‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ Review: Fyzal Boulifa’s Mother-Son Melodrama

In the little-known 1950 noir The Damned Don’t Cry, Joan Crawford plays a Texas housewife whose grief over the loss of her son spurs her to start a new life in the urban underworld. Fyzal Boulifa’s exquisite new film of the same title is specifically named after this Crawford vehicle, but is neither a remake nor a direct homage. Rather, it blends the narrative components of this film and others of its kind into a kind of new-school-old-school heartbreaker – tearjerkers, you could say, if its characters weren’t, as the title suggests, dry-eyed stoic throughout – that could have been designed for the shoulder-padded diva if she were alive in 2022 and, perhaps more crucially, of Moroccan heritage.

BAFTA-nominated British-Moroccan filmmaker Boulifa’s second feature film chronicles the tumultuous relationship between a single mother and her teenage son on the destitute fringes of Tangier society in his fine debut Lynn + Lucy.

It’s not full immersion, however. In its fusion of Sirkian Hollywood melodrama with the high-key emotionality of Arabic soap operas and a more rigorous strain of European art-house realism – with Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma,” another clearly cited influence – this haunting, idiosyncratic, and often downright odd tale of social Isolation and survival as an outsider feels like Boulifa’s own moving, idiosyncratic way of knitting together the components of his cultural identity. Following its Venice Days sidebar Lido premiere, this suitably dispersed co-production (French-Belgian-Moroccan, with the BBC Films imprimatur to boot) will head into the main competition of the London Film Festival with further festival bookings and specialists, with multi-territory distribution sure to follow follow.

While the tone and storytelling are more expressive here than in Boulifa’s debut, the unmistakable rigor of his mise-en-scène has been retained: Boulifa this time working with Leos Carax’s favorite DP Caroline Champetier, once again favoring the tight, precisely composed tableaus that often culminating in human still lifes, illuminating and isolating small domestic and decorative details that reveal much about the airs and aspirations of Fatima-Zahra (Aïcha Tebbae), a middle-aged unmarried drifter who long ago left her Puritan home village to live a glamorous life lead – and now supports herself and her son Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) with sex work.

Fatima-Zahra and Selim usually share a mattress in the small, dingy rooms they only rent for a few weeks at a time before moving on, and Fatima-Zahra and Selim’s relationship is less one of mother and son than one of equal partners – full of Freudian undercurrents that only get more complicated now Selim, almost a man himself, is becoming increasingly aware of his own sexuality as a potential currency. When he accidentally uncovers the long-hidden truth of his paternity, the mother-son bond is strained; Determined to establish himself as a man of the house, he takes on a series of jobs that lead to a houseboy-type position at a luxury riad owned by wealthy, seductive Frenchman Sébastien (“BPM” star Antoine Reinartz).

Initially disgusted by Antoine’s advances, Selim gradually thaws and succumbs, but this has far-reaching consequences for his relationship with Fatima-Zahra – now on her own “Mildred Pierce” journey of self-renewal as an upstanding citizen. Though the film’s perspective is increasingly set by Selim, The Damned Don’t Cry never loses sympathy for a matriarch whose life is so ruled by male desire and abuse that her own moral compass is up for sale.

Boulifa films Tebbae – like El Hajjouji and much of the cast, a layman – with a clear, compassionate lens that never patronizes or fetishizes their suffering. Often styled with metallic-accented costumes and lavish makeup reminiscent of mid-career Elizabeth Taylor, she is a proud, regal presence even in her most stripped down form. Tebbae’s performance has an understated, heartrending sass that contrasts effectively with El Hajjouji’s alert, lynical physicality; as a mother and son, they feel aptly modeled on separate generations of screen iconography, even if for much of their lives together they never had a tv set to call their own.

Boulifa, on the other hand, weaves disparate generations and geographies of melodramas on big and small screens into a single, sophisticated aesthetic that never stoops to simple pastiche or glitzy kitsch. The dust and drabness of poverty are punctuated by rich pops of color that refer to the sublime Technicolor reality that cannot endure: the rich silks of Fatima-Zahra’s sparse but imaginatively recycled wardrobe, the unnaturally intense blue of the exotic, western-designed Riad Carmine Flower petals over-bloomed so decadently you can smell the rosewater. Simultaneously lively and world-weary, The Damned Don’t Cry traverses many ancient histories—the unruly oppression of women without men, men without fathers, cities without pity—known from real life and cinema alike, and respects equally to both sources.

https://variety.com/2022/film/festivals/the-damned-dont-cry-review-1235369145/ ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ Review: Fyzal Boulifa’s Mother-Son Melodrama

Charles Jones

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