It all hinges on a look. When lonely teenage boy, Omar, is out doing his daily round of stealing (usually jewellery or purses) to fund his psychotropic drug habit of the so-called “Madame Courage”, he happens to pick the lovely, innocent Selma as his next victim. After a brief stalk from behind he grabs her, ripping off her necklace and making a swift getaway. But when a short while later he passes by a restaurant where Selma is recovering from her shocking ordeal, he meets her eye. All it takes is this one pivotal, fleeting moment of eye contact and from then on Omar is hit by an obsession secondary only to the drug itself.
Director Merzak Allouache’s latest feature tells of a life that is all at once lonely, bleak and strange. Stealing sessions aside, Omar spends a lot of his day wandering, not doing much of anything. A combination of the camera’s lingering shots on his inactivity offset by its urgent, shaky handheld movement in real time align us to this life so far removed from our own. Madame Courage is his escape, known for its euphoric effect of making the user feel invincible – and when else could this be said to be anymore desperately needed than in such a place as the slums of Mostaganem, Algeria in which he lives. Outside of this chemical bubble, his opportunities are virtually non-existent.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the focus on his abject loneliness shifts to an examination of the relationships in his life. With his mother, things are pretty fraught, to put it mildly. At her wits end with his aimless state, she regularly makes her desire that he immediately disappear or die known to him. And as for Selma, the look they share draws Omar to her but they by no means share a romantically significant relationship. This is where a lot of the intrigue in Allouache’s film lies – he shows us this relationship that isn’t actually one. Selma is slightly creeped out by Omar and slightly concerned about him getting in trouble with her older brother, but she sees him mostly as a harmless curiosity. Omar is clearly attracted to her in some way, but he refrains from making a proper move, instead content in stalking her from a distance.
Madame Courage makes Omar bold and frees him from his own sinking consciousness, while his attraction to Selma gives him something a little more pure and organic to hold on to. Lead actors Adlane Djemil and Lamia Bezoiui, as Omar and Selma respectively, are both understated in their manner of creating this strange bond which is not really love between their characters, and there is a substantial power in this. Behind the camera Allouache finds a gentle balance between observing and stimulating the unusual and pitiful events. This, in combination with the steer of his subject matter, makes this feature a most fascinating, low-key film on a well-crafted perspective of Algerian youth.
Madame Courage screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015.