I have a framed print of a painting by Raul Dufy which I used to hang over my writing desk. It is a view through an open hotel window out onto a Riviera beach curling away in the distance. Inside the room are a few plush chairs and a big vase of flowers. It always seemed to me to invite imaginative experience: what has happened in this room? and why is it that the sloping coastline makes the room seem even more empty?
There is a scene in Ruba Nadda's gorgeous Cairo Time that felt immediately to me like I was inside that Dufy painting, though the location is now Cairo. After having spent a lot of time together in a mutually growing attraction that is as much soulful as physical, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) invites Tareq (Alexander Siddig) up to her hotel suite. This is it, the audience thinks, the moment of the seduction. And in many less carefully considered films, it would unfold in predictable ways. Instead, these characters hover on the edge. Tareq stands on the balcony looking on to the coastal scene while Juliette remains inside, just out of his view, pouring tea and unable to join him. She starts to go, and doesn't. He finally wanders in, approaches her, she shies away and then draws closer. It is agonizing. But instead of the expected submission, the characters choose something else, even better. And hooray!, there is no dialogue.
This scene captured all that I liked about Cairo Time. I loved the pacing of the film, which allowed the characters to breathe into each other's presence and develop a friendship the way this really does happen, in small awkward moments, and other clearly affinitive ones. I also particularly appreciated the care taken to evoke the quiet spiritual center of the city, even as Juliette tries to navigate its chaotic streets, where the men press in on her in alarming ways. It is a wonderful contrast, and important one. There are long takes that allow us to wallow in the environment as she takes refuge in new ways. The haunting sounds of the minaret and the echoes inside a mosque resonate the transitions our character is experiencing. Her life is slowing down and the movie does that too. Into the space that emerges comes someone whom we sense will perhaps be her lover, or perhaps shouldn't be; the possibility haunts us, and them, as they each fill the void of something missing in the other. I loved Patricia Clarkson's delicate walk between the conservative businesswoman and the emotional lover of two men, trying to discern what to do with how the city is changing her. The ending, which I appreciated, leaves us with the clear feeling that it is perhaps not the final ending. In a sense that ending has only begun.