The String
(Le Fil)

TLA Releasing,

Mehdi Ben Attia

Mehdi Ben Attia,
Olivier Laneurie

Claudia Cardinale,
Antonin Stahly,
Salim Kechiouche
Lotfi Dziri,
Rihab Mejri

Unrated, 93 min.

Coming Home
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version also appeared on, October, 2010
Posted online October, 2010

Once upon a time, a positive love story between two men (or two women) was a cause for celebration. This scenario has become so common that today's queer filmmakers need to find new ways to make this material fresh or risk getting lost in the shuffle. The String (Le Fil, 2009), the debut film from director Mehdi Ben Attia, mostly rises to the challenge. The gay love story is a familiar one but the script by Attia and Olivier Laneurie touches on relevant themes such as cultural and class divides in order to keep things interesting.

Malik (Antonin Stahly) is a thirty-something architect working in France. He returns to his native Tunisia to spend time with his recently widowed mother. Sara, his mother, is played by Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale (Fellini's 8 1/2 and Visconti's The Leopard are just two of the highlights of her distinguished career). She's a bit on the overbearing side and wants her son to settle down permanently in Tunisia and get married. But Malik is, of course, gay and doesn't take kindly to his mother's attempts to fix him up with a nice native girl. Malik's therapist has advised him to come clean about his sexuality to his family but he just doesn't seem to find the right moment. Complicating matters, Malik has fallen for his Mother's hunky handyman, Bilal (Salim Kechiouche).

Bilal is also a stranger in a strange land. He has also recently returned home to Tunisia (like Malik, he spent many years in France) and is trying to fit in. He works as a handyman in exchange for lodgings in a bungalow on Sara's bourgeois estate and, for that reason, he initially tries to ignore the attraction he feels towards her son. When they finally do it, there are full blown fireworks. They enjoy one of the sweetest kissing scenes I've ever seen on film. Third act drama is supplied when Mother finds the two of them in bed.

Much of the film is funny. The audience is told not to take a lot of this seriously by campy, melodramatic music that crosses Pedro Almodovar and James Bond. The filmmakers also mine untypical situations to find sublime comedy. Take the scene when Malik resumes work as an architect. His client? A Muslim cleric who will have to settle for a smaller mosque if he wants a bigger parking ramp. There's a great moment, straight out of Harold and Maude, where Mother brings home a nice girl for Malik to meet, with her family in tow, and Malik deliberately scares them away by ranting militant slogans.

Other plot strands include Malik agreeing to marry his lesbian friend so that her baby will have a father and Mom will shut up already about grandchildren. Much of The String seems to be about breaking taboos. Malik picks up a stranger and they have sex in an alley. He also has sex with a male cousin at one point too. When he and Bilal become involved, the situation mirrors Lady Chatterly's Lover in that Malik is also crossing class lines by doing it with a "servant." The tone to all of this has been light but it should be pointed out that Malik is getting away with all this in an Islamic country that doesn't have high marks from Amnesty International for its record on human rights.

In a nice parallel, we learn that Malik's mother also once broke taboos as a young European woman marrying an Arab.

Visual symbols abound in this tale of a man's attempts to cut his mother's apron strings. As a child, Malik used to spin because he imagined himself entangled in string. As an adult, he suffers from panic attacks. During moments of stress, he sees a long string hanging off his shirt that is connected to his mother. These moments are a tad obvious and forced, but they look cool. Director Attia has a flair for offbeat images. There's a terrific sight gag when Malik gives Bilal a ride on his motorbike while wearing a helmet that is three times bigger than it needs to be - effectively draining all possible romanticism from the comic scene.

The acting is terrific, especially Cardinale. Kechiouche (Bilal) has previously played hunks in Three Dancing Slaves as well as in other European queer faire. As cinema, the widescreen photography makes full use of its canvas. Most of this film satisfies but the ending gets a bit maudlin. Everything is tied up in too neat of a ribbon for my taste. But, aside from that, I enjoyed most of The String. At the least, it's a great date movie for those who don't hate subtitles.