“A pretty silly film,” said my spouse, as we left the theatre. This was a damning verdict, as Where Do We Go Now? is essentially a chick flick with political pretensions, designed to appeal to educated, middle class women of a small-l liberal persuasion. When the target audience declares the movie a failure this makes it hard to justify the search for redeeming features.
This is Nadine Labaki’s second feature following Caramel, her surprising and successful directorial debut of 2007. That earlier film was a Beirut version of Sex in the City – minus the sex – following the lives of six women and their search for love.
Caramel was a superior soap opera that had the novelty of being set in the middle east, where relations between men and women have complications beyond the range of anything imagined by Candace Bushnell.
Where Do We Go Now? is a more complex project. The setting is a small Lebanese village in which Muslims and Christians live together in a kind of uneasy truce. We learn quickly that it is the women who keep the peace while the men are hot-headed and stupid, always ready to take offence or pick a fight.
Indeed, they’re so touchy the women try to ensure their husbands don’t see any news items that might send them into paroxysms. Since most of these men have spent their entire lives in the village and grown up together, there is something absurd in their willingness to suddenly turn into deadly enemies along sectarian lines.
Absurd yes, hilarious no, but Labaki insists on treating this film as a comedy. The small town slapstick is supposed to make us laugh, even as we deplore the simmering religious tensions. The only problem is that most of the humour is woefully clichéd and predictable.
We know we are supposed to laugh, but, in the words of Ringo Starr, it don’t come easy.
All the villagers are ‘characters’, and this in itself is almost unbearable. They are also untrained actors. The outstanding professional presence is the sultry Labaki, who plays Amale, owner of the local coffee shop. Although she is a Christian there is an obvious chemistry between her and Rabih (Julian Farhat), the muslim handyman, who is helping with her renovations.
In one bizarre interlude, Amale and Rabih break into a love song, as we are allowed a glimpse inside their minds. This musical moment feels no less awkward than the pop song that found its way into Declaration of War, in the midst of a story about a child with a brain tumour. What’s going on? It feels as though Bollywood is gradually infiltrating the entire world of cinema. Whether the subject be cancer or religious conflict, there’s always room for a song or a spot of impromptu dancing.
The story reaches its peak when the women decide to arrange for a troupe of exotic blonde Russian dancers to visit the village, under the ruse of a broken-down bus. They have concluded that sex is the only thing powerful enough to keep their husbands’ minds off religion. This gives rise to a range of scenarios that would not be out-of-place on the Benny Hill Show, although Benny Hill might have been funnier and more politically insightful.
Labaki has said she didn’t set out to make a political film, but it is not easy to categorise the movie she did make. We are left with a comedy-drama-musical that asks the perennial question: “Why can’t we all live together in peace and harmony?”
This is a dumb question. If there were answers to be had we might have avoided fifty years of bloodshed in the middle east. The very title, Where Do We Go Now? is an admission that the issue is an intractable one.
Because humour is a relief from tension there must be many satirical pathways into Lebanon’s religious conflicts, but Where Do We Go Now? blends comedy and tragedy in such a manner that each strand tends to cancel out the other. Add a half-hearted love story, a dash of singing and dancing, and you have all the ingredients of a mess.
Labaki looks fabulous on screen, and is conscious of her incipient star appeal. As a director, she has tried to make something profound, moving and entertaining out of an painfully shallow story. While Caramel owed much of its success to a willingness to work within a set of self-imposed limitations, the current film is a classic case of biting off more than one can chew. To have the faintest hope of achieving her goals she would have needed a much stronger, more focused script, and a cast of characters who were less gruesomely loveable. Where do we go now? Back to the drawing board.
Where Do We Go Now? Lebanon/France, rated M, 100 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 30, 2012