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Just chillin·: (l-r) Clarkson and Siddig in Cairo Time.

Egyptian Idyll

By Laura Leon

Cairo Time

Directed by Ruba Nadda

Much like an E.M. Forster heroine first encountering India, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) descends into the humid, tumultuous cosmos of Cairo looking a bit lost and confused·if coolly chic. Juliette, an editor for the American magazine Vous, has left her 12-hour workdays to visit the Egyptian capital in hopes of meeting up with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus); he·s a U.N. official who has been unavoidably detained by vaguely defined unrest in Gaza. Fortunately, Mark has arranged for his former colleague Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to chauffer his wife to the hotel and, ultimately, as the days stretch on and on, become her de facto tour guide.

Director Ruba Nadda is clearly interested in the West·s perception of the Middle East, a point made immediately when Tareq rather testily queries Juliette, ·What Middle East? The middle of what?· Throughout the movie·s slim running time, Juliette makes unwitting cultural faux pas, like walking about the streets alone and wandering into male-only coffeehouses. In the case of the former, there is an urgent sense of impending disaster, as Egyptian men stalk and nearly accost her. At one point she compliments the cleaning staff·s hajib, and it can·t help but come out as the height of banality, even more so when, in the next scene, Juliette is wearing what appears to be the same head garment as she traipses through a mosque. (She did, at least, remember to take off her sandals.) Clarkson engages us as a somewhat weary, sharp-eyed traveler, trying gamely to make sense of a new time zone and a foreign culture, but there·s a melancholy pervading her every move (which, apparently, has to do with endless waiting for Mark to arrive).

A central problem of Cairo Time is the flimsy way in which Mark·s and Juliette·s marriage is sketched. Are they truly happy? Is he stepping out on her? Is there really trouble in Gaza? Does his ongoing absence underscore a longstanding emotional detachment? Nadda seems unsure of which way to go on these questions, so at times Juliette looks positively radiant as she discusses her husband, and at others, depressed and frustrated. The unevenness comes into play as the relationship between Tareq and Juliette grows into something slightly more intimate than mere acquaintance. Clearly, he·s taken in her considerable charms from the get-go, and is at all times willing to drop everything to escort her here and there. She seems amazed and delighted when, late in the game, his parting kiss lingers just a bit too long, and a climatic date seems ripe for an enchanting consummation of subsumed passion.

With its lushly golden cinematography (by Luc Montpellier), Cairo Time offers a stunning portrait of this teeming, colorful and vibrant metropolis. Tareq·s pride is understandable, perhaps more so than Juliette·s inability to understand the existence of class distinctions. Clarkson is radiant, reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn·s glowing turn in Summertime, and Siddiq is smolderingly sexy, even in a dress (actually, the traditional galabia). The movie is enjoyable, in the way that laying in warm afternoon sunshine can be, but it disappoints in its failure to delve deeper into its characters· true feelings, let alone the cultural differences that separate them.

A Cat Treat

Wild Grass

Directed by Alain Resnais

By the time you read this, Wild Grass likely will have disappeared from local cinemas. It·s for the usual reason: no customers. This can·t be chalked up to our increasing resistance to foreign films and dread of subtitles, however; judging from the random reactions I·ve heard, this movie just pissed people off. If nothing else, this is a tribute to 88-year-old filmmaker Alain Resnais· continuing ability to confound and challenge moviegoers.

Wild Grass is a puzzle-box of a movie. A fussy older shopper with bright red hair fresh from a bottle, Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), is robbed of her bag in a crowded public place. An irritable older man, Georges (André Dussollier), finds a bright red wallet on the ground next to his car; the wallet is Marguerite·s, discarded by the original thief. What follows is an increasingly bizarre series of encounters as the two strangers pursue and repel each other in what is, ultimately, a distasteful relationship.

Then again, who are we to judge?

Georges is cranky, selfish, dishonest, prone to fantastic flights of fancy and coolly disconnected from his attractive, younger second wife and adult children. He is, in short, an asshole. Marguerite is selfish, uncaring, disconnected from the few intimates in her life and able to feel passion for only one thing: flying. She·s unlikable.

Nothing is more alienating than characters one doesn·t like doing things one doesn·t feel any affinity for. And yet . . . the film pulls you in, in spite of this. (It pulled me in, anyway.)

Wild Grass unfolds with the logic of a dream·a dream told by an unreliable narrator (Edouard Baer). The film begins with fetishistic close-ups of body parts and products; we·re only allowed to get to know the characters in the filmmaker·s own good time. The luxurious compositions and all-around cinematic razzle-dazzle are irresistible; one may not care for the characters, but their behavior is fascinating·and often rings true.

Stop reading now if spoilers annoy you.

In the end, Resnais really pulls the rug out from under the audience, with the suggestion·irritatingly backed up, on reflection, by some of what one·s seen·that everything in Wild Grass is just an idle dream. A dream as odd and weightless as a young girl imagining herself to be a cat, eating ·cat munchies.· For some reason, I found this delightful. Most people, however, would quite reasonably be pissed off.

·Shawn Stone

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