Saturday, January 22, 2005

Screening: Hideous Kinky

Y'all, I am touching the void up here in Ithaca. Yesterday it was only 1°F (-32°C) at 7pm, without wind chill. Today, we're in the midst of a 10" snowfall. I just walked a mile in this mess to get to the library to diss it up. And yeah, it was uphill the whole way. If you know Ithaca, you'll believe me.

One good way to combat weather like this is to rent movies that take place in more temperate climes. If you turn off all the lights and draw the blinds, you cna forget. I didn't rent Hideous Kinky for that explicit reason, but it turned out to be a bonus side-effect. The whole movie takes place in Marrakech, Morocco, where 25-year-old "Julia" (a surrogate figure for Esther Freud, Sigmund's daughter, and the author of the novel Hideous Kinky) has absconded with her two young daughters in search of enlightenment, independence, and something a little cozier than the English fog. Julia will look anywhere to feed her appetites—Sufism, itinerant tourism, a casual love affair with an Arabic street performer. It's never altogether clear that she's going to find what she's looking for, nor is it clear that she won't. The distinguishing achievement of Hideous Kinky is that, compared to several movies about young sojourners—especially when those sojourners are women, and even more especially when they are mothers—this film does not exist to judge Julia. Neither an endorsement of her free spirit nor a condemnation of her behavior, Hideous Kinky manages to represent the texture, risks, and pleasures of this lifestyle without much editorializing, and the characterizations of everyone involved, including the young daughters, is pretty compelling. It helps to have Kate Winslet in the lead role of Julia; as we've come to expect, her performance is as committed, lucid, and notably unglamorous (despite her startling radiance, even when she's sweating, which is a lot). Saïd Taghmaoui (La haine) is also a bonus in the key role of Julia's sometime paramour Bilal.

If the tone and characterizations of the movie are kept nicely ambiguous, the visual motifs and the soundtrack straddle their own fences in less persuasive ways. The heavy reliance on 60s and 70s anglo-rock (America, Neil Young, Crosy, Stills & Nash) threatens to collapse the movie into kitsch a couple of times, and director Gillies MacKinnon is not invulnerable to Orientalist temptations. Though several shots imply that Hideous Kinky is a sort of dream-record of the characters' experiences—and that the archetypal exoticism of certain Arabic places, people, and spectacles might thus be taken as character points rather than simple weaknesses of the film—it's still a little distancing. (Jane Campion did something similar with the "Holly Holy" opening of Holy Smoke, also starring Winslet, but the visual technique and sound design made her intentions a little clearer.) Still, this is the kind of movie that you enjoy as you watch, appreciate even more as it continues to reveal new layers, and continue to reevaluate in the hours after you finish. Check it out: it's neither hideous nor kinky, and that's probably for the best.

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