In Parisienne, Beauty Obstructs And Manipulates

In Parisienne (Peur de Rien) — a film by Lebanese-French filmmaker Danielle Arbid that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this year — young Lina (Manal Issa) is a quiet beauty. In fact, it’s her striking face, tinged with a resolute sadness, that keeps its viewers in a perpetual wave of awe; her miasmic charisma sedates you throughout the film. The arch of her eyebrows, her lips forever pursed in a broken frown, belie a deep well of pain deftly explored through the discursiveness of her cultural fate.

Middle Eastern beauty hasn’t been “standardized” or normalized — so the lens often objectifies instead, leaning toward an awkward neo-Orientalist viewpoint; the beauty seen primarily through the gaze of a white audience. Arbid exclaims in our email exchange, “I am very white!” Yet she is also, resolutely, from a Middle Eastern background. In this way, she intersects with the character of Lina — which reveals how “passing” can further one’s access to different platforms.

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Director Danielle Arbid

In Arbid’s film, Lina’s beauty is merely a nuance, something she explores. Beauty obstructs — but it also manipulates.

Good looks are often an important passport. They act like a select navigational tool for furthering one’s adventure, or as a proxy for allowance into spaces where others like you are excluded. “You have to know the codes,” explains Arbid. “You have to be lucid, especially if you come from Africa, the Arab world, or the Middle East, like me. They try to put a label on you. But you have to break it constantly.”

This sentiment resonates. How often does the utterance of “Middle East” blaze concern, or at the very least conjure expectations of women in hijabs and crazed, hateful men in beards? The carefree-Arab or carefree-Muslim identity hardly exists. Arbid’s film is a profound and metaphorically dense exploration of the post-9/11 identity for an Arab, without being explicitly about that. Just by having a character that is flawed, and multidimensional, she tackles the stereotypes without outrightly focusing on them.

“Producing Parisienne was very long and difficult because the people who financed it didn’t understand the idea of a young Arab having a good time in Paris. They wanted to see her suffering and poor . . .” So often the Middle Eastern/Arab identity is one constructed through a very specific, neo-Imperialist viewpoint, often relegating these characters to base archetypes; they are “savages” or “barbaric.” Arabs and the cultural practices are distinguished and characterized by the Western white gaze, especially in a post-9/11 world.

This newfound portrayal of a young female Arab is a very poignant one.

Arbid herself moved to France from Lebanon in 1987, at age 18, during the height of the civil war in Lebanon. “Like Elia Kazan said once: ‘Truth is the best material for fiction.’ But it’s not my real life on screen. It’s written, fantasized, interpreted . . . and finally transformed.” She started her career off as a journalist, working for publications like the Libération.fr. This fervor for telling stories, but also delving into them, led to her further interest in bringing those tales to life through film, and exploring the Arab identity in all of its complexities.

When I asked Arbid what motivated her to write this story about Lina, she said:

“I wanted to tell this story of a young Lebanese woman in France in the ’90s because I discovered France and the Western world at that period. I was like a white page. I spoke French, but I didn’t know how the French people lived, how they thought, how they loved . . .”

Lina’s nuanced identity — she is both an outsider and insatiably curious about what exactly one is looking at — is beautifully rendered. She is constantly seeking, and consumed by French culture, and this awakens something profound — and hungry — inside her. She also battles the realities of sexual abuse and a lack of money, and learns how to navigate how to be in a very real and dynamic way, making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Arbid’s tone throughout the film is an exploration of the complex microcosm of identities that exist in France. She very lightly treads on the racism inherent in French culture, adding in that “snobbery” is also a large part of French elitism. Based on real-life events, about halfway through the film, Lina accidentally becomes friends with two neo-Nazis — although they hate being called that, preferring, instead, the label of “Royalists.”

Lina’s openness — tinged with naivete — echoes Arbid’s own fledgling explorations of France. “When you arrive in a new country you don’t have any expectations. If I was French, I wouldn’t have experienced the Royalist/Skinhead party I was invited to!”Arbid explains, talking of her own experience with Royalists that the scene is based on. “I didn’t know that these people were extremists. I went there [to the party] because I didn’t judge them . . . You don’t judge people when you arrive somewhere. You just throw yourself into the action!”

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Identity is so strongly linked to the past, but as Arbid suggests:

“French films about immigrants are focused on nostalgia for their lost country. It’s not true. And it’s a limited point of view. People struggle to get to Europe and to France, because they dream about a beautiful future, they don’t dream about their past.”

Parisienne is a kind of anti-story, championing an anti-hero — it’s about how one craves to be a part of a world we’re only liminally attached to. Lina struggles with a swelling notion that despite all costs, she wants to be a part of a culture she feels defines her, one that is altogether removed from the one she was born into.

Arbid loves anti-heroes. “I wanted her [Lina] to be wild at first. Someone who doesn’t know much about love. She discovers the world and herself in the same time.” Which I would argue is Truth in a nutshell. We make mistakes, and by traversing our oversights and errors, we’re able to create our own uniquely formed identities that are often messier than what we began with; we rage with contradictions. Lina festers with inconsistencies. She lies, she steals, she uses sex as a vantage point, but she is young. Her struggle is humbling, and it reminds me of my own personal betrayals, the litanies of failures that I carry with me, like Lina.

Her story is never-ending, as is all of our own narratives, but for whatever reason — within them — we find some kind of redemption. Stories are always a pursuit of acceptance. When I ask Arbid what she wants people to take away from this film, and Lina, she says, “her humanity.”

By the end of the film, for complicated reasons, Lina finds herself back in Lebanon. Her mother and her brother argue in Arabic in the front seat, while Lina sits in the back, agitated. The faux-refinement of Paris, her life of freedom and quaintness, serves as a lovely — if jarring — juxtaposition to the familial banter, as she lays focused, yet confused, on the future that lies ahead. There’s something so devastating, yet relatable about Lina’s slow temerity. She wants to disappear into the elegance of French culture, but she is always tethered to her past.

Like a Ziploc bag, she’s sealed into the old structures of what was once her story; that is the constant fate of an immigrant. But like everyone, she will also strive to pierce, penetrate, and redefine her confines, from her past to her “passing” face.

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