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Review: A couch in Tunis (2019)

Directed by: | 88 minutes | | Actors: , , , , , , , , , , Oussama Kochkar, , Rimediene Hamrounza, ,

This year it is ten years ago that the Jasmine Revolution took place in Tunisia. It all started with Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man who could not find a job and therefore started selling fruit and vegetables. Because he actually needed a permit for this, his merchandise was confiscated. A policeman is said to have hit Bouazizi. His complaints were not heard, after which the desperate Bouazizi saw no other way out than to pour himself with petrol and set fire to it. He died in hospital and did not experience his protest being followed. Although the state-controlled media ignored the uprisings, the images spread across the country via social media. In other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, people also stood up against the oppressive regime, ushering in the period we now know as the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, dictator Ben Ali was deposed and imprisoned; the first free elections ever took place in the North African country in the autumn.

There is a good chance that if the Jasmine Revolution had not taken place, the ‘Un divan à Tunis’ (2019) could not have been made. This comedy is about Tunisians who dare to open their mouths. On the couch with a psychotherapist, then. Selma (Golshifteh Farahani), although born in Tunisia, grew up in Paris and feels, dresses and behaves . Because there is apparently too much competition in France, she has decided to go to her home country and start a practice there, with her aunt and uncle upstairs. She soon realizes that the Tunisians are willing to talk, but that they actually have no idea what a psychotherapist actually does. And most do not pay with money, but with the tastiest homemade dishes, which Selma can never eat on her own. Local police officer Naim (Majd Mastoura) is also noticing that the line for her improvised practice is getting longer. Although he is quite fond of Selma, he is of the righteous type: he takes his work very seriously and subtly points out to Selma that she needs a permit to start a practice (do we see a reference to Mohammed Bouazizi here? ).

Released in some countries under the title ‘Arab Blues’, ‘Un divan à Tunis’ feels more like a French than a Tunisian film, and not just because 90 percent of the dialogues are in French. Manele Labidi, who makes her directorial debut with this film and also wrote the screenplay, is of Tunisian descent, but was born in Paris and thus looks at the land of her ancestors through French eyes. Maybe she didn’t mean to, but in a way she makes Selma look down on the Tunisians. In addition, she caricatures of Selma’s clients: we have a bold hairdresser with a mother complex, a depressed imam and the local baker who prefers to wear women’s clothes and who dreams of making out with powerful men. This should produce humorous situations, but the jokes are silly and miss their target every now and then. Selma’s teenage cousin wears a niqab with her parents but only does so to hide her punk hairstyle. Yet she is the one who occasionally dares to point out her biased look to Selma. This trickles through what this film could have been; a socially critical mirror presented to a woman who grew up in the West. Unfortunately, moments like this are rare. a socially critical mirror presented to a woman who grew up in the West. Unfortunately, moments like this are rare. a socially critical mirror presented to a woman who grew up in the West. Unfortunately, moments like this are rare.

Labidi’s intentions are correct, but she often takes too short a turn to make her point and therefore stays too much on the surface. It is remarkable that she chose Farahani for the lead role; the Iranian actress barely speaks Arabic. On the other hand, the role of ‘outsider’ may well suit her because of that. She is paired with Mastoura, who is allowed to put down the ‘straight-faced cop’ here, and does this very well, but has much more to offer. Selma and Naim are constantly revolving around each other, everyone can feel where this is going, even though Labidi films certain scenes in such an alienating way that you don’t know whether Selma is dreaming or not. Partly because of that approach, the ending has a somewhat unsatisfying feeling. Another missed opportunity for Labidi. You could actually say that ‘Un divan à Tunis’ is a sequence of missed opportunities. The concept is promising and there is plenty of talent involved in this film; all the more disappointing it is that this film is stuck in its good intentions.

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