In the little-remembered 1950 noir “The Damned Don’t Cry,” Joan Crawford plays a Texan housewife whose grief for her late son spurs her to make a new life for herself in the urban underworld. Fyzal Boulifa’s exquisite new film of the same title is named expressly for that Crawford vehicle, but is neither a remake nor a direct homage. Rather, it remixes the narrative components of that film and others of its ilk into the kind of new-school-old-school heart-tugger — one might say tearjerker if its characters weren’t, true to its title, stoically dry-eyed throughout — that might have been designed for the shoulder-padded diva were she alive in 2022 and, perhaps more crucially, of Moroccan heritage.
Charting the turbulent relationship between a single mother and her teenage son on the destitute fringes of Tangier society, the second feature from BAFTA-nominated British-Moroccan filmmaker Boulifa sees him shifting focus to his North African motherland after the starkly English kitchen-sink tragedy of his fine debut “Lynn + Lucy.”
Yet it’s not a complete immersion. In its fusion of Sirkian Hollywood melodrama with the high-key emotionalism of Arabic soap opera and a more austere strain of European arthouse realism — with Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma” another clearly quoted influence — this haunting, peculiar and often expressly queer story of social isolation and outsider survival feels like Boulifa’s own moving, idiosyncratic way of threading the components of his cultural identity. Following its Lido premiere in the Venice Days sidebar, this suitably scattered co-production (French-Belgian-Moroccan, with the BBC Films imprimatur to boot) will go on to the main competition at the London Film Festival, with further festival bookings and specialist distribution across multiple territories sure to follow.
If the tone and storytelling here are more ripely expressive than in Boulifa’s debut, the distinctive rigor of his mise-en-scène has been carried over: Working this time with Leos Carax’s favorite DP Caroline Champetier, Boulifa once more favors tight, precisely composed tableaux that often amount to human still lives, lighting and isolating minor domestic and decorative details that reveal much about the airs and aspirations of Fatima-Zahra (Aïcha Tebbae), a middle-aged, never-married drifter who long ago left her puritan home village to pursue a life of glamor — and now supports herself and her son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) with sex work.
Usually sharing a mattress in the small, dingy rooms they rent for mere weeks at a time before moving on, Fatima-Zahra and Selim’s relationship is less one of mother and son than of equal partners — rife with Freudian undercurrents, only further complicated now that Selim, nearly a man himself, is growingly aware of his own sexuality as a potential currency. When he chances upon the long-concealed truth of his paternity, the mother-son bond is strained; determined to assert himself as the man of the house, he takes a series of jobs that leads to a kind of houseboy position in a luxury riad owned by wealthy, seductive Frenchman Sébastien (“BPM” standout Antoine Reinartz).
At first disgusted by Antoine’s advances, Selim gradually thaws and succumbs, but that comes with rippling consequences for his relationship with Fatima-Zahra — now on her own “Mildred Pierce” path of self-reinvention as an upstanding citizen. Even as the film’s perspective is increasingly led by Selim, “The Damned Don’t Cry” never loses its sympathy for a matriarch whose life has been so heavily determined by men’s desires and violations that her own moral compass is up for sale.
Boulifa films Tebbae — like El Hajjouji and much of the ensemble, a non-professional — with a clear, compassionate lens that never patronizes nor fetishizes her suffering. Often styled with metallically accented costuming and lavish makeup that recalls mid-career Elizabeth Taylor, she’s a proud, regal presence even at her most diminished. There’s an artless, heart-on-sleeve brashness to Tebbae’s performance that works in effective contrast to El Hajjouji’s more watchful, lyncean physicality; as mother and son, they feel aptly modeled on separate generations of screen iconography, even if, for much of their life together, they’ve never had a TV set to call their own.
Boulifa, by contrast, knits disparate generations and geographies of big- and small-screen melodrama into a single, refined aesthetic that never stoops to simple pastiche or bedazzled kitsch. The dust and drabness of poverty is disrupted by saturated daubs of color which nod to heightened Technicolor realities that cannot last: the rich silks of Fatima-Zahra’s spare but resourcefully recycled wardrobe, the unnaturally intense blues of the exoticized western-designed riad, carmine flower petals so decadently overbloomed you can practically smell the rosewater. At once vibrant and world-weary, “The Damned Don’t Cry” cycles through many a same old story — the resiliently borne oppression of women without men, men without fathers, towns without pity — familiar from real life and cinema alike, and is equally attentive to both sources.