“Satin Rouge” director Raja Amari’s traditional yet interesting fourth feature “Foreign Body” follows the first months in France of Samia, a young illegal immigrant who ran away from her brother, an abusive man and Islamist radical she informed on in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution. Rather than retracing the inevitable obstacle course any refugee has to face (finding a roof, escaping the police, etc.), Amari focuses on her heroine’s inner turmoil and confronts her with a troubling waltz of desires. A terrific cast is “Foreign Body’s” major asset, with Sarra Hannachi (“Child of the Sun”) superbly playing the lead character alongside the always elegant presence of Hiam Abbas (of “Lemon Tree” and “The Source”) as the half-maternal, half-Pygmalion figure. Add to this such a timely topic and the film has the right ingredients to play well internationally.
To set foot in France, Samia had to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a makeshift boat that sank before the movie starts. Our first contact with her is pretty visceral, as we hear the long breath she inhales after having nearly drowned. The message is clear: Samia is a survivor. How she makes it to Lyon, we won’t know. Indeed, how Samia feels matters more to Amari than what she does — a philosophy the director seems to share with her character, who often makes impulsive decisions, even if they leave her situation feeling even more precarious.
For instance, Samia could have stayed awhile at Imed’s apartment and welcomed his help to find her a job. After all, Imed (Salim Kechiouche, “Blue is the Warmest Color”) is an old acquaintance who really seems to care about her. But Imed is also Samia’s detained brother’s friend, which means that deep down, he may share the same backward misogyny. So despite the risk of being stopped by police, Samia wanders the streets, stopping wherever her instinct tells her. This is how she winds up entering a brasserie in a cosy neighbourhood. While the unusually kind owner offers her a coffee, she notices a stylish middle-aged woman hanging a small ad on the wall. Freshly widowed, Mrs. Berteau (Abbas), who lives just next door, needs a full-time hand to go trough her deceased husband’s belongings. A few seconds later, Samia is at her door, insisting until she gets the job.
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At first glance, the “foreign body” of the film’s title seems to refer to Samia, who had to leave part of who she was on the other side of the sea. But Amari’s attention focuses as much on her two side characters. First, Mrs. Berteau, whom everyone addresses with great respect: She lives in a vast and comfortable apartment, wearing only designer clothes that underline her graceful silhouette. But soon enough we understand that this aura is actually a reflection of her husband’s status, rather than her own. “Before him, I was nothing,” she confides in one of those rare moments when she stops being “Mrs. Berteau” to become “Leila” again: a restless woman who must have once resembled Samia, and who resurfaces more and more often since her young compatriot moved in.
Meanwhile, Imed also struggles to adapt to his new reality. We learn that in Tunisia, he was part of a very rigorist religious group. Now, in France, he is torn between his traditional values and his fascination for Samia. Meeting Mrs. Berteau, the first person to treat him like a gentleman, confuses him even more.
In composing this group portrait, “Buried Secrets” director Amari relies upon an efficient but relatively conventional dramaturgic arsenal: the beginning of a love triangle; the classic “makeover session,” during which a pop-eyed spectator will discover the princess under the rags; and so forth. Less subversive than her voluptuous debut, “Satin Rouge,” and perhaps a bit too bashful to reveal everything its protagonists have to hide, “Foreign Body” mostly ignores the flesh to capture sensations. (The camera relies a bit too much on the handheld aesthetic to convey the characters’ confusion.) Still, the most intense scenes are also the most carnal, as when, alone in a shabby bar, Samia surrenders to the dance, or in Leila’s living room, when her undulating body rivets her two partners like a magnet. Those are the most memorable souvenirs of a film that inevitably calls to mind another portrait of a beautiful, young and bold immigrant, featuring an impressive newcomer: Danielle Arbid’s “Parisienne,” with Manal Issa.