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With: Hiam Abbass, Hend El Fahem, Monia Hichri, Monia Hichri
Written by: Raja Amari
Directed by: Raja Amari
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Arabic, with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 03/18/2013

Satin Rouge (2002)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Days of Our Wives

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Experts tell you over and over again in writing classes not to use passive verbs. They lack punch and drag an audience out of a story. The same goes for passive characters in movies. And though rules can be broken, two new films opening today -- His Secret Life at the Embarcadero and Satin Rouge at the Opera Plaza -- don't qualify as exceptions. His Secret Life, which comes from Italy, and Satin Rouge, out of Tunisia, feature virtually the same leading character: a husbandless housewife who blunders into a life-changing new world. In both, the character is so clueless, so offensively boring, you wonder what a conversation between the two might be like, even though neither would have the courage to speak first.

In His Secret Life, Antonia (Margherita Buy) suffers through the untimely death of her husband. In a nearly comical scene, he tries to cross a busy street while dialing his cellphone, and his body gets tossed back and forth between the windshields of two cars in a computer-generated image. Soon after, Antonia discovers an inscription on a painting given to him by "the ignorant fairy," who sounds like a lover. For some reason, it takes Antonia a full 30 minutes of screen time to figure out that the character was her husband's gay lover -- even after she meets him face to face. Of course, she becomes friends with the lover, named Michele (Stefano Accorsi, from The Last Kiss), and joins his lunchtime group of has-beens, misfits, outsiders and drag queens. They accept her into the group, even though she's a big pain and does little more than frown, sulk and pine for her lost husband. Director Ferzan Ozpetek (Steam: The Turkish Bath) creates an interesting dynamic with the members of this group, who live in the same apartment building. But he loses his focus when he concentrates on any single person. Fortunately, he creates one memorable character with Antonia's mother, the only one who ever tells it like it is. When Antonia reveals that her husband was cheating on her, she replies, "good for him."

Raja Amari's Satin Rouge doesn't fare much better. It's about Lilia (Hiam Abbass), who goes hunting for her partying daughter Salma (Hend El Fahem) and ends up fainting in a belly dancing club packed with leering men. (The camera takes her point of view, spinning around and around to suggest her dizziness. How inventive!) Luckily, one of the dancers, Folla (Monia Hichri), is the kind-hearted, compulsive type, and she takes Lilia home. Lilia returns the next night under the pretext of fiddling with Folla's costume. But we know that Lilia likes to watch herself dancing in the mirror, and she'll eventually take the stage. It's a waiting game for that inevitable moment. We gaze at our watches while Lilia acts shy and passivie. The conflict comes from the sitcom-type idea that Lilia must keep her dancing a secret. She performs a series of stupid little "Three's Company"-like routines designed to deceive her neighbors and daughter. If Lilia is boring, just wait until you see the daughter. It's understandable why she'd be sullen around her mother, but she can't even manage a little personality while partying with her friends. She's like a robot. In one scene, she's supposed to be thinking about something, and she marches over to stare out the window, turning her back to the camera. (We all know that when you're thinking hard, you stare out a window.) Satin Rouge also invents a silly love triangle between mother, daughter and a drummer at the club. It leads to an ending that's supposed to be clever and prickly, but represents a complete turnaround of character and makes no sense. I wish I could at least recommend the belly dancing in this film, but even that seems lackluster and uninspiring.

Even though these movies are lacking, not all passive housewife movies are bad. While watching both, I fondly remembered Silvio Soldini's recent Bread and Tulips, a delightful Italian comedy about a housewife who deserts her crass family for a fulfilling new life. It had virtually the same plot arc as His Secret Life and Satin Rouge, but didn't pour vast amounts of importance and weight on its subject. Now there was a movie that broke the rule -- and got away with it.

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