With his mother’s agreement, 12-year old Noura, looking younger than his age, is still admitted to the women’s hammam in Halfaouine, a neighbourhood in Tunis. His older friends ask him to provide licentious details on the life in the hammam and on the bodies of the women taking baths there. On the day of his brother’s circumcision, an act that repulses him, Noura is excluded from the hammam because he approaches a bather too closely. After this he is obliged to visit the men’s baths with his father. He approaches the young servant Leila sensually, which results in her dismissal. He also loses the complicity of Salih, a libertarian poet arrested by the police for his anti-conformist political propositions. He dwells on fantastic images from his childhood; that of a disturbing, bearded ogre and that of a man with castrating scissors. Practically isolated, as if chased from paradise, finding himself between a rock and a hard place, not knowing any longer if he should join the adult world or if he wants to stay young so as not to be far from women, he responds with a mocking laughter to his father’s prohibitions and escapes onto the terraces of the neighbourhood toward an uncertain future.
The film is a fairy tale (the director’s father was a librarian and a storyteller), that of a difficult passage from the world of children to the world of adults, a traumatising initiation into the formation of the libido, into the desire for women. The hammam, which Western literature and painting have portrayed since the eighteenth century, offers Noura an opportunity to approach with an indiscrete gaze the bodies of women, without veils, in a sensuous atmosphere where the vaporous warmth puts reason to sleep, where one puts one’s guard down and where social etiquette is weakened.
These modern odalisques have the taste of forbidden fruit. The film tells with fervour, without discourse, how a sexual initiation happens, against the forces forbidding all liberation, against the Islamist precepts of religious master Mokhtar, against the advice of his father (‘a man never cries, a man doesn’t hang around with women’), bothered by the vulgar questions posed by his two macho friends.
Largely inspired by the life of a perfectly Westernised director, but also inscribed within a culture where in 1990 the crude description of sexuality is still impossible, this films locates itself on a territory that Western filmmakers have evoked more crudely, in particular that of a young man’s sexual initiation into brothels, sometimes recommended and organised by the parents themselves (nothing better than professionalism in this matter!). The films of François Truffaut starring JeanPierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel come to mind.
Boughedir also evokes the Western myth of the harem here, liberally described and painted in Europe in the eighteenth century. We discover the very modern idea that the female body captured in opacity and an aesthetically seductive tepidness evokes more desire than complete, realistic and anatomical nudity.
Thus the hammam invokes the harem by inversion, this confined space of women (recalling the gynaecium of antiquity) where the master and lord comes to choose a mistress who will be prepared in the baths by the servants (cf. 1001 Nights). Noura will have known the ancestral desire for the harem without having had a chance to satisfy it. Expulsed from the body of the woman, and having symbolically killed the father, he will topple into another story, another culture, unknown and intimidating. ‘I am fascinated by the women in my country. They have a kind of genius of life. They have managed, despite everything, to have fewer constraints than men …. I wanted to show that the laughter of women is the most powerful thing in the world. In this moment [when they laugh after the husband enters and leaves the courtyard], they are in charge of the house. The joy of women is stronger than any dogma.’ 1 The body of the women in the hammam is sublimated by the vision of the still innocent preadolescent. They have an appearance of freedom, but only in the domestic space, not in public.