Beauty and the Dogs is a harrowing film from director/writer Kaouther Ben Hania that takes an unsurprising turn of events and still manages to induce rage in its viewers. The film follows Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), a young Tunisian woman who attends a party with friends, leaves with a man, and ends up fighting for her rights as a woman in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.
The film is divided into nine chapters, each chapter seemingly a long take before cutting to the next segment. In the first chapter we see Mariam in a disco bathroom waiting for her friend to come to her rescue with a new dress after the one she is wearing is torn. The new dress is slinky, and not Mariam’s style, and our immediate Pavlovian response given the situation is to assume the worst for our protagonist. The two return to the party and after dancing a little Mariam engages in some innocent flirting with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli). The two leave together, and the screen cuts to the next chapter where we find Mariam running down the street, disheveled, crying, with Youssef hot on her heels. Again, we assume the worst. That Youssef is the one she’s running away from and because she’s in heels she’s not fast enough. We soon learn that’s not the case. Mariam has been raped, but Youssef isn’t the culprit. Instead he ends up being her only advocate, taking it upon himself to escort Mariam to the first of what will be many stops along her way to obtaining justice.
This film is telling us a story that is sadly familiar, in a place where we have come to expect injustice against rape victims. Yet Ben Hania is able to imbue this story with a fresh rage and give the viewer a chilling and uncomfortable experience, much like Mariam’s. The use of chapters in this story is a crucial aspect of its success. It gives the audience the sense of endlessness that comes when social, political, and cultural barriers to justice are constantly thrown in your face. It dictates the long list of tasks that need to take place, and in a certain order, for progress to be made. But by chapter three you realize how futile the endeavor is and why so many give up. By the end, you are just as exhausted and frustrated as Mariam.
This film also employs long takes to great effect. Like the chapters, the long takes drag out every moment even further, giving the viewer no respite from the trauma taking place and the series of frustrating events that follow. The camera choreography isn’t flashy, but seamless, following Mariam and Youssef in and out of cars, in and out of police stations and hospitals in a hell that never ends. When Mariam is engaging with judgmental hospital staff and hostile police officers we are there for every moment.
The performances in this film are also noteworthy if only because some of the time the script is lacking in compelling dialogue to match what is happening on screen. Al Ferjani is wonderful as Mariam, taking the character from confident co-ed to self-conscious victim to strong self-advocate. Al Ferjani is especially great at utilizing her body movements and gestures. The fidgeting with her dress straps in the beginning of the film invoke a confidence in her body, the same movement later signals distress at the hundreds of eyes on her in that slinky dress. There is a great moment at the end of the film when she is defiant towards the police, refusing to withdraw her complaint after their consistent ploys at manipulating her. She takes a veil she had been given earlier to cover-up and instead ties it around her neck like a cape as she floats outside in the morning light. In a moment that director Ben Hania doesn’t make too aware of itself, Mariam becomes her own superhero.
The script may be lacking in certain areas but the filmmaking is what makes Beauty and the Dogs a worthy watch. The film offers viewers a unique way to view the world through the eyes of those who must fight tooth and nail for their right to be treated as human.
Beauty and the Dogs opens today at the Ritz Five.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.