A 17-year-old Parisian girl of Algerian parentage struggles to negotiate the conflicting tensions between desire, familial expectation, peer pressure and heritage in debuting writer-director Kamir Aïnouz’s intermittently successful “Honey Cigar.” Refreshingly empowering in how it foregrounds the female gaze together with the young woman’s ownership of her sexual urges, the film too often falls back on paper-thin characterizations that trip up the director’s ambitious attempt to give equal voice to a mélange of weighty personal and political issues. While the core ideas are sound and Zoé Adjani’s charismatic performance imbues those ideas with a soul, the unexceptional screenplay flounders in its attempt to make each issue equally real and multifaceted. Francophone territories will likely account for the lion’s share of the film’s revenue, together with feminist showcases.
Aïnouz, half-sister of Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Aïnouz, mines elements of her own life for the story, set in 1993 when Algeria was experiencing a surge of Islamist violence. Selma Merabet (Adjani) lives with her parents (Amira Casar and Lyes Salem) in the upscale Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. Dad’s a lawyer and mom’s a trained gynecologist, though she’s put that on hold to raise her daughter and take on all the hostess duties expected in their social circle. Selma has just been accepted by a competitive business-oriented high school where the ultra-cool, sexually experienced students make her feel she’s got a lot of catching up to do. A mutual attraction with self-confident Julien (Louis Peres) spurs her to one-up his level of flirtation.
First she has to get rid of her virginity, so prized by her parents but for her the roadblock to coming into her own as a woman. The self “deflowering” — a word she hates — comes courtesy of a cucumber in a scene commendable for its lack of sensationalism: The act isn’t pleasant, but it’s something to get out of the way quickly so she can move on. Her parents haven’t a clue what’s happening; they’re outwardly French sophisticated (note the Christmas tree despite being Muslim) but inwardly deeply traditional, down to occasional arranged dinners for Selma to meet appropriate potential mates.
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At first she doesn’t know how to emotionally cope with Julien’s treatment of sex as a fun pastime to boast about, and it’s so easy to put your foot wrong when wanting to fit in with a new crowd. Her parents’ increasingly contentious relationship coupled with an onerous curfew make home life no longer the safe haven it was when she was younger, and to add further pressure, the news from Algeria is not encouraging. Selma is proud of her heritage and quick to assert that pride against the casual racism of her peers; her longing to visit her homeland is more complicated now though, and her parents are divided in how they gauge the danger of a return.
The screenplay’s major weakness is its uncertainty with what to do with the parents, who lurch from one dimension to another without any nuance to bridge the stereotypes. Aïnouz knows what she wants to convey, but the dialogue is weak and the mother especially is reduced to a simplistic caricature of a professionally unfulfilled harpy instantly transformed once she makes a deeper connection with her daughter. A disturbing, nonconsensual encounter between Selma and Luka (Idir Chender), a banker and her parents’ ideal choice for a son-in-law, is well done yet leaves no residue, presented as if rape is one of those unfortunate things a young woman must learn to push aside and move on.
Keeping the camera close to Selma at all times helps with our identification and also conveys a degree of claustrophobia that ties in with her need to discard the strictures of family life and expand her horizons. This changes somewhat in the last third when Selma and her mother go to their hometown of Tizi Ouzou: the film’s visuals shift from dark or golden-hued Parisian interiors to the limpid blue mountain air of the Kabylie region, where a feeling of female solidarity gives both mother and daughter succor. Albertine Lastera’s editing, usually so sharp and rhythmical, is uncharacteristically lackluster, but far more deserving of criticism is the music, especially the vocalizing during masturbation scenes.