An ambitious modernist take on Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1847 short story "A Weak Heart."

An ambitious modernist take on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1847 short story “A Weak Heart,” the visually ravishing second feature from Moroccan brothers Swel and Imad Noury (“Heaven’s Doors”) confirms their auteur status. Less engaging on a plot level, “The Man Who Sold the World” is the metaphysical tale of a man who, unable to deal with his own happiness, descends into madness. With stylistics trumping emotional involvement, the general public may find it pretentious and baffling, but cinephiles will swoon. Limited Euro arthouse is a possibility, further fest play assured.

Set in an unnamed seaside town (an unrecognizable Casablanca) in an unspecified future where the world is at war and computers no longer “authorized,” the story unfolds in a prologue, 15 chapters and an epilogue, each introduced by a black-and-white title card. However, given the French New Wave-esque jump cuts, cryptic chapter headings (e.g., “The Alchemy of Pain,” “Allegro molto appassionato”) and oddly sinister atmosphere, the exposition proves much less straightforward than this description.

The central character, disabled thirtysomething dreamer X (Said Bey, Dubai fest actor winner), works as a clerk at the Ministry of War and shares a shabby apartment with longtime friend and colleague Ney (Fehd Benchemsi, like Bey, with refreshingly imperfect teeth). As the pic opens, X shares the surprising news of his engagement to Lili (French model Audrey Marnay, decorative but stiff), a cabaret performer.

Turns out that X spent three weeks romancing Lili (shown in delirious montage scenes reminiscent of early Godard) and ignoring his work. Afraid to disappoint mysterious boss Mr. M, he’s now popping pills and downing coffee while feverishly addressing an endless stack of envelopes in his dank abode.

Overwhelmed by his task and unexpected happiness, X loses his mind. His mental pain is effectively underlined by industrial noise on the soundtrack and expressionist visual images.

Although the plot may not yield many satisfactions, the stunning production and sound design offer numerous pleasures. Shot in widescreen with the Red-One camera, the imaginative compositions have a painterly beauty whether in dingy interiors or the bright light of the beach.

The peculiar costumes for the two men, redolent of Samuel Beckett’s hobos or circus clowns, add to the post-apocalyptic ambience, as does X’s dyed platinum shock of hair. Likewise, the well-used sound and textures score by France’s conceptualist Blatter fur die Kunst builds a sense of dread.

Like the brothers’ debut feature, “Man” is produced by their mother, Pilar Cazorla. Their father, noted helmer Hakim Noury, has a cameo role. Pic is dedicated to the late American thesp Paul Newman.

The Man Who Sold the World

Morocco

Production

A Prod'Action, SNRT, Soread, 2 M production, with support from Cinematographique du Maroc. (International sales: Pilar Cazorla, Madrid.) Produced by Cazorla. Directed by Imad Noury, Swel Noury. Screenplay, Swel Noury, based on "A Weak Heart" by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, DV-to-35mm), Paulo Ares; editors, Eloy Gonzalez, Goyo Villasevil; music, Blatter fur die Kunst; production designer, Irene Blanco; costume designer, Loujaine Berrioua; sound (Dolby SRD); Faouzi Thabet, Nacho Roman. Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (competing), Dec. 14, 2009. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

(Arabic, French dialogue)
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