Review: Raja

Raja is a romantic tug of war that brings to mind both a Shakespearean comedy of errors and Bernardo Bertolucci’s undervalued Besieged.

Photo: Film Movement

Jacques Doillon’s supremely written, remarkably acted Raja is a romantic tug of war that brings to mind both a Shakespearean comedy of errors and Bernardo Bertolucci’s undervalued Besieged. The director’s eponymous heroine goes to work with her cousin at a pasha in Morocco owned by a lazy, intellectual Frenchman. The suave, persistent Fred (Pascal Greggory) is drawn to her ordinariness and the 19-year-old Raja (Najat Benssallem) is smitten by his sexiness. Their innocent crush quickly escalates into a war of bitter jealousies, sparring libidos, and brutal miscommunications. Neither can speak each other’s language, and as such they turn to others to translate for them. Doillon illuminates Fred’s worldview via a series of unnervingly jolly discussions with two portly female cooks who could pass for happy-go-lucky relatives of the three Macbeth witches, but the perpetually laughing women are smarter than meets the eye. They’re clearly fond of Fred, but that one of them deliberately miscommunicates Raja’s words and intentions suggests that they are mindful of the dangerous power struggle implicit in his affections for the young girl. Doillon makes excellent use of widescreen. His airy, deceptively simple compositions frequently isolate Greggory and Benssallem to either side of the frame, emphasizing the wide economical and cultural split that exists between the two. Both characters repeatedly infringe upon the other’s space, but just how much are they propelled by love, greed, and the eroticisation of the other’s race? The frequent shifts in power the characters perpetuate throughout the film are remarkably implied (sometimes even prefigured) in the way the actors walk through Doillon’s mise-en-scène. Raja makes things hard for the equally coy Fred in part because she doesn’t want to be owned by him. But once you remove all the economic and cultural baggage that frustrates the couple’s attempts to hook-up, Raja is really just about the thrill of the chase. And judging by Raja and Fred’s disappointing sex scene, chasing someone can be more fun than catching them.

 Cast: Pascal Greggory, Najat Benssallem, Ilham Abdelwahed, Hassan Khissal, Fatiha Khoulaki, Ahmed Akensouss  Director: Jacques Doillon  Screenwriter: Jacques Doillon  Distributor: Film Movement  Running Time: 112 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2003  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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