Banned in its native Morocco due to its uncommonly frank depiction of sex and prostitution, Much Loved premiered at Cannes scented with scandal and bearing the mark of artistic victimhood – shaping it up to be the kind of film western critics feel so honour-bound to champion in the name of freedom and social progress that they tend to overlook its eventual shortcomings. Happily, this particular film, while perhaps not breaking as much ground stylistically as it does thematically, deserves most of its plaudits.
The story revolves around a trio of prostitutes and their daily struggle for survival in a patriarchal world that preys upon their bodies while simultaneously punishing their services with judgment, violence and disdain. Soukaina (Halima Karaouane) is a romantic both on and off-duty, simpering love messages to a sugar daddy on the phone one minute, answering the door to her homeless boyfriend the next. Semi-closeted lesbian Randa (Asmaa Lazrak) dreams of reuniting with her absentee father in Spain. Serving as the group’s “big sister” figure is iron-tempered Noha (Loubna Abidar), whose authoritarian attitude is partly due to the strain her breadwinning efforts cause on the very family they’re supposed to be helping, with her toddler son never seeing his mother, her own mother displaying open shame and resentment, and her sister threatening to follow the same path.
Every other night, their elderly driver Saïd (Abdellah Didane) takes them to parties attended by Moroccan businessmen and Saudi oil sheiks. There, they entertain their opulent hosts by dancing, twerking to hip-hop music, stripping, snorting cocaine on each other’s bodies and otherwise performing the kind of acts that would almost certainly warrant brutal corporal punishment in their guests’ country. When they’re not performing or having intercourse with them, they sit down and discuss sex, global economics and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s all a big joke and they’re not even really in on it. Whenever one of the women dares to voice a genuine heartfelt opinion, their clients respond by either insulting them or turning the situation into another joke about how ridiculous it all is.
Such is the absurdity of these women’s situation: They provide a clearly much-wanted service, yet are derided and degraded even as they provide it, by the very men who demand it and benefit from it. At every turn, their clients remind them of their social position. In one particularly startling moment, a Saudi drops a precious gem in a swimming pool, promising it as a reward for the first girl to find it – all just to watch the underprivileged sex workers jump in fully clothed and compete for what amounts to an insignificant speck of his immense wealth.
Little wonder then that the very first thing we hear over the introductory black screen is an animated conversation between our protagonists about last night’s johns’ performances and their own personal tastes in men. Although they rarely do it to their faces, they turn their clients’ sexual objectification and mockery back on them and use it to strengthen their sisterly bond. Yet even this only further illustrates how sex and the abstract idea of romance serve as the inescapable constants around which their entire lives seem to revolve. Even outside the nightclubs and mansions where they work, they put on performances, selling the illusion of love or happiness to themselves almost as much as others. Only in each other’s company, in stolen little moments as simple as watching a Bollywood movie and imitating its dances or sharing a meal with a crossdressing gay streetwalker friend, can they truly be themselves.
All this is fairly quick and easy to understand once the first twenty minutes or so have passed, which can lend a slight air of redundancy to subsequent scenes in which the women dreams of escape through a rich, respectful Prince Charming, or receive verbal abuse from spurned prospective clients at a nightclub. Twice following a particularly harsh episode do we get close shots of Noha in a car seat looking tired and pensive, intermingled with long lateral tracking shots of Marrakech streets from the car window’s perspective, as sad violin and piano music plays on the soundtrack. It works effectively the first time as a silent reminder of the greater context in which these events occur, but its reappearance only creates the uncomfortable sensation of being pressured for sympathy.
There is discomfort, too, in the opulent party scenes. Director Nabil Ayouch films his actresses with a hand-held camera, tracking their sensual movements and the delight of their patrons as a fellow partygoer would. It adds an extra touch of immersion, yes, but is it not also merging with the clients’ gaze? And in doing so, is it not unconsciously endorsing it? Questions that Ayouch does not satisfactorily explore, which means that the viewers are not challenged or interrogated on their way of looking at these women’s bodies in such scenes, as they were so brilliantly in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
Still, these occasional lapses into banality do not undercut the patent empathy Ayouch displays for these women, nor do they deny them their humanity. Much Loved’s best moments occur in temporary openings through the surface of seemingly commonplace scenes: Randa’s immobile tenseness as her first female client to put her hands on her, controls her and guides her to her bed; the scene in which pregnant newcomer Hlima (Sara Elhamdi Elalaoui) negotiates payment in money and vegetables with a poor middle-aged vendor after sex – the closest thing to a consensual, equal rapport between merchant and customer in the entire film – or the dinner date scene during which the camera captures all the skepticism, feigned interest, resignation, acceptance and false hope contained within a single facial expression of Loubna Abidar’s, as her character listens to her wealthy French client recite empty declarations of love.
In moments such as these, we get miraculous glimpses of seemingly new emotions and states of being that are far more disturbing and important revelations than a client’s repressed homosexuality or a dirty cop’s depravity. We penetrate strange and unfamiliar territory where people lose their masks and expose themselves to our scrutiny when we least expect it.
Rough around the edges and not always apt at dodging familiarity, Much Loved is nonetheless a frank and compassionate tableau of female friendship and sisterhood whose occasional hiccups are redeemed by first-class acting, with special mention to Loubna Abidar’s revelatory turn as Noha. It deserves to be seen not because of its ban or its subject, but because of its humanity.