Film Review: ‘Degrade’

DEGRADE Cannes Critics Week
Courtesy of Semaine de la Critique Cannes

This clunky, cliche-ridden drama, set in a beauty salon in Gaza, offers zero insight.

Put 13 female stereotypes into a beauty parlor in Gaza and what do you get? The jumble that is “Degrade” (with accents on both “E’s”), a cliche-ridden debut from twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser that wastes a talented cast on a film of considerably less depth than Nadine Labaki’s salon-set “Caramel” (and that wasn’t the most profound pic, either). Neither a glimpse of real lives in Gaza nor a cri de coeur against the Occupation, this exaggerated drama, shot in Jordan, will profit from a few fests eager to declare their pro-Palestinian sympathies, but otherwise “Degrade” will quietly fade away.

Auds might think otherwise if they read the description before watching the movie. After all, the notion of an enclosed, all-female space acting as a metaphor for Gaza’s untenable isolation sounds promising. And while the idea of women from various walks of life gradually opening up about their situations may not be the most original theatrical device, one can imagine an alternately humorous and powerful exchange encompassing the struggle for “normality,” notwithstanding the Occupation, Hamas, Al-Aqsa and selfish local governing bodies. Unfortunately, “Degrade” (the title is the French word for a layered haircut) fails to realize such worthy ambitions.

On a hot day, 10 customers are crammed into a beauty salon owned by Christine (Victoria Balitska), a Russian woman married to a Palestinian. In one chair, there’s embittered, harping divorcee Eftikhar (Hiam Abbass), wanting to look her best for her young lawyer; in the other, bride Salma (Dina Shebar) getting made up for her wedding. On a sofa waiting their turns are Safia (Manal Awad), a chatty busybody with a drug problem; Zeinab (Mirna Sakhla), a judgmental woman in a hijab; and Sawsan (Wedad Al Naser), a hard-faced divorcee. Accompanying the bride are her milquetoast mom, Wafaa (Reem Talhami); the groom’s nasty mother, Sameeha (Huda Imam); and his sister, Mariam (Raneem Al Daoud).

Also wanting a little pampering are the very pregnant Fatima (Samira Al Aseer) and her sister Ruba (Raya Al Khateeb) — any bets on when Fatima’s water breaks? Rounding off the women are Christine’s young daughter, Natalie (Nelly Abou Sharaf), and assistant stylist, Wedad (Maisa Abd Elhadi), whose b.f., Ahmed (co-helmer Tarzan Nasser), just stole a lion — yes, a lion — and is in trouble with Hamas.

The lion’s presence (this part is based on a true story) just outside the salon causes a ruckus, leading to various militias wreaking havoc while the women inside snipe at each other in expected fashion. There’s a little gossip, a lot of disapproving sneers and, briefly, a discussion about the need to stockpile goods because the next war will be much worse than the last. Character development is zero, though in truth development requires layers — “degrade” — whereas these figures are strictly one-dimensional, with no sense of conversational flow.

The Nasser brothers (real names Ahmed and Mohamed) are enamored with the idea of using salon mirrors, yet they make little meaningful use of all the reflective surfaces, missing a choice opportunity to engage with issues of seeing and being seen. When gunfire erupts outside, the camera predictably moves wildly about accompanied by rapid-fire editing — the device is as clumsy as it sounds, doing little to compensate for the earlier lack of visual dynamism.

Film Review: 'Degrade'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week), May 17, 2015. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production

(France-Palestine-Qatar) A Le Pacte (in France) release of a Made in Palestine project, Les Films du Tambour, Full House, About Prods., Mille et Une Films. (International sales: Elle Driver, Paris.) Produced by Rashid Abdelhamid, Rani Masalha, Marie Legrand. Coproducers, Laurent Baudens, Gael Nouaille, Didar Domehri, Georges Schoucair, Gilles Padovani.

Crew

Directed, written by Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser. Camera (color, widescreen), Eric Devin; editors, Sophie Reine, Eyas Salman; music, Benjamin Grospiron; production designer, Anas Balawi; costume designer, Hamada Atallah; sound, Baha’a Otman; line producer, Muhannad Halawani; casting, Najwa Mubarki, Nabil Koneh.

With

Hiam Abbass, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad, Victoria Balitska, Mirna Sakhla, Nelly Abou Sharaf, Wedad Al Naser, Dina Shebar, Reem Talhami, Huda Imam, Raneem Al Daoud, Samira Al Aseer, Raya Al Khateeb, Tarzan Nasser. (Arabic, Russian dialogue)

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