The classic “women’s picture,” demoted without due consideration in Hollywood filmmaking, gets a complex, vibrant reassessment in “Decor,” Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla’s conceptually sophisticated fifth feature. Reflecting on a diverse swath of film history while painting a distinctly contemporary portrait of fractured female identity, this blithely self-reflexive melodrama centers on a put-upon production designer finding an alternative identity — or perhaps her original one — in the sudsy movie romance she’s reluctantly constructing. Though it pays extensive homage to the dramatic and stylistic conventions of vintage Egyptian cinema, “Decor” is far from esoteric: Shades of Sirk, Cassavetes, Bergman and even Woody Allen can all be detected on the film’s glistening monochrome surface. Slight overlength should not keep adventurous arthouse distribs from this sleek London festival premiere.
With its playful, literate screenplay by Sherin Diab and Mohamed Diab (the latter a writer-director celebrated for his 2010 festival hit, “Cairo 678”), “Decor” is Abdalla’s first feature that he hasn’t penned himself. Yet it still has the purposeful singularity of an auteur work, and a revealing one at that: Even if it’s not as reflective of its maker’s personal politics as last year’s agitated post-Revolution study “Rags and Tatters,” a rich array of cinematic reference points suggest Abdalla’s own education and stimulus as a filmmaker. His most formally stylized and refined effort to date, “Decor” proves his elasticity of technique and emotional empathy, even as its structural acrobatics only narrowly dodge self-congratulation in the final act.
It’s certainly the kind of thoughtful film that our protagonist Maha (Horeya Farghaly) would prefer to be involved with, as opposed to the nondescript soaper for which she’s being handsomely paid to create nondescript interiors. A childless-by-choice career woman working alongside her laidback husband, fellow designer Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga), perfectionist Maha allows herself to get overly invested in the project despite her personal distaste for it. In the process, she spars with its vain, obstinate leading lady and indifferent director — a man who unapologetically prioritizes workaday product over “difficult festival-route films that no one understands.”
That most winkingly delivered of lines threatens a shift into mega-meta satirical territory, but “Decor” has more intimate imitations of life on its mind. In a swift, elegantly executed temporal shift, Maha suddenly finds herself not dressing a set but living in it, having somehow become the fictional protagonist of the film-within-a-film — an unhappy art teacher whose genial, homely husband, Mostafa (Maged El Kedwany), and young daughter notice nothing amiss about the stranger in their midst. Just as she’s beginning to get her head around this uncanny transformation, however, Maha finds herself abruptly back in her old life.
From this point forward, she flips betweens these alternate realities with unceremonious frequency and fluidity, as each existence reveals its own sparring pros and cons. Any concerns that “Decor” may be spinning a conservative cautionary tale for women opting out of motherhood are allayed as the script evenhandedly probes the crevices of both Mahas’ marriages. The B-movie narrative is fleshed out with such plausible texture and conflict, meanwhile, that the film’s initial existential gambit is turned neatly on its head: What if the production designer’s comparatively glamorous life is the illusion, the fantasy product of an overwhelmed young mother wishing away her life choices?
All possibilities are kept in play, as Abdalla handles this quasi-“Pleasantville” premise with the cool quizzicality of latter-day Kiarostami. The question of whether Maha’s split identity is a genuine twilight-zone occurrence or merely the psychological fallout of a nervous breakdown may or may not be answered, but it certainly doesn’t need to be. Both manifestations of Maha’s character, subtly differentiated and occasionally aligned with considerable dexterity in Farghaly’s splendid star turn, paper over each other to form a layered, nuanced model of femininity as it is perceived (and still frequently challenged) in modern-day Egypt.
Abdalla cleverly plays realism against the accepted affectations of romantic filmmaking — particularly those of his native cinema, most evidently via substantial interpolation of existing music scores — to alternately separate and blur Maha’s lives, each of which is portrayed in a variably heightened register from scene to scene. This carousel of cinematic artifice is consistently stimulating; over nearly two hours, though, not every one of its dimensional fillips feels essential, particularly in a fake-out finale that wryly recalibrates the audience’s position in the whole enterprise.
Whether or not the grass is greener on either side of the reality divide, d.p. Tarek Hefny ensures that all Maha’s colliding worlds are treated with equally lustrous care: The tone and depth of the film’s black-and-white imagery are deftly varied to evoke a range of cinematic grades and styles, from lurid B-movie contrast to more televisual flatness. All the film’s own decor is intelligently motivated, as befits a narrative that finally puts the production designer center stage in the filmmaking process.