Jacques Doillon’s latest exploration into the sexuality of the young unfolds in a setting very different from those of his other films. Against a burnished backdrop of contemporary Marrakesh, “Raja” centers on the relationship between a rich white man and a poor Arab girl young enough to be his daughter. Yet nothing’s as simple as it may at first seem in this intriguing, provocative and very well acted pic, which will need positive reviews to grab a slice of the crowded arthouse market worldwide.
Fred (Pascal Greggory) is a left-over colonial living in a degree of luxury outside the city; he may or may not be married but, at any rate, his wife, if he has one, is back in France. This middle-aged Frenchman has plenty of time and plenty of money at his disposal, and he’s cared for by two plump, elderly women (Oum El Aid Ait Youss and Zineb Ouchita, both splendid). But Fred is bored; when he hires a small group of women to care for his garden, he’s immediately smitten with 19-year-old Raja (Najat Benssallem).
Raja is an orphan literally and figuratively scarred by life. Though she appears virginal, she has been raped and has worked as a hooker and now more or less lives with Youssef (Hassan Khissal). Fred is determined to conquer this apparently shy, innocent girl. But, he hardly speaks any Arabic and she hardly speaks any French.
What starts as a game becomes gradually more serious as Fred grows obsessed with Raja. He offers her permanent work in his house, gives her presents and money, and makes every effort to win her over.
While Helene Louvart’s Scope camera evocatively captures the washed-out look of a hot and humid atmosphere, Doillon takes his time developing the sexual tension, which becomes quite palpable. He handles his actors almost as if directing a musical; they seem at times choreographed. If the predatory Fred appears at first to be in the ascendancy in this relationship, it soon becomes clear that Raja is just as calculating and manipulative.
Greggory gives an engaging performance as a self-assured man whose confidence is gradually eroded by the wiles of this provocative young woman. First-time screen actor Benssallem is perfectly cast as the young woman determined to get what she can out of the situation.
Philippe Sarde’s subtle music score adds a subtle dimension to the drama which, despite its many qualities, is rather overextended as a result of Doillon’s very relaxed direction.