Writer-director Maryam Touzani’s Queer Palm-nominated and Cannes Un Certain Regard FIPRESCI Prize-winning The Blue Caftan revels in the intricacy of love and tradition. What at first glance seems to be the story of a closeted man cheating on his wife, becomes a more complex tale of the multiplicity of loves in our lives and how we balance them all. There is beauty in the fine details that you can miss with just a casual glance.
Halim (Saleh Bakri) is a maalem (a master seamster) in homophobic Morocco. His wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal) runs their caftan shop with efficiency and steel, freeing her husband to practise his art in the face of competition from faster technologies and impatient customers. To help keep up with demand they hire a new apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) who catches Halim’s eye…something that does not go unnoticed by Mina.
The fascinating thing about The Blue Caftan is how the love story at its core is not that of Halim and Youssef, but between Halim and Mina. Their marriage and the bond between them is deep and genuine, but at odds with Halim’s sexual nature. While in the past he has been able to have hidden sexual encounters in the hammam, the continued presence of the handsome young Youssef in the store complicates matters. This isn’t a fleeting, discreet trick.
Bakri’s Halim is often quietly working away, his story told in glances through Bakri’s expressive eyes. His gentle nature matches his passion for his work, and moments that would seem like nothing from another character come off as cruelly as a physical slap from him in his attempts to keep Youssef at arms length which feel exceptionally harsh for all their minimalism.
The real star of the film is Azabal as Mina. At times unlikable and cruel, Mina is a deep well of emotions that are carefully controlled as they emerge. Her pain is real and Azabal’s performance is masterful.
Touzani compares anonymous cruising with the sumptuous and intimate practice of working with delicate fabrics and embroidery. Calling it a gay Phantom Thread be a bit glib, but not completely incorrect. The lingering shots of hands moving over silk and Halim guiding Youssef’s hand are more erotic than all the skin on show in the hammam. The eponymous blue caftan, a work of art for a thankless client, develops more narrative weight as the film progresses.
A simmering treat, The Blue Caftan has a tenderness and compassion not always seen in queer films of this nature, and the finale is a stunning piece of cinema. In a story that explores the richness of every type of love—platonic, romantic, familial, and sexual—maybe the greatest of all is simple kindness.
By Chad Armstrong