“Men are like brands: luxury, so-so and sons of bitches.”
So says the funny, beautiful and provocative Noha, who shares her nights with her prostitute companions Randa and Soukaina until dawn, partying and commiserating about their brazen freedom that feels so much like prison. Early in the morning, after a crazy night with Saudi men, Noha pours Coca-Cola on her vagina, jokes, “He inverted my uterus,” and insists her friend was the luckier one that evening: her Saudi guy just read her love poems.
Much Loved arrived on European screens with an aura of scandal. It had already gotten its director and actresses “excommunicated” from their homeland, Morocco, by the government, and from the rest of the world by religious hardliners.
Their crime? Talking plainly about the lives of prostitutes in a society where sex and bodies are the primary commodity of an underground economy, to be sold at the high prices of these three girls, or for the price of a few pounds of vegetables.
The story is set in Marrakesh, “a city of crazies,” according to Said, who acts as the ladies’ driver and guardian angel.
The lively nights give way to misery and desperation when the women return home. Noha has a son who lives with her mother, a women who wears a veil and a shapeless dress. The mother is always cross: “You make me ashamed,” she says, and then complains the money is never enough. Her brother does nothing, and her sister has begun going out at night, too.
It’s worse outside the home. “You’re just a whore,” cries the chief constable before raping Noha in his office. They are humiliated, beaten and insulted by men, European and Arab alike.
But they are strong because fragility is something they cannot afford.
Randa dreams of escaping to Spain to live with a father she has never known. Soukaina wants to go with her — to anywhere she can breathe.
Much Loved is a magnificent film. It reveals the fine talent of director Nabil Ayouch, capable of entering into an intimate world gently but uncompromisingly.
Against the melodrama of forbidden love and life’s hard blows, Ayouch’s film has a strong feeling of truth, and not just because the actresses are not professionals or because the director interviewed several prostitutes in writing the screenplay.
It is that their story reveals the hypocrisy in the facade of a society ruled by violence, corruption, institutional abuse, wealthy foreigners and a postcolonial order that turns people into things. You can stay and starve or flee across the sea to a Europe that will buy your cheap sex (and other labor) but refuses to offer you legitimacy.
Ayouch deftly blends the reality and the narrative
The film opens on a Saudi feast in a sumptuous villa with hundreds of girls and drinking men. The orgy goes on all night. Money, dancing, laughing, performances — indulgences of which Saudi Wahhabis, who cover women from head to toe in black, would disapprove.
And from here the narrative oscillates between two different spaces: the life of Noha and the others, and the outside world. The details reveal their small dreams — of opening a hair salon — and their conflicts and contradictions — like how they are aggressive toward men who are “too kind,” whom they call “fags.”
The power of the film is in those moments, where the women’s struggle belies their complicity. They live their lives with their bodies, the only things they own. Yet they are alive and full of dreams in spite of everything else.