French-Iraqi director Leila Albayat’s tale of love, loss, and music in Berlin
Flustered, her eyes welled with tears and mascara streaming down her ruddy cheeks, a broken songstress dejectedly moans into a microphone clutched in her sweaty palms in the dank basement of a seedy Brussels nightclub. When do I see you, when do I meet you, when do I hug you, where are you – I need you, she sings. For the dazed audience members washing their insides with lager and puffing away indifferently on their cigarettes, this is just another shoddy spectacle by a half-baked band. For Leila, however, it’s a desperate cry for help – a raw, electrically-charged lament for sweet nothings, broken promises, and illusory embraces. As her ragtag outfit plays on, the broken belle retires from the stage to a lifeless, empty flat. ‘You told me to go. I’m going now. I’m leaving you with the carnage. One day you’ll see my footage, and you’ll look back on your life’,she mumbles wistfully into her camcorder. Heartbroken and with little to lose, Leila, along with her hipster taxi driver-cum-chauffer Eric leaves her bitter memories in Brussels behind for a fresh start in Berlin.
Ah, Berlin – Brussels’ raunchier, sleazier cousin, a haven for coked-out drag queens, avant-garde artists, and revolutionaries – the perfect place to smoke away dark memories of unrequited love. Soon after settling in the city with the help of her sister Hana and her brother Tarek from Cairo, the crestfallen Iraqi singer buys a keyboard from Maryam, a hardnosed Iranian artist, and once again resumes her musical excursion. With fresh, biting wounds, Leila has all but healed, and just a few inches shy of tumbling into full-fledged depression, she vividly recounts her days with her philandering ex-lover, Antoine, striving to pinpoint where it all went wrong. It’s not too long, however, before she and Eric befriend Michel, a cordial and charmingly sleazy wannabe rocker, with whom she puts together an indie outfit and slowly patches up a broken heart through the redemptive power of song. We were in a small café / You could hear the guitars play / It was very nice / It was paradise, sang a nostalgic Lou Reed in his haunting 1972 homage to Berlin.
Ah, Berlin – Brussels’ raunchier, sleazier cousin, a haven for coked-out drag queens, avant-garde artists, and revolutionaries – the perfect place to smoke away dark memories of unrequited love
Stringing together the episodes the film’s pensive rock and roll heroine are Albayaty’s wistful, melancholic sounds and visuals, which combine for a dreamlike and almost ethereal intensity. Lush, lucid guitar tones accompanied by a pastel palette of dreamy hues and tints effectively capture the mood and sentiment of a downcast lover in an alien environ carrying nothing but emotional baggage and a battered old Telecaster guitar. What makes the poignancy and biting realism of the film even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that not only did Albayaty direct the film (her first effort, in fact), but also played the lead role and composed the film’s soundtrack – a formidable effort indeed, well worthy of representing Iraq at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival, albeit not officially.
In the end, Antoine never does get to see Leila’s pitiful video, and the two are never reconciled. However, throughout her journeys, which take her not only to Berlin, but her ancestral Cairo as well, Leila discovers something much greater instead. At the beginning of the seemingly autobiographical film, Leila appears as a broken-hearted girl, dependent on a man – who may well be the only significant person in her life – for her happiness and wellbeing. However, after befriending Maryam and Michel, reuniting with her family in Cairo, and meeting Robert – a newfound bearded lover with a story more tragic than hers – Leila not only finds love, but also true friendship, in addition to realising the importance of family. As well, as she makes it big with her band in Berlin, one witnesses Leila’s transformation from a despondent youth into a self-made, independent woman.
On arriving from her serene sojourn in Cairo, a radiant Leila finds herself not as a stranger in a strange land, but rather as a sexy young femme fatale with a new lover on her arm, a killer rock outfit, and a new understanding of camaraderie. For now, everything is going to be OK [stop] C’est beau la vie [stop].