Foreign Body: A mesmerising immigration story
by Bénédicte Prot
- BERLIN 2017: In amongst this tale of the experience of one illegal immigrant, Tunisian director Raja Amari weaves an uncompromising study of physical attraction and the contours of individuality
Foreign Body [+see also:
film profile] is the fourth film from screenwriter and director Raja Amari, who, before her time at La Fémis (France’s national film school) studied dance at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Tunis. It’s an astonishingly powerful film, thanks to the attention that Amari lavishes on the movements of bodies and the force of attraction between them, crafting a trilateral dynamic similar (right down to the names of the characters) to that in her first film, Red Satin [+see also:
film profile], although this time her chosen subject is the issue of illegal immigration. These motifs are neatly evoked by the film’s title, and, just like in the title, the two concepts blend together in the narrative with extraordinary coherence and sensuality.
Screening as part of the Berlin International Film Festival, Foreign Body begins violently with a movement of expulsion (swiftly followed by one of immersion). We watch as human beings are flung into the sea and resurface, terror-stricken, before quietly drifting away, leaving a few scattered belongings behind (a baby’s bottle, a Tunisian passport... fragments of lives, now fated to come to rest among the seaweed, so many miles from where they began. The sense of turmoil evoked by the opening scene haunts the viewer like a persistent nightmare, a mixture of anguish and threat, throughout the rest of the film. We follow Samia (Sarra Hannachi), a young Tunisian woman who arrives illegally in Lyon as she gradually learns to adapt to this new world, gaining her freedom at the same time.
We never know how Samia ended up in Lyon, but the journey itself is not important; what matters here are her efforts to integrate into French society, and the determination we can clearly see both expressed through her actions and etched across her lovely face. The first to offer her shelter is Imed (Salim Kechiouche), a charismatic young man who treats her with the tenderness of an older brother, only to betray, on seeing her show a little skin in the heat of a sweltering dance, an unconscious and disturbing possessiveness. With the adaptability of flowing water, Samia wastes no time in finding alternative accommodation in the home of a wealthy woman who has just lost her husband (Hiam Abbass, who also appeared in Red Satin). Despite her French surname, Leïla’s real origins are occasionally hinted at, and she has the distinct look of someone harbouring a secret. Between the two women a relationship develops that is both sullen and sensitive, nurtured by their mutual reticence and their capacity for abandonment. It’s a complex and mercurial relationship in which the roles are constantly switching, as in a game of mirrors. The resulting impression, reaffirmed by the figure of Samia’s mother back in Tunis, is that of a special kind of complicity based on distance, captivating in Arab women and entirely lacking in the men of the film, particularly the unseen but devoted brother whose shadow looms over the entire story.
The addition of Imed as the third point in the triangle brings a sensual and ambiguous quality to the emotions that circulate freely between the film’s central characters, as if they were the most natural thing in the world. While this hypnotic dance unfolds, the same body, bruised and beaten down at first, begins to move freely, and to follow its desires without forging any bonds other than the emotional and freely-chosen, and without being tied to any sense of obligation (not even blind family loyalty). At the same time, clothes take a central role in the film, deftly woven into the substance of the plot, evoking social position (endowed by background or status) or the desire to pass unnoticed before turning into a symbol of vulnerability after defeat, the feminine shell that we toy with and swap about: like the delicate scarf of coloured silk that wafts from one neck to the next without distinction of sex, and whose undulations imbue the film’s epilogue with solitude and melancholia, leaving the viewer, profoundly moved in body and soul, with a sublime closing image that mimics the ebb and flow of our thoughts.
(Translated from French)