Intimacy is a universally coveted desire. Its neglect can have severe consequences and impacts, and even its perception can alter the relationships we forge. Living under the strict regime of a patriarchal family, Selma begins to recognise the turbulent struggle her upbringing and environment with a belittled and humiliated mother has on her emerging desires. Honey Cigar, where the personal meets the political, is a coming-of-age tale where the physicality of self-discovery forges an attempted link with the re-discovery of one’s heritage.
Kamir Aïnouz’s Honey Cigar comprises a split narrative, with one half focusing on Selma’s coming to grips with her body, sexuality and identity and taking a mercifully genuine approach to a young woman’s realisations of the joys, difficulties and pains of intimacy in the process. The other half struggles more to weave this independence away from a patriarchal family as a metaphor for Selma’s ancestral home resisting the growing problems of Islamic fundamentalism. To begin, though, Honey Cigar wants to talk about sex.
And you know what? Yes, it is erotic. It is arousing and sensual. But it’s also awkward, funny and cringing. It embraces sex from each sultry angle one could conceive. Neither shied away from or exploited, but vitally, and equally, Honey Cigar embraces the reluctance, the expectations, anxieties, and let’s be frank – the disappointments. There is romance, lacklustre nights and yes, unsurprisingly, blood. Equally, as honest as the film is towards sex, it’s just as brutal in its depiction of rape and consent. The camerawork is intense in proximity, removing flesh or gaze from the scene and only drawing focus to Adjani’s profile. It’s uncomfortable – as it should be – and handled in as possibly acceptable a manner as cinematic depictions of sexual violence can be.
The charm and legitimate nature of Zoé Adjani‘s performance complement the film’s refusal to cower behind falsehood in her expressions and experiences with men, masturbation, and her steadfast respect and intelligence in matters that others (notably men) find difficult to understand. And while many in the bourgeois setting of the film’s commentary come off as one-note aristocratic cut-outs, Adjani is engaging, rounded and develops magnificently. This is particularly noticeable in the time Aïnouz takes to expand Selma, dispersing the nonsensical and misogynistic ‘deflowering’ concept, and instead drawing focus on the inward self-discovery of her body, her power and identity. In reality, Honey Cigar flows neatest when self-contained and in the hands of Adjani, rather than the descension into a caricature for political lampooning.
The composite of the film, though, becomes chalk and cheese, oil and water, Bono and Spider-man – it just doesn’t mix. The analogies and political stances don’t naturally infuse together and feel staunchly different in their construction; manufactured and deliberate, as opposed to the natural development of Selma as a character. Her parents’ story becomes a vehicle for politics, and though noteworthy and just, comes off as hollow for the remainder of the film. That’s a disappointment, given Amira Casar’s enjoyable turn as La mère, a mother claiming back her autonomy from a narcissistic husband.
Even the composition blends poorly, crescendos building to a borderline comical climax in conjuncture with Selma’s experience of orgasm. The intention is obvious, if on the nose. And it wouldn’t be quite as noticeable if the film’s remaining score played without such juxtaposition, but is instead vacant in what it is trying to achieve with these odd choices.
The justification of Honey Cigar’s parallels, to draw allegory between a young woman’s sexual awakening with Algeria’s political journey throughout the 1990s, becomes watered down as the narrative moves back to Algeria. The experimentation, the abuse and the eventual emergence that Selma undergoes as she becomes a woman in command of her body is the better movie here, but sadly the same cannot be said for Aïnouz’s treatment of the political subplots and generalisations, which are shallow in development and underproved.