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Back to Alexandria

Fanny Ardant and Nadine Labaki excel in this African-European co-production about growing up and returning home - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Russi (Nadine Labaki) tells one of her clients during a therapy session ing the beginning of movie: “every moment is a moment to change your life”. The story of Sussi’s return to Egypt in order to visit her dying mother (Fanny Ardant), at its core Back to Alexandria is a film about learning, growing, and changing your life. Sussi’s journey is a trip to her past, replete with visions of all the important women in her life, and throughout she’s confronted with all of her roads not taken. It’s a melodrama, tinged with regret and melancholy, but little in the way of dramatic fireworks across its well-paced 90 minute runtime. Instead what Ruggli gives us is a collection of simple moments between Sussi and the people she meets, each of them a chance for her to change who she is. A chance Sussi may or may not take.

Animating most of the drama in the film are the internal conversations Sussi has with two projections of her psyche: her mother and an imaginary little boy who serves as something of a proxy for Sussi as a child. From criticising Sussi’s lack of style as she tries on a dress to frequently trying to goad her into dancing, or mocking her flirtations with a handsome cab driver, these two figures are in constant conflict with who Sussi is and nag her constantly about who she’s become. They also introduce both queer and feminist elements into the film, raising questions over why she’s so emotionally closed off, what her life would’ve been had she been born a boy, and also giving deeper subtext to the camp elements Ardant brings to the film.

Glamorous French divas like Ardant don’t get to be legends simply for their acting, but for their fondness for hogging the spotlight, and in Back To Alexandria Ardant handily demonstrates her ability to suck up all the attention in a scene. In the hands of less capable directors this could tank a film, inbalancing the dramatic tension, but luckily Ruggli knows how to milk Ardant’s enormity for all its worth. First featured dancing wildly in the living room of Sussi’s house and luxuriating in her own splendour, from the get-go Ardant not only commands the screen, but also turns simple understated melodrama into spectacular fantasy.

It also certainly helps matters that she’s playing against such an understated actress as Labaki. The Lebanese thespian (who is also a celebrated filmmaker) gives the maximum with the minimum. Even at the film’s melodramatic peaks – during a funeral, a mother-daughter argument in the desert, a tense dream sequence – Labaki internalises her suffering and anger, rarely letting herself blow up into a shout. It’s precisely in the contrast between Ardant’s spectral diva-ness and Labaki’s lived-in naturalness where the film soars, crafting an engaging dynamic between the heightened emotions of Sussi’s inner life and the withdrawn exterior she puts on in her day to day life.

This is aided even further by Ruggli’s strong handling of classical form: that’s relaxed, elegant, and straightforward. Many of the best moments come when Ruggli simply takes his time with things, allowing for long moments of Labaki walking down streets or staring off hotel balconies where the sense of place and rhythm of life become as essential as the characters. This is complemented by the beautiful cinematography of Thomas Hardmeier. It leans heavily on soft-focus to make the desert glimmer and shine in the Egyptian sun. The film might never really surprise you – formally or narratively – but it’s so well crafted that it’s hard to fault. There are some wonderful dolly moves around Cairo that are sumptuous enough to make the film worthwhile on their own.

Back to Alexandria shows in the Arab Spectacular section of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at the Zurich Film Festival.

By Joshua Bogatin - 10-12-2023

Joshua Bogatin is a freelance film critic, filmmaker, editor, and programmer based in New York City. As a writer he has contributed to Mubi Notebook, Screen Slate, Senses of Cinema, DMovies, and many ...

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