The clash between a sensuous tradition epitomized by “1001 Nights” and conservative religio-cultural trends in the contempo Arab world provides thematic tether for documentarian Jocelyne Saab’s long-aborning third narrative feature (following “A Suspended Life” and “Once Upon a Time in Beirut”), which otherwise floats off in numerous directions. “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes” offers a colorful package obsessed with sensual surfaces, to the exclusion of a fully developed plot, character or social-commentary elements. Likely to stir interest and some controversy in Arab markets, it’s too frustratingly diffuse to warrant travel beyond fest gigs elsewhere.
Original title “Dunia” (“Kiss Me Not” is a song-derived moniker for Western markets) is the name of ballet dancer-turned-thesp Hanan Turk’s central character, a beauty in her early 20s who’s working on a B.A. in literature.
Her late mother having been a famed belly dancer, Dunia wants to represent Egypt in an international dance competition, though, strangely, she auditions without moving a muscle in order to protest repressive attitudes toward women. Stranger still, the judges admit her. Typical of the absentminded script, the contest then goes unmentioned until it suddenly figures again in the last reel.
Dunia has three men in her life — her demanding dance instructor (Valid Aouni, the pic’s choreographer), her ardent boyfriend Mamdouh (Fathi Abdel Wahab), and lit professor Beshir, who becomes her thesis adviser (esteemed vocalist Mohamed Mournir, who also sings soundtrack’s original songs).
Since the subject for her thesis is “Love in Arabic Poetry,” Dunia and Prof. Beshir spend a great deal of time flirtatiously exploring the sensual world in musical, tactile and philosophical ways — even more so after he’s blinded by assailants who oppose his public anti-censorship stance.Despite all this sex-on-the-brain, Dunia is wary of giving in to her desires with Mamdouh, fearing he might not marry a girl who’s not a virgin — even if he deflowered her. When they do tie the knot, he soon clamps down on the independence that had attracted him to Dunia in the first place.
Meanwhile, Dunia’s aunt tries to protect her young daughter from a prudish grandma determined to have the girl undergo the traditional female genital mutilation (still practiced on the majority of Egyptian women). This strand comes to dramatic fruition in a discreet if still powerfully unpleasant sequence.
But nearly every other idea in “Kiss Me Not” disappears into the fog engendered by Saab’s near-exclusive focus on window dressing. Pic’s attention to rich color, contrasted historic and modern backdrops, enticing costumes, billowing curtains, et al. provides much visual stimulus. But the care lavished on these textures and on bodies in sinuous motion grows tiresome, as it becomes apparent that no narrative muscle lies underneath.Playing a part like Jennifer Beals’ in “Flashdance,” popular thesp Turk is called upon to be a little bit spunky, but mostly just pretty and sexy in a living-doll way that has more to do with modeling than acting. Mounir lends presence to a poorly written role. Several female supporting figures make a lively impression, but their relevance to the main narrative comes and goes.
Soundtrack’s dance tunes are inviting, though the unadorned percussion used in incidental scenes grows old fast. As much as pic acts like a musical, there are no actual production numbers here — adding to the pic’s hollowness. While the overall atmosphere of sensuality may disturb some local censors (and their concerns delayed the pic’s production), Western auds may lament the lack of erotic content. Tech aspects are well-turned.