Marriage, virtue, honour: Mohamed El-Assyouti watches yet another romantic merry-go-rounds
What happens when two people who have never really liked each other accidentally meet at a train station and end up on the same train? Hardly relishing each other's company, they try to go their different ways but eventually they resign themselves to the fact they are together, trapped on the train.
For Essam and Layla the journey of getting to know each other begins, and ends, at the train station as they both head towards Alexandria, for Li'bit Al-Hobb (The Game of Love) is about young people learning who it is they love and want to be with the hard way.
Essam is the brother of Layla's friend, though he has always expressed disapproval of the nonchalant approach Layla adopts to social norms. He is far from unique -- thanks to vast quantities of cultural baggage, men generally perceive themselves as occupying a superior social position to women, especially women who have decided that they are not going to wait until they marry before indulging in a little romance. Thanks to such attitudes women who lose their virginity before marriage often find they have committed social suicide, earning the disrespect of society as represented by family, friends and neighbours. It has been the fate of a great many young women in Egyptian cinema in film after film that underlined the message that to be a respectable unmarried woman is synonymous with being a virgin.
Essam has swallowed the whole package. There are just some things a decent girl simply doesn't do. She doesn't talk casually to strangers or smoke cigarettes in public. And she certainly doesn't live alone in an apartment and have a boyfriend. Only Layla does. Rejecting such limitations on her freedom as outmoded, and since her father is dead and her mother lives elsewhere, she has decided to live by herself. And since she needs to know that the person with whom she chooses to spend the rest of her life is the correct choice she has no qualms about her two-year involvement with Amr, whom she eventually dumps after discovering that he is selfishly opposed to the idea of marriage. Essam, on the other hand, marries a girl he knows has had no experience at all of relationships, only to come to the conclusion that they are an ill-suited match. Eventually he realises that he has been wrong all along and that an emancipated independent woman, such as Layla, would be just the thing for him.
That independence in a chauvinist society means women must ignore the host of prejudices and shackles with which they are bound to tradition is hardly an original message. It has been the subject of tens of films in the past. Often it is the question of a woman's honour that is the main subject matter of such films and the tone is usually melodramatic -- as in Ghosn Al-Zaytoun (The Olive Branch) and Shagarat Al-Liblab (The Lablab Tree) based on the Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abdallah novels, or else tragic, as in Do'aa Al-Karawan (Call of the Curlew) or Al-Toq wal-Iswira (The Collar and the Bracelet), based, respectively, on novels by Taha Hussein and Yehia El-Taher Abdallah.
Li'bit Al-Hobb, modelled on American romantic screen comedies -- the kind of films that feature Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore et al -- is much lighter in tone. The subject matter may be honour, but it is approached in a simple and unpretentious manner. That it is, in this respect, atypical of most Egyptian entertainment is perhaps the film's only merit. It clearly targets the younger generation and probably rightly assumes that they are in need of a laugh.
Alongside the two protagonists is a set of secondary characters that allow parallels to be drawn with the romantic couple, among whom Layla's doorman and his wife are the most significant. The doorman is used as a measure of society's judgement of Layla's behaviour, his looks, comments and general attitude being a barometer of the social approbation Layla courts. And he clearly disapproves of this woman living by herself and occasionally receiving male guests. Such behaviour is the target of his censure, though it does not prevent him from nurturing his own fantasies about Layla, which in turn provoke the jealousy of his wife.
Then there is Layla's 27-year-old friend. The latter thinks she should get married, since that is what society expects from a woman her age. Yet she cannot decide which of her suitors to choose: her longstanding boyfriend or a colleague at work who is handsome and clearly attracted to her. Finally, under pressure from her parents she marries a third person, her cousin, who is funny and affectionate though they have little in common. Soon she considers asking for divorce.
The film, then, presents four marriage permutations, both potential and already existing. And then there is the fifth, made possible by the break up of the existing marriages. It is the fifth way that eventually wins through, and the couple finally earns the fairy tale ending of living happily ever after because they have recognised each other's right to have had prior romantic experiences, to have made their own mistakes.
The screenplay of Li'bit Al-Hobb (The Game of Love) is by Ahmed El-Nasser Ali and Sami Hossam and it was produced by the Television's Production Sector headed by Mamdouh El-Leithi, the same trio that was behind Malik Wi Kitaba (Head and Tale), another film in which an uptight man learns that he has to respect an emancipated woman, who happens once again to be played by Hind Sabri, and thanks to whom he is able to mend his silly ways.
Li'bit Al-Hobb is director Mohamed Ali's debut, and though he sometimes succeeds in coping with the production's budget limitations, in other scenes he fails. Perhaps that is the lot of working within the public sector. The same can be said of Sameh Selim's cinematography. The costume designs by Nahed Nasrallah and the music by Tamer Karawan, however, illustrate what can be achieved with limited resources. The performances were of varied quality, with perhaps only Hind Sabri achieving distinction. For Khaled Abul-Naga, Basma, Bushra and Bisou it is no more than a not indecent film to add to their CVs.