“Le bleu du caftan flows to its expected ending without many ripples, but the beauty of the film lies in its execution, which combines a gentle touch with subtle sensuality.”
Halim (Saleh Bakri) and Mina (Lubna Azabal) run a small caftan shop in the medina of Salé, a coastal town just north of Morocco’s capital Rabat. The married couple have split tasks, Mina running the storefront while Halim hand-sews the exquisite garments. Because Halim takes great care in making the caftans, as any ‘maalem’ or ‘master’ would, they are running behind on fulfilling orders and so they bring in an apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Messioui, making his debut). The handsome young man catches the eye of Halim, who leads a closeted life that only permits him physical contact with the gender of his preference during clandestine moments in the local hammam. Youssef also catches the ire of Mina, who deep down senses that her marriage to Halim is more platonic than most and suspects Halim’s sexual predilection is not with her. When Mina falls ill, the life’s work of the couple threatens to come apart at the seams, as Halim is torn between his work in the shop and taking care of the woman he might not desire, but dearly loves. It is now up to Youssef to prove that their love triangle, like any triangle, can stand the stress.
Moroccan director and screenwriter Maryam Touzani, in her follow-up to the much-lauded debut Adam which also showed up in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, shows once again that she is a maalem of her own, as Le bleu du caftan is an impeccably crafted work in which the attention to detail makes up for the simplicity of a story that takes no unexpected turns. In a sense the film is like a caftan, a garment that is rather simple in structure, but where the rich ornamentations in the sewing and embroidery make all the difference. Some of the stitches holding Le bleu du caftan together might be a little crooked (there are hints at political messaging that are poorly developed), but the fine acting of the central trio combined with Virginie Surdej’s beautifully hued cinematography and Touzani’s strong mise-en-scene give Le bleu du caftan a feel that is smooth as the silk that goes into Halim’s work.
Queer cinema in the Maghreb is a bit of a wasteland, sadly, so just based on its topic alone Le bleu du caftan should get ample attention. But it is not the fact that Touzani depicts homosexuality in a country where this is still very much frowned upon, it is how she depicts it that draws said attention. A simple shot of two pairs of feet in a hammam shower cabin tells us everything a conventional sex scene would have told. Touzani’s cinema is one of restraint, of a gentle earnestness that never veers into sentimentality. In a way she is the Maghreb’s answer to Hirokazu Kore-eda, in that they are both filmmakers who make simple, human stories they let unfold naturally, with drama never descending into melodrama. Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s score for Le bleu du caftan is at times too much embroidery, but on the whole the film is supple and gliding like a good caftan indeed.
The conflict in the film comes more from Mina’s cancer than from Halim’s sexuality, which is a key point but not the tallest hurdle in the narrative. There is a jealousy in Mina when she senses Halim’s attraction to Youssef, and a half-hearted bedroom attempt to draw him to her, but she soon makes peace with the idea when she finds out her end is near. As such, Le bleu du caftan flows to its expected ending without many ripples, but the beauty of the film lies in its execution, which combines a gentle touch with subtle sensuality. Touzani’s films are not designed to set the world on fire, but their power lies in the refinement and unadorned storytelling. After two Un Certain Regard berths, perhaps the third time’s the main competition charm?