SATIN ROUGE, THE FIRST FILM FROM TUNISIAN director Raja Amari, opens on a woman cleaning her apartment. Hair bound tight above her head, clothing drab, face devoid of makeup, she lavishes special attention upon a set of framed pictures of smiling people, images of a happier past. When she goes on to examine her own image in a mirror, she registers dissatisfaction, then brings out a rag and starts to polish.

Lilia (Hiam Abbass), we learn, is a widow who, following the death of her husband, has never managed to restart her life. She spends her days in resigned contentment at home, dusting the same surfaces and watching the same soap operas, as if unaware that the world might possibly offer more. When she isn't doing minor sewing jobs for neighbors who tend not to pay, Lilia is worrying about her college-age daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem), who has stopped eating and begun staying out all night. In the effort to spy upon Salma's relationship with her dance instructor, Chokri (Maher Kamoun), Lilia stumbles one night into the cabaret where Chokri plays drums. But Salma is nowhere to be found, and Lilia finds herself overwhelmed by a smoky club full of chanting men, gyrating women, and the promise of debauchery. By the next day, what initially horrified her has become her obsession. Soon Lilia is sneaking out at night to the cabaret — ostensibly to perform costume alterations for the club's aging stage manager and den mother Folla (Monia Hichri), though she ends up dancing herself, tentatively at first, then with abandon.

Set in Tunis, Satin Rouge establishes a contrast between the strict, religion-centered life of the daytime, with its incessant Muslim calls to prayer, and the clandestine nighttime world in which Lilia rediscovers her womanhood amid pounding rhythms and jubilant song. While the other dancers view their craft purely in terms of a meal ticket, for Lilia it's a spiritual awakening. (The club's manager at one point accuses her of dancing for herself while ignoring the paying customers.)

Writer-director Amari depicts Lilia's transformation in a variety of external ways: Her bouncy perm, perilous high heels and a gaudy new purse impress even her fashion-forward young daughter. At an incrementally deeper level, Satin Rouge is a film in which costumes (by Magdalena Garcia Caniz) define character and destiny: Lilia's re-awakening is directly proportional to the amount of belly she exposes. At the same time, each of her garments speaks in its own special voice. Early on, when Lilia caresses one of her tightly buttoned pale-gray shirts, the soundtrack captures the thickness and roughness of the material, and the extent to which her very essence is choked and confined. Later, when she dances, she finds freedom in costumes of satin and silk, shimmering with sequins and beads. But while the costumes hint at changes beneath the surface, it is Abbass' performance, as she vacillates flawlessly between muted hausfrau and shining hoofer, that reveals the depths of her transformation.

Of course, what has sparked some controversy in Tunisia's conservative Arab culture will likely appear tame to U.S. audiences, especially if they come looking for a kind of Muslim Showgirls. Moreover, Satin Rouge treads rather too lightly over its most problematic relationships: Though Lilia actively pursues her daughter's boyfriend, those expecting emotional fireworks when the truth inevitably comes out haven't been paying attention to the measured tones in which the movie delivers its material. Still, predictable as Satin Rouge's plot points may be, it ultimately resists characterization as an amiable and conventional tale of sexual rebirth, thanks to an ambiguous final shot that reopens much of the film to further interpretation.

Pilar López de Ayala as
Juana La Lo

(Photo by Ignacio Deamo)

VICENTE ARANDA'S JUANA LA LOCA (MAD LOVE) is an altogether different kind of costume drama: Where Satin Rouge evokes eroticism in the absence of nudity, Juana la Loca summons up all forms of graphic kinkiness without generating any real heat. The story of the “mad” queen of Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, has been popular in Spanish literature, theater and film for more than three centuries. This version opens in 1496, four years after the Catholic monarchs sent Columbus off to plunder the New World, when Juana — in the subtitles, Joan (Pilar López de Ayala) — is sent to Flanders to marry an archduke, Philip (Daniele Liotti), in a move to consolidate dynastic power. Although Isabella, in an early scene, urges her daughter to search out love in this arranged marriage, Joan has her doubts — until, that is, she meets Philip (“the Handsome”), who is all rippling muscles and long flowing hair, a regular Flemish Fabio. For his part, the archduke is so aroused by his first glimpse of Joan, he decides to wed and bed the young princess a week in advance of any public ceremony.

Joan's first tastes of love, and lovemaking, are intoxicating, and the couple spends the next few years in seemingly endless heated copulation, taking advantage of Joan's incredible fertility to produce several royal offspring. In reality, though, Philip is too dedicated an epicure to be satisfied by just one woman; not long into the royal marriage, he's begun working his way through the queen's handmaidens. Joan discovers his infidelity at an inopportune time — the same day she learns that her mother's death has made her queen of Castile. Philip counterattacks with accusations of madness, which Joan, with her undignified penchant for public necking and public tantrums, does nothing to dispel. Once returned to Spain, Philip — now in love with a satiny rogue of a devil-worshipping Moorish belly dancer — plots with his advisers to have Joan declared incompetent to rule.

In Aranda's version of Spanish history, Joan is not quite mad — only a maddened slave to love who learns too late that her station in life requires her to “love like a queen” (a measured, rational love for all her subjects) rather than “like a woman” (an irrational and all-consuming love for a single man). In his effort to convey Joan's “madness,” Aranda fills the screen with violent displays of longing and jealousy. And while the director may not think Joan quite insane, the sex does smack more of desperate obsession than it does of authentic passion.

Pilar López de Ayala won a Goya (Spain's Oscar) for her work as Joan, a performance that always seems on the edge of bursting — first with virginal radiance, then with sexual hunger, and finally with jealousy and paranoia. Indeed, de Ayala is required to supply too much of the energy in a film that is, overall, far too staid for its subject matter. Juana la Loca has the look and feel of a thousand other period dramas — the costumes are attractive and spotless, the castles full of dark corners in which to hide and conspire, and the soundtrack replete with 15th-century chant. If everybody and everything in her court was really this muted and predictable, it's no wonder Joan's spirit was misconstrued as lunacy.

SATIN ROUGE | Written and directed by RAJA AMARI | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At the Nuart

JUANA LA LOCA (MAD LOVE) | Written and directed by VICENTE ARANDA | Produced by ENRIQUE CEREZO | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Westside Pavilion Cinemas

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