A buttoned-up young woman in 2011 Damascus is lured by the possibility of personal liberation when a brothel opens upstairs in debuting director Gaya Jiji’s fuzzily reasoned “My Favorite Fabric.” Inspired by “Belle du Jour,” though with little of that classic’s trenchant subversiveness, this thematically ambitious femme-centric drama aims to weave together the repressiveness of Syria’s regime with the limited possibilities for female self-expression within that society. The results are uncertain and artificial, full of missed chances that bode ill for a screen life outside a French release and a few festivals.
Life in Syria is becoming increasingly difficult, so for a middle-class family like that of Salwa (Souraya Baghdadi), a woman alone with three daughters, the best way of leaving behind the bombings is to find husbands for her offspring. Nahla (Manal Issa) is the oldest: Flinty and petulant, she clothes herself in dowdy garments that aim to hide an overripe sensuality. Middle sister Myriam (Mariah Tannoury) is considerably more at ease with her body’s charms, while butch younger sister Line (Nathalie Issa) is presumably meant to represent another aspect of being a woman, though director Jiji doesn’t know what to do with the character.
Nahla’s intrigued when Madame Jiji (Ula Tabari) moves in upstairs and starts renovations. At the same time, prospective swain Samir (Saad Lostan) comes calling, freshly arrived from the U.S., to find a Syrian bride and bring her back to the States. As the eldest, Nahla is the obvious choice, but she’s less than taken with the painfully boring suitor and saves her fantasies for an imagined lover (Metin Akdülger), glimpsed in scattered scenes of shared caresses.
Meanwhile, Nahla is intrigued to discover that Madame Jiji’s new place is a brothel. At first she asks for a room to meet her invented boyfriend, but then she decides to try things herself with soldier-client Salem (Wissam Fares), whose peculiar kink is to be told the biblical story of Joseph and his 11 brothers. No doubt the director has a good reason for using this as a metaphor, but most viewers will be hard-pressed to figure out why Salem goes ballistic when Nahla changes the story and tells how Potiphar’s wife was, finally, successful at bedding her object of desire.
Most likely it’s because such a retelling makes the seductress successful in attaining her desires, which can be empowering in some readings, depending on how far one goes to reinvent the tale. Among the problems here is that the film doesn’t go far enough: The brothel is dull (Madame Jiji, while the most interesting character in the movie, is a far cry from Geneviève Page’s Madame Anaïs), Samir is colorless, and Nahla’s discovery of her sense of agency lacks any degree of satisfaction. The film’s title suggests a missed opportunity, since the director does very little to foreground the sensuality of the fabrics that adorn Nahla’s body. Even shots of discarded pieces following Salwa’s repurposing of her eldest’s clothes for slimmer daughter Myriam fail to do anything interesting with the material, on any level.
The use of background news reports to ensure the conflict in Syria isn’t ignored by the audience adds only fitful atmosphere, and a conversation between Salwa and Line regarding popular demonstrations is far too obvious to have any impact. It’s safe to say director Jiji wanted to create an artificial atmosphere, which she successfully achieves in the hermetic qualities of the apartment building, yet allowing stultifying pauses between each line of inconsequential dialogue creates less of a hot house and more an airless void.