The opening frames of The Blue Caftan caress the fluid folds and luxuriate in the sheen of a length of petroleum blue silk as the dressmaker’s hands slowly come into view, manipulating the fabric with obvious love and respect. Later, he explains to a customer that the material must glide over the body’s contours, allowing it to flow unimpeded. That principle also guides Maryam Touzani’s gentle observation of her characters in a film of exquisite sensuality and sadness. The Moroccan writer-director returns to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section three years after her well-received debut feature, Adam, with a work of even more transfixing delicacy and restraint.

The slow-burn yet richly emotional drama should land attention by virtue of the relative paucity of queer films in Maghreb cinema alone. But this is compelling storytelling by any standard, its supple rhythms hypnotic, its atmosphere potent and its prevailing hushed tone and intimate camerawork affording us the closest possible access to three characters who in turn are constantly studying one another. The actors playing those three points of a complicated triangle could not be better.

The Blue Caftan

The Bottom Line

A work of handcrafted beauty.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri, Ayoub Messioui
Director: Maryam Touzani
Screenwriter: Maryam Touzani, in collaboration with Nabil Ayouch

1 hour 58 minutes

In one of the oldest medinas in the northwestern Moroccan city of Salé, Halim (Saleh Bakri, The Band’s Visit) and his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal, so memorable in Adam) run a caftan shop where he hand-sews made-to-measure garments according to vanishing traditions he learned from his late father.

The impatience of customers wanting faster service and the backlog of orders necessitate hiring an apprentice, Youssef (gifted newcomer Ayoub Messioui), a quiet young man eager to learn everything that Halim teaches him about pattern-making, tailoring and embroidery. In particular, Halim’s elaborate work on a splendid blue caftan for the pushy wife of a town official fascinates Youssef.

The attention to detail of Virginie Surdej’s camera in these work scenes — the spools of golden thread, the precision needlework, the regal braiding and intricate construction of long rows of Rouleau loop buttonholes — conveys the love that Halim pours into his trade. Youssef’s responsiveness appears driven as much by the tailor’s dedicated craftsmanship as by the unspoken but clearly mutual physical attraction between the two men.

“A caftan must be able to survive the one who wears it. Pass from mother to daughter. Resist time,” Halim tells him. Those words softly resonate with notions of what makes a relationship durable, as well as the encroaching obsolescence of handcrafted tailoring in favor of machine fabrication.

Mina, a bluntly plainspoken woman of Berber origin, initially encourages Youssef, since her husband has more work than he can comfortably handle and is not inclined to rush. Previous apprentices have lost interest and moved on quickly. But at the same time, she watches the handsome new employee like a hawk, clocking with increasing irritability every doe-eyed gaze he directs at Halim and every lingering glance that Halim returns. Mina even accuses Youssef of stealing fabric, docking his pay despite him convincing Halim that he’s no thief. Having taken care of himself since he was 8 years old, he tells Mina that money comes and goes and makes little difference to him.

Touzani deftly uses misdirection to suggest a loveless marriage between sickly Mina, the details of her illness revealed only gradually, and Halim, whose inability to suppress his gay desires steers him regularly to anonymous sex in private rooms at the local hammam. When Mina initiates sex with him it appears to be an act of desperate need for his affection, typical of a drama steeped in longing.

But beneath the married couple’s subdued, almost stilted conversations, a deep reciprocal love, even mutual gratitude, becomes clear, especially once Mina’s health begins to decline. This creates painful conflict for the taciturn tailor when Youssef reveals his feelings in an intensely moving physical display in the store, and the older man’s rejection of him causes the apprentice to quit.

However, when he sees that the store has remained closed for an extended period, Youssef is too kind and too emotionally invested to stay away. He calls on the couple at home and graciously assumes responsibility for the business while gradually becoming a member of their family.

It’s easy to assume where the drama is headed as the feelings among all three characters intensify. But Touzani’s stripped-down screenplay never takes predictable paths, even when it does fulfill expectations. This is a film of overwhelming tenderness — in exchanged glances or tactile moments as fleeting as one hand lightly touching another. Among the loveliest scenes is Halim washing Mina’s hair for her; or Mina asking forgiveness for accusing Youssef of dishonesty and failing to fess up even when she discovered she was wrong. This reduces the young man to convulsive tears, prompting Halim finally to abandon his reserve and offer comfort.

The final stretch brings devastating sorrow, a wave of affecting sentiment that’s entirely earned, even noble, as the depths of understanding between Halim and Mina, and the roots of their marriage are detailed.

Rather than reminding Youssef he’s an outsider in the domestic arrangement, these revelations offer him a more profound connection, not just to Halim but also to Mina. And the way the blue caftan comes into play in a conclusion that marks the movie’s sole use of non-diegetic music is just beautiful. The same goes for the brief final shot, a simple image that speaks volumes with the same elegant economy that characterizes this stirring love story.

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