handles his actors almost as if directing a musical; they seem at times choreographed. If the predatory Fred appears at first to be in the ascendancy in this relationship, it soon becomes clear that Raja is just as calculating and manipulative.
Greggory gives an engaging performance as a self-assured man whose confidence is gradually eroded by the wiles of this provocative young woman. First-time screen actor Benssallem is perfectly cast as the young woman determined to get what she can out of the situation.
Philippe Sarde's subtle music score adds a subtle dimension to the drama which, despite its many qualities, is rather overextended as a result of Doillon's very relaxed direction.
--David Stratton/ Variety - Review