Eye For Film >> Movies >> Huda's Salon (2021) Film Review
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
The initial punch of Huda's Salon is likely to get you right in the gut - to such a degree, in fact, that I'm hesitant to even mention it, but what happens in the salon near the start of the film is crucial to all that follows, so I'm afraid slight spoilers are unavoidable. You have been warned. If you were just to watch the film's first 10 minutes, you would be likely expecting a domestic, female-focused tale of the ins and outs of marriages and small tribulations of Palestinian life in Bethlehem, as Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), her baby sleeping at the back of the salon, settles in for a haircut and a gossip with salon owner Huda (Manal Awad).
It turns out, however, that it's not flavouring that Huda is popping into Reem's coffee but knock-out drops, quickly dragging her client into the back room and staging blackmail photos in order to coerce her into becoming an informant for the Israeli intelligence services. This tense opening, with stakes raised when we realise the Palestinian resistance are surveilling the salon, sets us on a powerful trajectory with Reem. She soon finds herself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, not least because her husband Yousef (Jalal Masarwa) lords a sort of pathetic patriarchal grip on their household, emotionally draining Reem with his constant fears that she is having an affair.
Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad emphasises the menace in the mundane. Reema has no intention of turning into an informant but we quickly see that, especially given women's position in society, this is largely irrelevant, as everyone will immediately expect the worst anyway. If only the filmmaker had kept his focus solely on Reem's story, this would be a tight little thriller with rising stakes. He is more ambitious than that, for good and ill, opting instead to develop a parallel story that involves Huda's capture and subsequent interrogation by Hasan (Ali Suliman), who wants the names of her forced informants so they can be neutralised.
These static interrogation scenes - which, unusually, and some might say unbelievably, shy away from any physical violence - are intended to act as a counterpoint to the fluid situation Reem finds herself in, as she tries to juggle an uncomfortable dinner with the in-laws at the same time as coming up with an escape plan. The content of Hasan and Huda's back and forth does, in some ways, lay out the argument, about women being caught between a rock and a hard place no matter what they do, and in a standalone film it could generate its own tensions. But despite strong performances from Awad and Suliman, coupled as it is with Reem's tale, their stagey nature detracts from the more unpredictable tensions of Reem's situation, not helped by an edit that fails to smooth over the divide.
Abd Elhadi pitches her character nicely, as desperation begins to fuel resourcefulness - something that Huda underlines, when she tells Hasan she only chooses women with "assholes" for husbands. But the very nature of her performance brings home more succintly all the things Abu-Assad tries to intellectually lay out in the interrogation scenes so that the latter feel surplus to requirements. The director is much better with the everyday cadences of modern life than he is with embellishment, so that while the physical reactions of Reem, including feeling sick to her stomach, feel brutally realistic, at other points he can't resist gilding the lily - such as when, during Huda's abduction, a bottle of water is tipped over, just so the camera can watch the contents fall.
Abu-Assad be better focusing on either going for the gut or the intellect, rather than weakening his punch by aiming in two directions at once.Reviewed on: 08 May 2022