Cinematic verve is on display from the opening moments of Kaouther Ben Hania’s Beauty and the Dogs, as pulsing electronic music begins to bleed through the blank frame. And when the image swells into view and the camera holds its gaze as two young women ready themselves for a Tunisian party, that feeling grows. And as the camera follows the two women out of the bathroom and into the club, weaving through the crowd of guests without ever cutting: well, it would raise anyone’s pulse.
You’ll check your watch again, and again, and again — and one final time at roughly the 15-minute mark, as the camera finally cuts to a bold “2.” The rest of the film follows suit and plays out in nine scenes, each captured in a single, unbroken take. This technique reminds of Jim Jarmusch’s terrific Stranger Than Paradise (1984), however Ben Hania’s sequence shots have far more emphasis on movement, as the camera traces the central character’s horrifying evening as opposed to acting as a tableau.
After leaving the party with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) is next seen running through the streets, makeup smeared across her distressed face. Youssef follows, or pursues… it’s unclear. A police car rushes around the corner to make things even more bewildering, and the two characters run to a nearby hospital. It is eventually revealed that the policemen raped Mariam.
Encouraged by Youssef, Mariam seeks justice but is rebuked at every turn. After the first hospital, she tries to get a certificate confirming the attack from a hectic emergency ward, before being forced to face her demons’ co-conspirators head-on at the police station. It’s a deeply troubling series of events, and Ben Hania is openly critical of the Tunisian regime, although police mistrust is clearly a universal concern in the current climate.
The technical achievement here is considerable, though there is nothing that can match the surprise, and resultant thrill, of watching the opening scene play out. Ben Hania effectively orchestrates crowds of extras, and this world feels tactile and lived in. She certainly doesn’t make it easy for herself, as the entire film takes place over the course of an evening, which only adds to the sophisticated lighting challenges inherent in long-take cinematography.
But Al Farjani never lets the camera get too far away. She binds the drama together, even as it descends from bracing realism to feeling increasingly improbable. The supporting cast is strong, too, and they all feel comfortable in this challenging structural and technical construct. The selection of police officers is particularly well cast and performed, and they run the gamut between impotent, apathetic and skin-crawlingly sleazy.
As Beauty and the Dogs drifts into thriller mode, the dramatic progression feels more and more like narrative beats, and there are a few instances of misjudged levity that had my audience (although, not myself) laughing. It’s unfortunate because much of this is powerful, and the film channels the underserved voice of a modern young woman tyrannized by corrupt institutional mores.
In this regard, Beauty and the Dogs does go out of its way to reveal the fatal flaws of even the most seemingly well-meaning characters. It makes for a heavy watch, but who can blame Ben Hania, and it’s an example of world cinema’s rawness in contrast to the punches pulled in most corresponding English-speaking films.
The aforementioned inconsistency between the first and the second scenes is a problem. The way the camera tugs towards Youssef as it’s circling the dance floor sets him up as a stalker. So, for a good few minutes, it seems that he is the one that assaulted Mariam. This has the effect of delaying the audience’s connection to these two characters. Similarly, some of the dialogue is leadenly barbed, but it still achieves its desired effect, albeit bluntly. The receptionist at the hospital declares, “am I the one who raped her?” as if Ben Hania is encouraging the audience to cry out: “Yes! For not doing all you can to help.”
While Kaouther Ben Hania’s message is unfortunately obscured by a muddled lack of clarity in certain moments, her characters repeatedly tell Mariam that she must fight for her rights. And that seems a noble message for a cinematically bold, and often thrilling, real-world horror story.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.