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Hala Elkoussy East of Noon Movie Review

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East of Noon | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

East of Noon | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Noon Gloom: Elkoussy Mounts Shadowy, Allegorical Fantasy

Hala Elkoussy East of Noon Movie ReviewAn industrial wasteland outside of a specific time or place provides the backdrop for Hala Elkoussy’s ingenious, but somewhat languid sophomore film East of Noon (Sharq 12). The film’s relationship to music and its enigmatic title evokes a blend of melodramatic elements, like the American rock band Head East, or Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). And in essence, Elkhoussy is playing with past elements of cinema as allegory with this velvety black and white fairy tale of a nightmarish world somewhere in the Middle East. Though it takes some time orienting oneself in this universe, there are some powerful statements about what stands as the most profound way to survive an autocracy – by staying devoted to imagination and the creative process.

In some distant village surrounded by sand, Galala (Menha Batraoui) relays the story of a scared people whose imagination escaped them. She cares for her grandson, Abdo (Omar Rozek), a burgeoning musician who she advises to cling to his dreams of escaping this sandy nowhere and envision a better, lush life by the sea. Abdo’s girlfriend, Nunna (Fayza Shama) might be pregnant, a situation which will either force them to flee or court tragedy under the strange dictates of their ruler, Shawky (Ahmed Kamal), or ‘Showman Shawky’ as he’s come to be known, bending to his subjects’ will through lottery tickets and sugar cubes as currency.

Hala Elkoussy East of Noon Movie Review

Comparisons to Arabian Nights might be in order, if Scheherazade were tasked with staying alive by relaying stories to herself rather than appease an omnipotent sultan. However, the tyrant in charge of this unnamed dead zone is more of a comic villain, played by Ahmed Kamal in a fashion which resembles the celebrated Italian actor Toto if he were an abusive power player in a Fassbinder production. The film often feels like an ersatz musical, replete with a choreographed production in which Shawky preaches his propaganda.

What’s most striking, however, about East of Noon is Abdelsalam Moussa’s cinematography, who lensed Elkoussy’s first feature, Cactus Flower (2017). The richly textured black and white frames are extravagant, often breathtaking, to a degree where the few asides presented in color, to reflect characters’ fantastical interiorities, pale in comparison despite their representative power. There’s a level of inventiveness in the visual palette which does indeed feel like a magical fairy tale, like a time capsule from some New Wave where metaphors escaped governmental censorship.

If only there was the same sense of passion bestowed upon the doomed couple. The handsome Abdo, played by Omar Rozek, feels like Xavier Dolan doing a James Dean impression. He’s a rebel with a cause, but his ultimate goal of becoming an ‘international star’ who will supersede the musical abilities of Shawky, never quite feels properly administered. Likewise, his pregnant girlfriend Nunna, with Fayza Shama taking the brunt of the film’s abuse at the hands of the domineering Commander Borai. Tying them all together is the narrator, Abdo’s grandmother, whose cure-all of imagination is both an escapism and a potential trap.

In the background, local villagers dig for some hidden treasure, which seems to be just beyond their grasp. The closer they seem to get, the more corpses they tend to unearth, which eerily feels like the only treasure this doomed village can look forward to is revitalizing the ghosts of the past.

Reviewed on May 21st at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 109 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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