Sometimes even the best of ingredients can result in a disappointing meal. Such is the case with Lila Says, a film that boasts beautiful cinematography, an exceptional pair of lead actors and provocative subject matter — but adds up to nothing spectacular. Director Ziad Doueiri, who cut his teeth behind the camera for Quentin Tarrantino, has picked a script that doesn’t match his formidable talents.
In his debut film, West Beirut, Doueiri presented a coming of age story that deftly navigated its battle-scarred landscape and complicated religious terrain with gentle wit and charm. Surprisingly, his sophomore effort finds none of the depth of character or narrative appeal of his debut.
Based on a scandalous French novella, the film is set in the immigrant slums of Marseilles and follows the summer flirtations of Arab-French teen Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) and pale-skinned Lila (Vahina Giocante), a stunning blond who counters her angelic beauty with sexually provocative talk. Meeting for the first time on a local playground, Lila asks the passive teen, "Do you want to see my pussy?" It’s hardly the typical start to romance, but the two soon develop an intimate relationship that’s, ultimately, all talk and no action. Confused but smitten, Chimo struggles to understand how his snow-white beauty can so brazenly muse about filming amateur porno and multiple sex partners. Inevitably, Chimo’s thuggish friends take notice of Lila, giving way to violence and heartbreak.
Unfortunately, superficial characters and an overly predictable script undermine what could have been a compelling examination of sexual and racial identity. Chimo’s quiet yearning for this precocious girl who knows the power of sexuality but understands little of its effects holds great promise, but ends up as little more than an emotional striptease. The friction between their cultures barely registers, and the film has too little insight and too few revealing moments to justify the raunchy underpinnings.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, Doueiri choreographs a few memorable moments, not the least of which is an extended love scene on a motorbike. Set to Air’s ethereally gorgeous Run, the sequence is poetically hypnotic, capturing the bold exhilaration and shy innocence of young love. It’s a purely cinematic moment that hints at what the picture might have been. If only.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theater, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19. 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.