Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s 2016 debut “The Last of Us” garnered a certain cult following after its Venice premiere thanks to the film’s intriguing, at times mesmeric images in which the lead literally fades into his environment. With his followup “Tlamess,” the filmmaker initially appears to be charting new paths until about one-quarter in, when he returns to the idea of a loner becoming one with his surroundings. The concern isn’t the sense of déjà vu — viewers enthralled by the first might be just as happy to re-engage with Slim’s singular vision — so much as his problematic approach to the female character, relegated to being merely a vessel made superfluous once her biological function is over. The conceit is troubling no matter how the opaque scenes are read, making “Tlamess” (the word means an enchantress’ spell as well as something inexplicable) a difficult sell outside avant-garde-leaning festivals.
In “The Last of Us,” the protagonist was a refugee looking to escape his North African home; in Slim’s latest, the man, known only as S (Abdullah Miniawy), is a deserter who runs away from the army after his mother’s death. The opening scenes are beautifully composed, playing with light and darkness, shadow and silhouette, as the soldiers cross a moonlit river and then in daylight move through a desert ravine where a Qaba-like black monolith incongruously sits in the landscape. Information is intelligently delivered through the visuals rather than the almost nonexistent dialogue, conveying mood far more sensitively than mere words.
When his leave period expires and the military police come for him, S slips out and escapes through a dystopian landscape of empty plots, half-constructed cement buildings and grey colorless skies, the bleakness emphasized by a crescendo of dissonant noise on the soundtrack. He breaks into an empty apartment on the edge of nowhere but winds up fleeing, naked, when the cops arrive. As he walks, endlessly, through rocky terrain strewn with what looks like rubbish, the noise becomes more oppressive until the scene suddenly shifts to a woman, F (Souhir Ben Amara), sitting contemplatively in a child’s room, soon revealed to be a furniture store.
Slim curiously disrupts the subtle way he’s guided the narrative up to this point with a shot of F looking at a sonogram — a heavy-handed way to convey that she’s pregnant and uncertain about it. Unsettled by life with her wealthy husband (Khaled Ben Aissa) in their luxury villa where the newly-delivered furniture is still in plastic wrap, F wanders into the forest and meets S; she faints and he takes her to a sort of underground bunker. When she wakes, the two magically communicate telepathically, conveyed by subtitles under large closeups of their eyes. She’s basically a prisoner at first, until predictably F starts to trust S as he tends her expanding belly in anticipation of the day she’ll give birth.
As if the whole pseudo-Stockholm syndrome thing weren’t bad enough, Slim takes it further with a scene of mythological ramifications that disturbingly marginalizes F’s place as mother and partner and potentially her place in the environment. Whether that was his intention is hard to determine — it could be that he was aiming to show a perfect symbiosis between the sexes and nature, in which case he needed to balance the man and woman far more carefully than he’s done here.
A much more rewarding take-away is the beguiling art direction by artist Malek Gnaoui, especially toward the end when the sense of greenery reclaiming the forest becomes so sensorial one can almost smell the damp undergrowth. It’s not quite reward enough for slogging through what becomes an ever-distancing marathon in love with its own inscrutability (not to mention S’s bruised buttocks), but at least it provides some visual pleasure otherwise largely lost in the ponderous mid-section. Earlier though, when it’s still unclear where Slim is going with it all, Amine Messadi’s highly controlled camera provides moments that quietly impress, such as a terrific drone shot down a street at night.