The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B


(UK 1987)

“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

— Lasker-Jones

I’m not usually a fan of period pieces, especially those set in Victorian or Edwardian England. Somehow, they tend to be stuffy, grandiloquent affairs that warrant a great big yawn — and they turn me off. James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, however, is an exception.

I caught a 30th anniversary screening, and something crucial struck me: Ivory and cowriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s screenplay is downright daring even for the time when Maurice came out (no pun intended). A sort of forbidden romance that one character sees as the love of his life while the other tosses it aside as the folly of youth, I was moved by the frank depiction of gay love as a tender yet treacherous battlefield, no different than any other love — measured by intensity, law, or social construct. For this, Maurice stands way ahead of its time, even today.

Maurice Hall (James Wilby) is essentially Oscar Wilde at Cambridge circa 1910. He makes a move on social climbing classmate Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), who surprisingly welcomes his advances. They can only go so far, though: Clive doesn’t want to jeopradize his social standing, so the two maintain a platonic relationship. This is the key to Maurice, and the thing that makes it monumental: this is a film that attacks appearances.

Time goes by, shit happens, and Maurice ends up with Clive’s gutter cleaner, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who looks like a plebeian Paul Young). This upsets Clive and sends Maurice to therapy. In the end, Maurice makes a choice that so many of us gays have: to be gay, or not to be.

Maurice operates on a strange platitude, one that isn’t clear at first. Maurice is vulnerable, almost stupid. Clive is chilly, reserved, and completely repressed. Both skirt around their issue. I found myself rooting for and actually admiring Maurice, who stays true to himself — class, law, and sexuality be damned. That last look on Clive’s face in the final scene is devastating…for him.

With Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Phoebe Nicholls, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Godfrey, Mark Tandy, Kitty Aldridge, Helena Michell, Catherine Rabett, Peter Eyre, Helena Bonham Carter

Production: Merchant Ivory Productions, Film Four International

Distribution: Cinecom Pictures (USA), Enterprise Pictures Limited (UK), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Cohen Media Group (USA)

140 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan]

(France 1959)

In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.

Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.

The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.

Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.

With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.

Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.

With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo

Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films

Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

The Salesman [Forušande]

(Iran 2016)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman [Forušande] [فروشنده] is a marvelously dark and brooding study of a married couple that shifts smoothly from a domestic crisis drama to a revenge flick. His approach is a lot more subtle than one an American director might take, but this is precisely what makes The Salesman so satisfying.

While working out the finishing touches of a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which they play the Lomans, community actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced out of their apartment just days before the play opens when a construction mishap next door weakens the building’s foundation. The cracks in the walls become a metaphor for what’s about to happen to their relatively peaceful marriage.

A fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi), sets them up in temporary digs, a recently and hastily vacated apartment that still contains the previous tenant’s belongings: furniture, bedding, dresses, tons of high heel shoes, a kid’s bike. One night when she’s home alone, a stranger attacks Rana in the shower. She can’t identify him, and she doesn’t want to go to the police. She won’t even say exactly what happened.

Rana starts to go off the deep end; the more unsafe she feels, the less secure Emad is in his own ego. He stews as he pieces together what might have transpired. A set of keys and a delivery truck parked on the street seems like a promising lead to tracking down the stranger, which becomes something of an obsession for Emad.

Farhadi has a straightforward, minimal style. Although he draws a few parallels to Death of a Salesman, he doesn’t beat us over the head with them. He does a nice job dropping us into the story and letting us figure out what he’s getting at. He has a lot to say about male aggression, turning the tables from Rana as the victim to Emad—his masculinity takes a beating as the film progresses.

With Farid Sajadhosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Pirzadeh

Production: Memento Films Production, Asghar Farhadi Production, Arte France Cinéma

Distribution: Amazon Studios (USA), Cohen Media Group (USA), Filmiran (Iran), Memento Films Distribution (France)

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Regal Webster Place) B+