Invisible hands

Kaouther Ben Hania on Beauty And The Dogs and The Man Who Sold His Skin

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kaouther Ben Hania on the dress Najla (Lina Elleuch) brings to the club for Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani): “Since for Beauty And The Dogs I knew from the beginning that it will be shot by night, this blue has something about the night.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on the dress Najla (Lina Elleuch) brings to the club for Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani): “Since for Beauty And The Dogs I knew from the beginning that it will be shot by night, this blue has something about the night.”

In Kaouther Ben Hania’s intense and unwavering Beauty And The Dogs, we go on an odyssey with Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), a Tunisian university student, who encounters during one seemingly endless night, the violence towards women embedded in the structures that govern her home country. The more desperate she becomes, the more the system closes in on her. The more she is in the right, the greater the danger she presents to them.

Sam (Yahya Mahayni) in Kaouther Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin
Sam (Yahya Mahayni) in Kaouther Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin

The connections to her gripping Oscar-nominated Best International Feature The Man Who Sold His Skin, starring Yahya Mahayni, and Mariam Al Ferjani’s role in Beauty And The Dogs, invisible hands, Beauty And The Beast, Eros And Psyche, Catherine Deneuve in Jacques Demy’s Peau D'Âne, the Devil, Kafkaesque moments, the Grimm Brothers’ tale The Goose Girl, and the importance of finding the right dress - all came up in my Oscar lockdown conversation with Kaouther.

At the start of Beauty And The Dogs we see Mariam do her makeup in the bathroom of a club, humming in anticipation. Her brown dress with white Peter Pan collar is torn at the side and her friend Najla brings her a slinky, aquamarine Jean Harlow slip to borrow and change into. Told in nine chapters (filmed in nine uninterrupted takes) with eight imagination-triggering gaps in-between, the story proceeds from meeting a boy she likes (Youssef, played by Ghanem Zrelli), to physical and psychological rapes by policemen, onto a journey of sheer inexhaustible obstacles at hospitals and police stations to set things right.

Kaouther Ben Hania: “There’s a Kafkaesque way to every situation where you have a singular human being, being trapped. But trapped by invisible hands.”
Kaouther Ben Hania: “There’s a Kafkaesque way to every situation where you have a singular human being, being trapped. But trapped by invisible hands.”

Beauty And The Dogs had its world premiere in 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival and was Tunisia’s Oscar submission for the 90th Academy Awards. The Man Who Sold His Skin had its world premiere in 2020 at the Venice Film Festival.

From Los Angeles, Kaouther Ben Hania joined me on Zoom for a conversation on Beauty And The Dogs and The Man Who Sold His Skin.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, how are you?

Kaouther Ben Hania: Hi, Anne-Katrin, I’m fine, I’m in Los Angeles.

AKT: How is it in Los Angeles? How do you feel?

KBH: It’s strange. I’m supposed to be in quarantine.

AKT: When we talked last on March 29 and I brought up the topic of justice for your latest film, you mentioned Beauty And The Dogs and how justice was at the core of it. Do you see the justice aspect as a link between the two films?

KBH: Yeah, I can say it has to do with justice. You always have an individual lost in a system. There’s a Kafkaesque way to every situation where you have a singular human being, being trapped. But trapped by invisible hands. Of an institution even bigger than the people who represent it. This is maybe the main link, the Kafkaesque side of those situations. You have also this dominant-dominé relationship.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani): “I think that when you cross such an incredibly tough journey you win at least as a hero something, which is your new identity.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani): “I think that when you cross such an incredibly tough journey you win at least as a hero something, which is your new identity.”

AKT: It’s very interesting that you mention Invisible hands. The film is called Beauty And The Dogs, this rather strange title that is in reference obviously to Beauty And The Beast. Traditionally, from Eros and Psyche onwards, there are so many invisible hands that are part of Beauty and the Beast moving things along. With Kafka, I especially thought of the moments when we think she is out of danger and then she is pulled back in. That’s when it really seems that you cannot win against the system. And yet, the ending feels optimistic. Is there optimism?

KBH: Yes, there’s always an optimism. People told me that the end of Beauty and the Dogs is not that optimistic because she didn’t win anything, she just got out. But I think that when you cross such an incredibly tough journey you win at least as a hero something, which is your new identity. And when she goes out from this police station, she is not the same girl that we saw in the beginning. She was in a very complicated situation and she discovered stuff about her strength. Only in dangerous situations people can discover things about their real identity.

AKT: I was very impressed how you were using the costume for this. In the beginning she wears a Peter Pan collar on an I’m-not-going-to-grow-up-I’m-a-little-girl dress. And then her friend Najla gives her the borrowed dress. So often during the film I thought, poor girl, she has to go through the ordeal in this dress! A lot of thought must have gone into the decision of what kind of dress you were going to put her in. And to make a link to your latest film, it is the same kind of silky blue green material that Sam [Yahya Mahayni] wears as his dressing gown in the museum.

Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) and Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) at the police station
Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) and Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) at the police station

KBH: I love this blue, this colour. And since for Beauty and the Dogs I knew from the beginning that it will be shot by night, this blue has something about the night. It’s silky, it’s promising, seductive, dangerous, mysterious, it adopts the form of the body. So you have all this movement in this fabric. I remember getting in a fight with the costumière. Because we picked another kind of dress and when the actress tried it on I didn’t like it at all and she had made three copies.

At the tailor place, I saw this fabric hidden between other fabric and I told her “this is exactly what I want!” And she only had to do one dress with this fabric. The costumière was afraid if she did only one copy of the dress and it got torn … Anyway, I insisted, “I don’t care about copies.” Two days after, her assistant found the same fabric somewhere in Medina, the old souk of Tunis. So she made other copies but till the end we used the same dress. Backstage stories!

AKT: I like those.

KBH: Anyways, she was like a child and she discovered with this movie the hard truth about being a sexy woman but in a very bad way. And her identity and her consciousness changes. She becomes more than a woman, she becomes also a citizen at the end. Going from a child’s perspective, adolescent, a little girl telling lies to her father, she becomes a woman, a citizen.

Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) seeking help
Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) seeking help

AKT: It works on a metaphorical level, as well as physically. When she asks “can I have a piece of curtain?” Some cloth. It made me think of Catherine Deneuve in Peau D'Âne. The vulnerability of the nightgown and the donkey skin she wears.

KBH: She’s wearing mainly her accusation on her body. It’s something against her. She knows that this dress is not suitable for those places.

AKT: Exactly.

KBH: This dress is not a neutral thing. That’s why she is looking for anything, even the curtain.

AKT: You have yet another connection to the devil! Isn’t there a devil mask when she enters the club at the start? You made the film a long time ago. I thought she is entering hell, simply by leaving the bathroom in this dress.

KBH: Ah yes, it’s also faces. Entering the theatre of life. It’s a place where everybody dances.

AKT: In one of the Kafkaesque police station moments, the officer speaks of “so many devils.” Mary and Joseph are brought up. There is a lot of devilishness in your films.

Police menace Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani)
Police menace Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani)

KBH: I think I should do it less, but I like the mythology. My characters, I always think about them as mythological heroes. I like that this policeman wants to show that he knows stuff. And to humiliate them with those references.

AKT: Don’t make it less, I appreciate that quality of your work. It adds another layer, if people pick up on it or don’t. Parents is another connection between the two films. Here it is the father, in The Man Who Sold His Skin it is Sam’s mother. They are floating in their minds as an important reference. I thought about the Grimm Brothers’ tale The Goose Girl which features a horse that keeps repeating the rhyme “If your mother knew, her heart would break in two.” That’s true for both protagonists.

KBH: Yes exactly. It’s interesting that for a boy it’s the mother, and for a girl it’s the father. I didn’t think about it, but it is “hors champs”, as we say in French, out of the field of what we see in the scene. And we have all the other world that our imagination understands. Motherhood and fatherhood is something that we know, all of us, because we came from some humans who are mother and father. And as you said, just to know the fact that her father is outside. It adds some emotional tension that all of us can relate to.

Beauty And The Dogs poster
Beauty And The Dogs poster

AKT: Did the actor from The Man Who Sold His Skin come with you to LA?

KBH: Yahya, yes he is here in Los Angeles.

AKT: I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for you for Oscar night.

KBH: Thank you! So don’t hesitate to spread the word with voters you know.

AKT: I will spread the word definitely. Bye!

KBH: Thank you, ciao!

Coming up - Kaouther Ben Hania shares more on Beauty And The Dogs and The Man Who Sold His Skin, Wim Delvoye and the Musée du Louvre, casting her film, working with extras, the eye of a child, and Shirin Neshat.

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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