Published Sep 10, 2015At the end of Tarzan and Arab Nasser's politically fuelled conversation drama, Dégradé, a title card reveals that the brothers, both first-time feature film directors, dedicate this film to their mother. It's not at all surprising, considering that all of the central characters, save a gang member (played by Tarzan Nasser) accompanying a lioness, are women. Dégradé, which takes place on the Gaza strip in a hair salon, is a movie about those on the sidelines of the conflict: the mothers, wives and daughters of those immersed in battle.
Smartly, this single-setting drama doesn't initially present as a political piece. Several women are gathered at Christine's (Victoria Balitska) humble beauty shop, either getting their hair done or waiting for their turn. There's a bride-to-be, an aging narcissist, a pill-popper, a devout woman, a pregnant woman and a hairdresser constantly receiving texts from her gangbanging boyfriend outside of the salon. Their conversations are mostly banal, yet pointed in their inflection and pace, discussing the bride-to-be's background in Russian literature or the hairdresser's decision to date a known criminal. Minor conflicts arise when the pill-popper accuses the narcissist of being inconsiderate — putting the only fan on herself in a claustrophobic environment — and the devout woman perpetually rolls her eyes at the irreverent disposition of those around her.
While these conversations on their own don't overtly outline the intentions of the Nasser brothers, there are several barbed comments and recurring observations that help guide this clever work towards its end destination. Amidst the arguments and speculation, the intermittent power and background gunfire contextualize the outer environment without having to show it. The women all hint at different problems at home — substance abuse, organized crime, physical abuse, sexual dissatisfaction — while justifying their need to maintain some sort of beauty, which, sadly, despite the education and skill sets they discuss, seems to be the chief priority. There are also nods to the political environment on the Gaza strip in comparison to the democratic structure in Israel and the observation that the shop owner, a Russian, resides in a tumultuous locale out of learned helplessness.
The clearest discussion revolves around the lioness, however; it's noted that local gangsters stole the lion from the zoo and filed her teeth down to keep her from attacking. The women note that the gangsters don't actually care about the animal; it's just a status symbol. And, ultimately, it's also the instigator of the armed conflict that brings Dégradé to its tense, darkened climax, in which the women start to unravel, revealing their fears and insecurities. This lioness, like the women, has been tamed and repressed, and is stuck in the middle of the endless fighting toothless and defeated.
Though the Nasser brothers do an effective job of blending natural conversation with guiding thematic tidbits and the many actresses all commit to their respective roles, the overall message is a tad simplistic, as are the character breakdowns. The depiction of these individual women is rather archetypal (they really don't extend far beyond their single defining characteristics), which indirectly reiterates the somewhat sexist notion that women are just passive spectators in the conflict. There are efforts to empower the women, albeit through the conjecture of a stoned woman, by verbalizing the gender differences in relation to dispute resolution, but it's amidst the sort of mindless bickering and passive-aggressive bitchiness that reinforces a very contrary, distinctly male, opinion.
Still, the final image and the implied tragedy of it all is quite moving and effective. As a film with a very limited environment, the Nasser brothers do a great job of creating an unseen environment to propel a changing dynamic within their constructed world. Dégradé is a rather assured debut that understands how to work with limitations.
(Search Engine Films)