Culture

Stories of love and betrayal in a modernist house

BEIRUT: Roy Dib’s “The Beach House” is a film about a conversation, set around a dinner party and hosted by the daughters of an expired Lebanese intellectual. The younger sister, Rayya (Sandy Chamoun), is a gifted vocalist who doesn’t perform in public or compose her own tunes. Layla (Nesrine Khoder), the older sister, has returned to Lebanon after some years in Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne.

The film doesn’t open upon scenes of simmering pots and lettuce-chopping, but a song – the final tune of one of Rayya’s private nighttime concerts, accompanied by a trio that’s the spitting image of the Beirut-based Damascene rockers Tanjaret Daghet.

With the performative premises of the evening in place, musicians and most of the guests evaporate. Rayya absents herself for a time too, first charging her sister to make sure two of the guests, Rawad and Youssef, don’t leave.

The men are friends from Rayya’s university days and she hasn’t seen them in a decade. The guests don’t know Layla, though they’d heard Rayya had a sister in Paris. Uncomfortable and belligerent, Youssef (Rodrigue Sleiman) wants to leave but Layla entices Rawad (Julian Farhat) with a sachet of cocaine, then thrusts a whiskey into Youssef’s hand.

Asked why she returned to Lebanon, Layla rolls her eyes and recites from a list that includes kibbeh nayyeh and araq, dismissing the cedars as a cliché. Rawad works in Berlin as a broadcaster, he says, but may return to Lebanon. Layla warns that only disaster comes from coming home.

Youssef, an actor, has abstained from migration and he regards staying to be an act of social responsibility. Layla concludes the introductory chit-chat by informing the men that her sister has cancer.

Rayya steps back into the frame and the conversation turns to the house and the art collection the sisters’ father accumulated. Youssef appreciates the art but the script (co-written by Dib and artist Raafat Majzoub) is impatient to paint him an uptight idealist.

He’s irritated by Layla’s casual emotional blackmail and both sisters’ easy transgressions (having cheese and fish in the same meal, say, or eating on a table cut from a 1,500-year-old cedar). He also frowns at Rawad’s depiction of a Palestinian friend in Berlin, the first hint that there’s more between the two men than their college years with Rayya. For their part, the sisters share more than a common father – a backstory that helps explain Layla’s bitter cynicism.

As a visual artist Dib is best known for his work with video (he also performs in the troupe of the highly successful Metro al-Madina). “The Beach House” is his feature film debut. Its Beirut premiere was scheduled for this year’s Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya, the city’s festival of Arabic-language cinema, but the censor wanted cuts made beforehand. Dib didn’t comply and the screenings were canceled. The film’s gone on to find a life in several overseas festivals, the next stop being Sydney’s Lebanese Film Festival, on Sept. 1.

“The Beach House” is a dialogue-driven film and it runs the risks common to a form that uses the same engine as conventional theatre but lacks a play’s human immediacy.

For anyone weaned on a diet of apocalyptic superhero clashes, online porn and the post-Doom gaming universe, movies structured around ensemble dialogue can be, well, impenetrable.

Some audiences and critics enjoy cinematic eavesdropping, but the effectiveness of this conceit depends on whether they’re interested in the patter on offer. Plenty have not been convinced by Jean-Pierre Léaud’s eccentric turn in Jean Eustache’s “La maman et la putain.” If you had no personal memory of 1960s America, chances are Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” didn’t perch you on the edge of your seat.

Arguably, the most charming conversational film in Lebanese film history (in concept, if not execution) is Borhane Alaouié’s 1981 feature “Beyroutou al-lika,” (“Beirut: The Encounter”), in which a couple miss their scheduled tête à tête and so agree to exchange monologues recorded separately on cassette. Naturally, the exchange is never made.

The conversation in “The Beach House” lingers over matters of honesty and pretence, loyalty and betrayal, love and desire – performed against a past whose rumored greatness is at once accentuated and undermined by its absence.

The house that serves as the film’s location was, in fact, designed and built by Iraqi architect Rifaat Chadirji (b. 1926) in the north Lebanon village of Halet – a fact important enough to warrant mentioning both in the film and in the accompanying production notes.

The filmmaker elevates the house into an altar to modernism, stocked with work by some of the best-known artists of the country’s modernist moment – including Shafic Abboud and Saliba Douaihy, Etel Adnan and Saloua Raouda Choucair. For all these exertions, the film isn’t particularly interested in showing the architecture or the art.

Exterior sequences at the start and end of the film were all photographed at nighttime. Appreciative panning shots of architectural detail and works’ composition are absent from Karim Ghorayeb’s lensing of interiors and exteriors, which are most interested in the characters. Youssef and Layla alight upon Abboud’s work only briefly and their remarks echo nowhere else in their exchanges or those of the other characters.

The film veers toward silliness in the final act, when the characters are made to leave Chadirji’s house.

At one point the men decide to get one back on their hosts, so Rawad sits behind the drum battery abandoned by Rayya’s accompanists and Youssef turns on the microphone to narrate their college years from his own perspective. Later, all four characters start following Rayya in walking a circuit on the rocky landscape outside the house. A good chunk of dialogue is devoted to explaining why Rayya chooses the path she does but, in the wake of the real-ish dialogues that come before, the sequence seems to breathe too deeply at the armpit of symbolism.

The characters are at their best when at table. Sleiman works a bit too hard at the neuroses of Youssef’s cossetted character but there’s pleasant authenticity in watching him relax beneath Layla’s amused bullying. In fact the film’s strongest facet may be the chemistry these four actors exude under Dib’s direction.

It’s a good start.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2017, on page 16.

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