On a visit to New Orleans in 2012, I was amused to see on the restaurant menu of the hotel where I was staying, the name of a famous pastry called “Millefeuille.” Out of sheer curiosity, I ordered one for my desert, remembering the days of my youth in my hometown in Morocco where this pastry, in particular, is very popular among pastry connoisseurs and the general populace. The rectangular-shaped pastry, exactly as its name suggests, is made up of many layers of puffed pastry sheets stacked up and coated in between with irresistible whipped cream. A good and fresh “Millefeuille” yields a crunchy and soft feeling in the mouth, and the closest match in North America would be a Napoleon. To my surprise, mine in New Orleans had a round shape and strawberries on top. I enjoyed it nonetheless. Nouri Bouzid’s Millefeuille (2012) does not disappoint, although the pleasure that this film induces in the viewer is not of the sweet kind. Bouzid evokes for the habitués of “Millefeuille” stores a sour and multi-layered tale of two young women, Zainab and Aicha, who both work at a café that serves, among other things, “Millefeuille.” As viewers of a multi-layered and rewarding narrative, we seem to accept the difficult exchange that Bouzid had made when he sacrificed the exquisite delicacy of “Millefeuille” for a story that beautifully captures the last days of the 2011 Tunisian revolution and the country’s difficult transition to democracy. The metaphor of the pastry at once shows the semantic autonomy of the different narrative layers of Millefeuille and, at the same time, their dependence on each other in a relationship of ontological inseparability. Millefeuille stands for Tunisia as host to a myriad of belligerent agents whose intransigence leads to nihilistic loss and meaningless existence.
The story of Millefeuille takes place at a crucial moment in the country’s history. With the embryonic and still uncertain surge of what is now known as the Jasmine revolution, the country is on the brink of a monumental change that shows the agonizing and soon-to-be deposed political regime resort to violence to quash the uprising. The opening scene enacts the street to street chase in an attempt to hunt down the insurgent youth and put off the revolutionary flame before it spreads. The beating of a young man, the mourning of a mother over the dead body of her son, and the morbid images of an overpopulated morgue with gruesomely bloodied dead bodies set the tone. Ammou (Nouri Bouzid himself), suffering a head wound, is helped to his feet by a group of men who put a smile on his face when they recovered his lost accordion. The countdown for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime has started. By the end of the movie, its lifetime expires. The story of Millefeuille is squeezed between these two moments, but it is not the agony of the political order that takes center stage. Rather, the story zooms in on the lives of Zainab and Aicha; the first resists wearing the Islamic veil, or hijjab, to the anger of her family and the disappointment of her fiancé, Brahim; the second finds solace in the protection it provides against sexual harassment by men. The movie rests on the contrast of two intimate friends, Zainab to Aicha, who evoke the complexity of inescapable entanglements in which the county finds itself in the early years of the 21st century; their relationship helps the viewer imagine an implied semantic field of opposites for him to think about. Those opposites constitute the layers that resist unity; they epitomize the ailing status of the country to which the champions of the revolution, like Zainab, hope to find a remedy. In other words, the opposites find in the contentious issue of tradition and modernity a corresponding correlation.
Bouzid avails himself of the contradicting sympathies around the issue of the veil in order to raise key questions about the future of the country. The movie becomes the occasion for questioning bad traditions and the platform for introspection and experimentation. The opposing views convey the lingering issues for which the Arab world has so far failed to find common ground and which, moreover, keep it stuck in a state of immobility and inertia. They define the current duplicity of Arab culture that is flaunting proudly noble values, usually stemming from the Islamic value system, but subverting them inattentively in moments of decision-making, or in the private sphere. When Zainab’s mother fails to convince her daughter to wear the veil in order to cave in to the demands of Brahim, she requests the help of her sister, Tata Samia. To succeed where Zainab’s mother failed, Samia urges Zainab not “to divulge all her cards,” which means to stop being honest and straightforward with people. She asks her to think and “cheat like everyone else,” demanding specifically if she knows “zour,” an Arabic word that means “falsehood” and “falsification,” subtitled in French as “ruse.” Zainab’s response reveals the cultural divide that sets her apart from the deceitful fringe of Tunisian society and that now also engulfs her aunt: “You haven’t taught me that.” When she starts forcing the veil on her, using black magic, Zainab lashes out at her aunt, accusing her of becoming “ugly” like all the others. Likewise, her fiancé Brahim, realizing the advantages his social status provides him as a successful businessman in France, pretends that his family would not accept Zainab as his spouse unless she is veiled. He sees in Zainab’s brother, Hamza, an accomplice, to pursue his fundamentalist ideology and to force it on his fiancée; by contrast, he finds in her father a companion to socialize with around a bottle of wine. He explains to him that Tunisia is divided into two groups: the booze drinkers and the fundamentalists; when the father asks him to which group he belongs, he admits jokingly that he belongs to both groups, but that the solution lies with the fundamentalists. His double existence as a seemingly open-minded émigré clashes with his archaic views on women and his suspicious business with the Trabelsis, the in-laws of the country’s president.
The duplicity is also manifest in Hamza, a prison escapee turned fundamentalist. In the turmoil of the revolution, many convicted fundamentalists escaped prison in very obscure, if not suspicious circumstances. Their escape remains a conundrum to many, although it would not be far-fetched to assume that the regime sought in their zealotry an infamous ally to pin against the secular revolutionaries in the hope to turn the tide to its favor. That did not happen. The freedom of the convicts would prove very ominous in post-revolutionary Tunisia, since the party that represents them, El Nahda (the Renaissance), and surprisingly the winner of the elections, would try in vain to include provisions from the Sharia in the new constitution. Through Hamza, the movie gives a glimpse of the difficulties of political cohabitation in an Islamic country. Hamza is irate to see his father and Brahim consume a forbidden substance under Islamic law. What is interesting here is the dialogue that ensues subsequent to the scene of wine drinking. Hamza accuses Brahim and his father of committing a sinful act and desecrating the house; the father facetiously responds that he thought his son upheld the values of democracy, but Hamza reminds him that democracy must respect the foundations, and that individual freedoms in which the father tries to seek an alibi do not exist. Hamza’s assertions strike both his father and his sister, Zainab, as a new language; to him, drinking alcohol is nothing more than idolizing vice and becoming a clothing designer is a form of idolatry. Yet, he falls to temptation when he tries to force himself on Aicha, a single mother of two and the one who helped Zainab, his sister, get a job at the café. Although he asks for God’s forgiveness, he only does after Aicha vehemently resists him.
While the narrative evinces the significance of the veil by showing it as a political instrument widely useful in the game of deception, it also reserves a large space for a dramatic contrast that serves as a cautionary note against amalgamation. Aicha claims that her veil does not carry any political value, and throughout the movie we see in her a case where veiling constitutes a way of life and a result of free will. By stripping her veil of any political significance, Aicha asserts her choice as an individual mindful of duplicity and falsehood which, in her case, would translate to her refusal to accept the lucrative offers of her boss. Aicha’s situation contrasts with Zainab’s. If the veil is forced on Zainab, Aicha is asked to remove it. Her boss keeps harassing her about it, accusing her of veiling her beauty and undermining her potential. Like Tata Samia, he resorts to coercive tactics in order to oblige her to give in to his demands. When Zainab quits her job and he needs someone to replace her as a waitress, he finds the most opportune occasion to push for moving her out of the bakery in the basement to the café upstairs. The contrast of Zainab and Aicha creates a chiastic relationship, deliberately in order to account for the two sides of the arguments associated with the veil; the purpose here is to draw attention to the importance of freedom and individual choice. Both characters have different sensibilities on the issue, but the outcome of their choice is the same; they value the freedom of choice and decision-making; Zainab resists wearing the veil and succeeds, and Aicha refuses to remove it and prevails. The contrast speaks to the exception of two characters who are struggling to assert themselves as honest individuals in a society gone terribly wrong. They refuse to see themselves clad in a mask. At one point in a scene when Samia is trying to veil Zainab, the latter tells her that she is fed up with “this game” and refuses to look in the mirror, since she would see herself veiled, the image of duplicity that she abhors. When Aicha unveils herself against her will in the basement of the café, she could not stand seeing herself in the mirror unveiled and made up; she goes on a rampage, overthrows everything and, in a fit of extreme anger and meltdown, douses beyond recognition her face and hair with flour.
Throughout the movie, there are scenes about Ammou (Nouri Bouzid), the blind homeless musician, that keep interrupting the main story. Violence has not spared him and he ended up dying in the end. After the first scene when he is delighted to be reunited with his accordion, the remaining snippets show him dead amid voices of men as they are mumbling prayers and performing the Islamic purification ritual for the dead on him. One might wonder if Bouzid, as one of the most successful and longstanding North African filmmakers, has signed onto his exit from moviemaking; he has not produced a movie since 2012. While this could be a possibility, what is interesting lies in what happens afterwards, as dead Ammou is shrouded in a white garment, in preparation for burial. We see him for the last time in the morgue; Aicha and Zainab, unaware of his death, look for him in vain and then recover his accordion, just in time before it is trashed away. Soon afterwards, Aicha, carrying Ammou’s accordion, removes the veil in public for the first time; Zainab drapes her shoulders with the Tunisian flag. With Aicha’s daughter following them, they walk together in the street, singing as two guys pass them by announcing the collapse of the government. Could it be that Ammou’s death is sending a farewell message? He leaves earth in a shroud while soon afterwards Aicha unveils herself, basically taking away the veil with him. With this contrast, the narrative could well be sending a final message, mainly that the death of the revolutionaries did not go in vain; they laid their lives down as scapegoats to unveil Tunisian society, to remove the shroud of corruption and deceit, and to unleash its free spirit in the pursuit of truth and individual freedoms.