“A tongue tells a thousand truths, but you always only want to hear one.”
Mohammed Mrabet, storyteller and author of the short story, Beach Café, as told to and translated by Paul Bowles.
Café de la Plage (Beach Café, France, 2001)
Directed by Benoît Graffin
I didn’t know what to expect from this obscure French-language feature set in Morocco, specifically Tangier and nearby beachside environs. I knew that it was co-scripted by André Téchiné, one of my favorite directors (Wild Reeds, The Witnesses, Thieves) along with Café de la Plage’s director, Benoît Graffin, whom I’d never heard of. According to IMDb, the film has won a single award — Best Actor from the Sochi International Film Festival for Ouassini Embarek, who plays main character, Driss. It was only later when I started writing this that I discovered the film’s connection to Paul Bowles, who translated the source short-story by Mohammed Mrabet. Mrabet was also a painter, and met Jane and Paul Bowles in 1960s Tangier.
Without knowing its connections to Bowles, I found Café de la Plage on one of my gay-themed-movie e-mail lists, but other than Téchiné’s being gay and a couple of references to and accusations of sex work on the part of main character, Driss, I couldn’t see anything overtly gay about it, unless having a handsome Moroccan boy in a film automatically means the film is gay. Morocco has been known as a country where many men and boys hustle tourists — something that Bowles, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Orton knew well. So I don’t know, maybe the presence of a Moroccan boy does code the film in a certain way. At least, Café de la Plage is not gay in the way that say, Weekend is gay — there’s no gay sex; no gay themes, such as coming out tales or stories of the closet or of oppression; and no characters who step out into the sunlight and say with pride, I’m gay.
There is a certain ambiguity about the sexual activity and orientation of Driss, but that’s expressed as speculation on the part of other characters in the film — Fouad, the old man who owns the titular café, whom Driss tries to befriend; a beautiful Moroccan woman who has the hots for him; a prostitute from Tangier who has fantasies about “converting” him; even his girlfriend — but the film doesn’t show anything that should lead us to conclude that he is in fact gay.
But it’s tempting, and that’s one of the film’s unique effects. We know a few things about Driss — we find out in the film’s first few minutes that one of the ways he makes money is by being an unofficial taxi driver, using the beat-up car he drives which also serves as his home — but since we don’t see the totality of his life, particularly all the ways he says he makes money, or always seems to have at least a little, speculation seems justified.
We discover all this via a long shot of a roundabout. Driss pulls up to a potential fare and tries to convince him that his car is safe, even though the passenger door won’t open, and that he won’t find cheaper. From this viewpoint, we can’t even see Driss at all.
It also might be hard to understand why he’s so focused on making the much older Fouad his friend. (Driss’ girlfriend wants to know, too.)
Fouad is the owner of the café on the beach and he’s a cranky loner, with a trio of shiftless sons and a chip on his shoulder. Despite all of Fouad’s small betrayals and tiny rejections after their initial prickly introduction, Driss continues to bring Fouad gifts, offers to help him set up a restaurant, lies to the cops to keep Fouad out of prison, and brings him a care package when that doesn’t work. Driss tries to woo Fouad. Their relationship is the inverse of the traditional Platonic one, of beloved and lover, pursuer and pursued. In this case, the young man pursues, and the old man is disdainful, while taking whatever he can get from Driss — not just bunches of mint and puffs of kif but ideas and aspirations — and at the same time impugning Driss’ integrity and motivations.
So the audience is set up to believe what it wants, just as Driss’ friends, his lover, his associates and Fouad do. But like the characters in many Téchiné screenplays, Driss is allowed his secrets. What I appreciate most about the script and the character of Driss is the insight given that self-possessed people are often seen as anti-social and untrustworthy by those whose identities and self-presentations are more like roles assumed in a social exchange, or masks and costumes to be worn and removed as suitable. For a self-possessed introvert, identity is an expression of something essential, personal and closely held.. As any true independent will do when confronted with inaccurate assumptions and assessments, Driss doesn’t try to dissuade anyone, but rather is offended that anyone would feel free to speculate at all.
In another scene, Driss’ girlfriend and her best friend conspire to put Driss together with the latter, thinking that Driss would be into it. They also arrange and suggest a three-way, not because they particularly want it, but because they think it’s what Driss wants, perhaps just to tease him. But he’s angry that they would think so. Is his conservatism true, or is it a reaction to their hasty assumptions? In another scene, he refuses to give kif to a young woman hanging out in the café and hanging all over Fouad. She also scoots up next to him suggestively. He tells her she’s not his type. The night before, Driss had come looking for Fouad, only to watch him from the shadows as he kissed the same young woman from neck to belly button.
Driss leaves without telling Fouad he was there. So is his rebuff of her the next day motivated by jealousy or envy of Fouad, or by genuinely held conservative Islamic beliefs concerning women? The latter is unlikely since his girlfriend, whom he seems attached to and respectful of, doesn’t wear a veil and looks thoroughly Western. So we’re invited to speculate. It’s worth noting that the shot excerpted above is the film’s most expressive, its chiaroscuro lighting framing Driss’ eyes as he watches the near-lovemaking scene, which is also lit like a painting, his eyes wide and bright, moving in and out of the shadows as he leans into the doorway for a better look and then retreats.
Embarek’s casting as Driss is inspired. His ability to hold an expression, or to maintain a lack of affect in his eyes and facial features, personifies the character in a way that no script ever could. In the film’s opening shots, we’re introduced to him as he’s driving. It’s impossible to discern what he’s thinking. He could be a boy intent on a task, or a boy deep in thought, or a boy distracted, thinking about nothing. We can’t know, and nothing we learn about him later will help much with that. But this is what a self-possessed person looks like to those who are not.
“Just because I don’t say what I’m thinking, doesn’t mean you know,” he says to Fouad at one point. Driss never offers much in the way of revelations or confessions during the film. Instead he points out the material circumstances and practices of his life as evidence of what he thinks, believes and of who he is.
In the film’s final minutes, when Driss has finally had enough of Fouad, he declares that no matter how much Fouad has misunderstood him, and even if they no longer see each other, still something will remain true about it and that has nothing to do with Fouad. It’s not just that the opinions that others hold about him don’t matter but also that they have no effect on how he thinks of himself or how he behaves toward others. Their behavior is irrelevant, in a way. He’s still standing there as himself, no matter what.
Fouad: What’s got into you? Are you looking for a fight.
Driss: You can hit me but there will be no fight.
Fouad doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at Driss.
D: You understand nothing. I was always your friend. When I leave, I’ll still be.
Driss is reminding Fouad of the sort of person he’s losing.
Café de la plage is a subtle film and its beautiful score by Philippe Miller featuring delicate string-picking and plaintive accordion enhance and connect to not only our sense of where we are but of how we’re getting there — drifting sometimes slowly, picking up the pace only occasionally with changing complex rhythms and an overall lugubrious tone. Much of the film has a blue cast, appropriate for a film which stories keep taking us back to the beach and to the sea, and for a couple brief looks, into the sky.
For some of the reasons I’ve outlined above, the film’s not wholly satisfying as a character study, and yet, it does record the moments of a character most misunderstand. For me anyway, Driss registers as someone I would have liked and would have liked to get to know. I would have admired him for his humility and placidity, which everyone else mistakes for arrogance and a lack of ambition. Most of all, I think, I hope that he would have liked me. His elliptical acceptance of the costs of an independent life reminds me of my own.
Old man on the beach at night: I don’t understand you. You have a car. Money. Why sleep here?
Driss: It doesn’t bother me to sleep in my car. That’s how I ended up in Tangier…