On the Edge (Sur la Planche) – review

The first full-length feature from Moroccan director Leïla Kilani is an appealing tale of two women flirting with crime in Tangiers

On the Edge, the first full-length feature by the Moroccan director Leïla Kilani, is powered by a form of black magic that should appeal to audiences everywhere, with bags of energy, a team of explosive young actresses and a poetic hold-up. Added to which this socially aware intrigue is suffused by the Arab spring.

The setting is a city coming to grips with the global market. Young women, drawn from all over Morocco by the promise of social advancement, converge on the new free trade zone and adjoining port. They are split into two categories – textile workers and shrimp-peelers – not blessed with the same appeal. The former enjoy the prestige of a trade connected to leading international brands. The latter do piece-work that taints them with a shameful stink of fish. So one group is determined to hang onto its meagre benefits, the other is desperate to escape.

For the heroines of this tale, Badia and Imane, Nawal and Asma – two peelers and two stitchers – there is no time to lose. The four north African tearaways, all in their 20s, are struggling to survive and get on, by whatever means. Their key concern is present gratification rather than some future revolution. They operate in a shady world, populated by punks and parvenus, passing through plush villas and markets to sell their wares, graduating from bits of stolen jewellery to smart phones, playing a dangerous and sometimes violent double game, further complicated by rivalry and treachery between the peelers and the stitchers.

This double game plays out in two visual styles, at least for Badia and Imane. By day they inhabit the shrimp factory, with broad shots bathed in the uniform white of overalls, caps and neon lights, and marked by the endlessly repeated mechanical gestures of collective work. By night they switch to a world of pleasure and burglary.

Between the two worlds, Badia’s bedroom serves as an antechamber for metamorphosis. In this slum without running water the caterpillar, subjected to violent scrubbing, becomes a butterfly, decked out in a leather jacket and skin-tight jeans, concealed under a djellaba

One complaint is that apart from the four young women, the other characters have no real substance. But borrowing tricks from the hard-boiled genre (the fatally circular narrative, the heroine’s inner voice, and the last-chance break-in), the great virtue of On the Edge is to be so in tune with its main characters – with their stopgap solutions and desperate energy – all held together by the speed of the action that holds the constant risk of a crash. But freedom comes at that price.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde

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from Jaques Mandelbaum

via http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/feb/21/on-the-edge-kilani-review

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