29th Sep2015

LFF 2015: ‘Madame Courage’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Adlane Djemil, Lamia Bezouaoui, Leila Tilmatine | Written and Directed by Merzak Allouache

madame-courage

A pill-popping purse-snatcher by day and habitual terror to his mother by night, Omar (Adlane Djemil) is a young man we can all relate to. Living in an Algerian shanty town and making ends meet fencing stolen goods only to buy himself Artane tablets (also known as Madame Courage) and, occasionally, food for his maltreated sex worker sister and put-upon mother, he doesn’t have a lot going for him. Which is perhaps why, when he steals – and later returns – teenager Selma’s (Lamia Bezouaoui) necklace, he develops an infatuation for her that he finds impossible to articulate. So – like we all do – he resorts to following her home and sitting underneath her balcony night after night.

It’s hard to know whether or not a film is depicting a nation or subculture accurately when you’ve no first-hand experience of either, but if writer-director Merzak Allouache’s urban Algeria is anything like the real thing, I doubt I’ll be visiting any time soon. Filled with abusive cops, cruel pimps and vicious gangsters (not to mention petty thieves), Omar’s world is one that seems dead-ended. Allouache’s camera often follows the spaced-out, quasi feral young man in profile as he stalks the streets (and Selma), leaving where he’s heading a mystery to everyone including Omar.

His attempts to woo the girl – setting off fireworks outside Selma’s block, accosting her in the building’s stairwell before removing her headscarf and silently stroking her hair – are confusing but not unappealing to her, though her cop brother disagrees. I doubt this was the intention, but it was refreshing to view such aggressive romantic posturing treated as the harassment that it is when compared to the generous portrayal of equally worrying gestures in so many Hollywood romances.

Despite several violent incidents against him, Omar keeps coming back for more, though his intentions are never explicitly expressed. His relationships with women fuel the film: from a complete disinterest in his mother’s harridan-like wailing to his brutal reprisal against the pimp that assaulted his sister, the protagonist conforms to base ideas about masculinity – protector, predator, a lone wolf – that come off as a little too arch in Madame Courage.

I have read that this may be a reflection of male attitudes toward women in Algeria, and reading that subtext into the film does give some potency to its depiction of the sexes’ inability to communicate or see beyond traditional stereotypes. But perhaps Omar is too oblique, the point hammered home with more nails than is necessary. Madame Courage is a film of compelling ideas (or one idea, at least), but in exploring those it loses sight of the characters and ultimately lost me too.

Madame Courage is showing at the BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 8-17 October. Click here for tickets and more information.

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