But first, a couple of re-opening news items: The Hollywood Theatre has announced that it will reopen to the public on July 2, with screenings of the highly anticipated music documentary Summer of Soul. Sounds like a feel-good title to commemorate a feel-good event. And the long-running labor of love known as the Church of Film resumed its monthly screenings this week with a showing of the 1977 Spanish transition narrative Sex Change at the Clinton Street Theater. Both are welcome indicators that things continue to move in the right direction.
The Perfect Candidate is about a doctor named Maryam, who works at a run-down, underfunded rural clinic. She decides to travel abroad to a convention and interview for a position in a larger city, but a screwup by airport security threatens to ruin her plans. In the process of asking a politically connected family friend for help, Maryam accidentally ends up registering to run for a seat on her town council. She then decides to actually do it, undertaking a crash course in electoral campaigning and emerging as a scrappy underdog.
This outline, as well as other plot details, could easily have come from an American movie about a smart, stubborn woman who refuses to let the chauvinistic world around her keep her down. But the fact that The Perfect Candidate is a Saudi Arabian film illustrates exactly how brave and determined Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) is. The airport security incident is prompted by the fact that all women require the permission of their male “guardian” (usually father) to travel out of the country (Maryam is heading for Dubai). It would be wrong to say that her decision to stand up to the patriarchy is any more courageous than that made by other women in other cultures, but she certainly faces longer odds than most.
From the opening scenes, it juxtaposes shocking (for the culture) modernity with the firm but desperate grasp of convention: Maryam drives herself to work, an act that would have been illegal only a few years ago, and is soon berated by an elderly patient who would rather have his painful injury tended to by poorly trained male nurses than a competent female doctor. From there, The Perfect Candidate continues to push boundaries in the way it dares to depict women, whether in segregated groups or moving through the world. To be clear, the boundary that’s being pushed is the one that has kept Saudi women from being treated, or shown to be, anything at all like human beings. But still, it’s something.
Maryam lives with her widowed father, a professional oud player, and her two younger sisters, who each end up reluctantly contributing to her long-shot campaign to unseat a veteran local politician. Meanwhile, her father is distracted by the long-awaited opportunity to go on tour with his band, since the public performance of music has only recently been legalized. He’s pushing boundaries in his own way, since there are still plenty of Saudis who will threaten violence against those who do so.
Haifaa Al-Mansour, the director of The Perfect Candidate, made her feature debut in 2012 with the marvelous, inspirational Wadjda, the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a Saudi woman. She then made her way to the U.S., helming the 2017 biopic Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, and Nappily Ever After, a drama about a Black woman (Nia Long) who rebels against society’s hairstyle expectations. Meanwhile, things had, in significant ways, changed in Saudi Arabia: while Wadjda could not play there because public movie theaters were banned, The Perfect Candidate became the first film to receive funding support from the Saudi government.
Repressive regimes have often spurred creative energies, from Franco’s Spain to Khomeini’s Iran to Deng Xiaoping’s China. It should be interesting to see how far the fundamentalist clerics in Saudi Arabia will go in loosening restrictions, and the effect that has on the output of Saudi filmmakers to come. It remains difficult to reconcile the gradual cultural opening that seems to be taking place with the continued barbarism evidenced by, most infamously, the government-ordered murder of American journalist Jamal Khasshogi. Not be too glib about it, but it might just be, to paraphrase a friend of mine, “the duality of the Saudi thing.” (Playing at the Living Room Theaters)
It’s been hot recently here in Oregon. “How hot was it,” you ask? Well, it was pretty hot, but it wasn’t nearly as hot as the cast of the newly restored 1969 French psychodrama La Piscine. The four performers in this tale of lust and betrayal (and then more lust) set on the sun-baked Riviera rival the collective beauty of any cinematic quartet in history. Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) are a young, decadent, frequently shirtless couple staying in the pool-equipped chateau of friends who are off in India for the year. It’s that sort of crowd. Their sensuous idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Maurice Ronet), an older friend who once had a relationship with Schneider’s character, and his eighteen-year-old, British-raised daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin).
The sexual tension starts at a high simmer and proceeds at a pace toward a full boil. That pace could have been perkier—once the rectangle of desire is drawn, it takes director Jacques Deray (Delon’s most frequent collaborator) too long to ramp up the suspense before a fatal, riveting final act. But plot is not La Piscine’s main draw; rather it’s the languorous, time-stopped sensation of lying poolside, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, as a stunning specimen of humanity emerges from the water and stands over you, dripping with abandon. The movie was remade by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino in 2005 as A Bigger Splash, with a cast including Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. Each of them might be a better actor than their counterparts Schneider and Ronet, but neither of them can hold a candle to the sensual doldrums emitted by the cast of La Piscine. (Playing at Cinema 21).
If La Piscine captures the feel of a lazy French summer day, Super Frenchie is its opposite: a tribute to a certified adrenaline junkie who’s never happier than when he’s taunting death in a frozen wilderness. The daredevil in question is Matthias Giraud, a professional skier and BASE jumper who combined his obsessions to become a renowned ski-BASE jumper. For those not versed in the lingo of the X Games, this means that he scouts out a particularly steep mountain cliff side and then proceeds to ski off the edge of it with a parachute strapped to his back. Half the time, you feel like maybe he’d prefer to do it without the parachute.
As part of a recent rash of extreme-sports profiles, Super Frenchie delivers on its implicit promises. It traces Giraud’s ascent (pun intended) from itty-bitty skiing toddler to his induction into the small fraternity of similarly inclined dudes—all the jumpers we meet or see in the movie are male. Lending some dramatic shape to the movie is the fact that Giraud has a new wife and is expecting his first child, which makes him pause to consider the danger of his hobby-turned-profession. But not for long. I shouldn’t critique too harshly Giraud’s inability, despite multiple efforts, to satisfactorily explain why he’s drawn to this lifestyle. After all, it is by definition an ineffable sensation he must experience as he zooms off mountains, looking for all the world like a human Wile E. Coyote who just keeps getting lucky. But that ineffability makes the documentary’s attempts to humanize him ultimately fall short. (Playing at Cinema 21).