Name: Will Guy
"Dégradé" by Arab and Tarzan Abunasser (France)
Festival de Cannes 2015 - Critics´ Week
The brothers Arab and Tarzan Abunasser make their feature-length debut as a directorial duo with Dégradé, a drama set within the 2014 conflict in Gaza. A beauty salon serves to illustrate the tensions produced when ordinary life takes place within a war-zone. However, it is frustrating that this illustration suffers from an undecided mixture of realism and farce that hinders all but its sobering conclusion.
Palestine has traditionally been a nation underrepresented by cinema, but recent years have brought several filmmaking projects to the international stage. Yet, to be screened in Palestine films require Hamas approval that enforces censorship that removes images of women shown without their hair covered. The Abunasser brothers then stand against these ideals by setting their film within the private world of a beauty salon where such censorship would leave little more than seconds for a public screening within its homeland. This is attitude exemplifies Dégradé, which discusses the inward division most obvious amongst Palestinian groups. Indeed, one of the Abunasser brothers plays an independent fighter who has stolen a lion from the government to parade around as a symbol of his independence.
But all this takes place beyond the closed curtain of this beauty salon where gangs of militants rule the streets. Instead, we are almost entirely kept inside, focused upon the women who are similarly confined within this suggestive setting as they attempt to continue their daily lives. Here we find ten women that conveniently represent a broad Palestinian demographic that ranges from a devout conservative through to a Russian expatriate. They find themselves together for domestic reasons, but each harbours their own individual — yet universal — problems. These ordinary troubles are then aggravated by the conflict outside that constantly finds its way into the salon to create tensions they take out upon each other.
Their arguments are based upon inconsequential disputes that slowly build toward melodrama. The internal fighting then mirrors that outside world to illustrate the idiocracy of arguments between compatriots as an obstruction of progress. And so, as several women criticise another for her constant coughing we learn that she cannot receive the medical help she needs due to the mass of different resistance groups that she would need to appease in order to travel to Israel. She quite literally suffers from the division of her country.
However, as more issues are introduced it begins to feel as though we have stepped beyond the point of reality. When one woman is revealed to be on the brink of giving birth we wonder whether we have arrived fully in cliché. This would be a welcome approach if the Abunasser brothers were to embrace the farcical elements they introduce.
It would be easy to push the narrative further to admit the surreal influence that is present within Dégradé.
Certainly, the best moments of the film recall Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where the beauty salon and a lion stands in for the Spanish mansion and a bear. But here the restriction of these women is a very real phenomenon, and this compels the directors to never fully utilise their narrative’s absurdity.
Thankfully, the film’s climax indicates skill that is absent from all that precedes it. With it we switch fully to a realism that slaps us with the truth of that world: violence and death. This is a convincing tactic used at the right moment, but one that never completely overshadows the standard of the previous scenes.. Nonetheless, Dégradé offers a respectable critique of a time and place that fully expresses the directors’ personal attitudes.