In The Wedding Song, director Karin Albou shrewdly links national politics with its domestic sexual counterpart. As the two young girls at the film’s center find their friendship threatened by opposing wartime loyalties, so their casual nurturing intimacy gives way to the unequal dynamic of their impending marriages. By subtly sexualizing the central female relationship, Albou posits that coupling as a direct corrective to oppressive heterosexual union and, by framing it in a wartime context, suggests a parallel between the male desire to dominate in situations both marital and martial. That none of this is as dramatically convincing as it is thematically sound signals the film’s essential failure, but it’s a noble failure nonetheless, one that mercilessly exposes some of the fundamental drives that shape—and destroy—our civilization.
Although its premise—two best friends find themselves on opposite sides of the war effort—sounds like (and occasionally plays like) the stuff of hoary melodrama, Wedding Song complicates the scenario by sketching out a web of shifting loyalties and complex interactions among its beleaguered characters. Set in Tunis during WWII, the film traces the effects of the German invasion of Northern Africa on the Arab and Jewish communities of the Tunisian capital, focusing principally on two young girls about to be married. While Nour (Olympe Borval), an Arab, welcomes her impending nuptials to Khaled (Najib Oudghiri), her best friend, the Jewish Myriam (Lizze Brocheré) dreads her own arranged union with Raoul (Simon Abkarian), a doctor from a wealthy family.
The wartime Tunisian setting allows Albou to sketch out a unique, morally ambiguous social landscape. While the Jewish and Arab populations have seemingly coexisted in relative harmony, it’s clear that a certain level of resentment exists among the latter, directed both toward their French colonizers and toward the Jews who enjoy advantages denied to them. When the Germans come in and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment, they find a willing audience and many “natives” begin working with the Nazis. Albou holds the different perspectives in such a tight balance that until a scene that occurs halfway through the movie in which Nour is politely told to leave an upscale Jewish store, it’s hard to understand that, prior to the German invasion, the Jews once enjoyed a privileged position in Tunis. Every one has his reasons in Wedding Song which means that even such obviously loathsome characters as Khaled are given their justifications. Nour’s fiancé may have joined the Nazis and may think nothing of participating in brutal attacks on Jews, but as he explains to his intended, “[the Germans] have promised us our independence after the war.”
As the Nazis tighten their hold on Tunis, the rift between Nour and Myriam grows predictably wider until, finally, the lines of communication are cut entirely. Throughout the film, Albou favors a low-key, somewhat oblique treatment of the German occupation (the one burst of violence perpetrated by the Nazis is heard but not glimpsed, the scene tied to Myriam’s perspective as she hides under a table), but she devotes her full attention to the shifting relationship between her two leads. Although the friendship is presented plausibly enough, it’s in dramatizing their climactic split that Albou gets into trouble. Having Nour’s decision to cut, and then resume, ties with Myriam based on her reading of two seemingly opposed passages in the Koran may make thematic sense, but it plays out as an unconvincing academic exercise rather than a dramatically viable crisis. By the time the director calls on the cheap tokenism of a rejected bracelet to sentimentalize the breakup/reunion, the sequence threatens to dissolve in its own sense of contrivance.
The one area where Albou succeeds magnificently is in her understanding of a woman’s body as a contested battleground and its parallel in the contested battleground of wartime Tunisia. Wedding Song abounds in female nudity, but it is often put to very different uses, seen both as an instrument of casual female intimacy and as an object of male domination. The former use finds its initial expression in an early scene set in a woman’s communal bathhouse. Albou disarms the viewer with the sight of so much naked female flesh, but rather than exploiting her exposed actors, she uses their nudity to suggest a free and easy relationship between the women, one in which sexuality is hinted at but not explored directly and in which a sense of community is allowed to flourish. But even in this scene, the signs of ethnic and nationalist tensions have already begun to undo the atmosphere of female intimacy.
When Myriam’s cash-strapped mother is unable to pay her dues, the Arab women begin tossing out anti-Semitic slurs, encouraged by increasingly prevalent Nazi propaganda. Fittingly, though, it’s in the bathhouse that Nour finally does right by Myriam. When, late in the film, the German soldiers invade this female inner sanctum looking for Jews (and it really does feel like an invasion, their brusque masculinity bursting in against so much female nudity), Nour saves her friend by insisting that she’s really an Arab, drawing her back into the community of women and giving the lie to ethnic difference.
While there’s nothing in the film to indicate an actual sexual relationship between Nour and Myriam, the imagery of their relationship is decidedly lesbian, and in their drawing together against male oppression—whether personal or political—their relationship can also be described as lesbian. From the first bathhouse sequence in which Myriam lovingly rubs Nour’s feet and a later scene where the Jewish girl gives her Arab friend a bra and helps her try it on, to the numerous shots where the two girls lean their heads together, Albou establishes a physical intimacy between her two characters based on mutual love. But just as the political circumstances of wartime Tunisia threaten to divide the two girls, so do their impending nuptials and in depicting the circumstances of the latter, the director again calls on a catalogue of female nudity, this time to emphasize the difference between a loving embrace and an embrace based on domination.
In the film’s most disturbing sequence, Albou shows us the intimate details of a forced pre-wedding vagina waxing in which members of Myriam’s community hold the young woman down while a female elder rips off her pubic hair in particularly painful fashion. “You have to be clean for your husband,” the women tell her, but this ritual, in which the women inflict pain on each other for the benefit of their men, represents a fundamental betrayal of female intimacy. On her wedding night, Raoul pounds away at his bride before she throws him off and cowers in the corner, Albou’s merciless filming of her nudity catching the vulnerability of a woman caught in untenable personal and political circumstances. But if sexual congress can be a means of a woman’s unwelcome defilement, it can also be a means of asserting her power. On her own wedding night, as Nour couples with Khaled while their families wait expectantly outside the door, the young woman uses this moment of forced intimacy to confirm her devotion to Myriam in front of her disapproving groom. Drawing on the awkward closeness of the coital situation, she traps Khaled, turning the tables on her husband as she lets him know where her loyalties lie. And if all this were half as compelling dramatically as it is exhilarating on the level of abstract thematics, we might have a masterpiece on our hands.