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‘Everybody Loves Touda’ Review: Nabil Ayouch’s Absorbing Drama

‘Everybody Loves Touda’ Review: Nabil Ayouch’s Absorbing Drama

When we first meet Touda (a striking Nisrin Erradi), the headstrong protagonist of Nabil Ayouch’s compelling feature Everybody Loves Touda, the young mother is somewhere on the outskirts of her small town, performing a lively number with a troupe of other singers. The women dance while smiling at the men gathered near the campfire. The spectators look pleased and, at times, greedy. As the sun descends, the revelry adopts a sinister edge. Grins become malevolent and hands more entitled. Touda gets caught in a melee, a chase ensues, the men claw at her dress and then, they assault her.

Bowing at Cannes in the Première section, Everybody Loves Touda marks Ayouch’s fourth time on the Croisette. In 2012, his critically acclaimed drama Horses of God premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. Casablanca Beats, another well-received drama, competed for the Palme d’Or in 2021, making it the first Moroccan title to vie for the honor since 1962.

Everybody Loves Touda

The Bottom Line

A compelling portrait hindered by some narrative contrivances.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Cast: Nisrin Erradi, Joud Chamihy, Jalila Talemsi, El Moustafa Boutankite, Lahcen Razzougui
Director: Nabil Ayouch
Screenwriters: Nabil Ayouch, Maryam Touzani

1 hour 42 minutes

As in his previous films, Ayouch approaches Touda’s story with an unflinching and gritty realism. Everybody Loves Touda, which the North African director wrote with director Maryam Touzani (The Blue Caftan), is a mostly absorbing, if at times formulaic, portrait of a woman determined to change her life. Touda wants to become a traditional Moroccan folk singer, or a sheikha, and to enroll her deaf son in a school better suited to his needs. Their rural town doesn’t have the resources to fulfill either of these desires, so the young mother pins her hopes on Casablanca, a bustling city with famous stages and well-funded schools. To make money for the eventual journey, Touda sings in nightclubs, where she begrudgingly subjects herself to the seedy gaze of men drunk off beer and their own delusions.

The next time we see Touda, she eyes her bloodied dress with a kind of routine exasperation and works at the stains until they disappear. Then, she goes about her day. In Everybody Loves Touda, moments of painful violation are almost always followed by an eerie calm. Abrupt cuts (editing is by Nicolas Rumpl and Yassir Hamani) between scenes reflect life’s jagged cadence and underscore Touda’s overall resilience. That the young mother swallows much of the harshness in her life is at once a testament to her strength and an indictment of her society. This isn’t the first time Ayouch has crafted a story around how women navigate the constraints of gendered conservatism. His 2008 film Whatever Lola Wants followed a postal worker in New York who aspired to be an Egyptian belly dancer; his controversial drama Much Loved (which premiered in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight sidebar in 2015) explored prostitution in Morocco through the lives of four women.

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In Everybody Loves Touda, Ayouch chronicles Touda’s journey from her rural town to Casablanca with a reverence for our protagonist’s independence. Working with DP Virginie Surdej, the director takes care to show how the young mother pursues her own version of happiness. From teaching her son, Yassine (Joud Chamihy), sign language to setting boundaries with her lover (Lachcen Razzougui), a married police officer whose name we never learn, Touda asserts herself as both a mother and a liberated woman.

Some of the most affecting moments in the film are those in which Touda sings aita, a folkloric genre of Moroccan music rooted in a poetry of liberation. The camera closes in on her face, privileging us with an intimate perspective. The music (by Flemming Nordkrog) is turned down, leaving us only with the ambience of the singer’s surroundings. Touda’s voice trembles as she croons about love, loss and other struggles of the living, as though these ancient lyrics were written with her in mind. Erradi’s performance — marked by a steely resolve softened occasionally by a vulnerable gaze — rounds out these moments. The actress is a gripping screen presence, her portrayal often saving Ayouch’s narrative from its own contrivances.

Despite Erradi’s efforts, Everybody Loves Touda does struggle to overcome some of its boilerplate plotting. Once Touda decides to leave her village, she embarks on a journey to her parents’ house in the countryside. There, she will leave Yassine, who finds his own kind of freedom and comfort in the farmlands. The pastoral interlude shores up our understanding of Touda and offers some breathtaking imagery of undulating hills and arresting blue sky, but it leaves little time for the Casablanca chapter of her life. When the singer finally does make it to the big city, Ayouch and Touzani’s screenplay takes more obvious narrative turns. A relationship with an elder musician, a violinist (El Moustafa Boutankite) who understands Touda’s ambition, feels underbaked considering the role he comes to play in the film’s final act.

These narrative choices compromise the subtleties of the central performance and threaten to bury what is ultimately a stirring narrative. The most powerful thread in Everybody Loves Touda is how the singer’s attempts to become a sheikha, a traditional performer whose songs are lamentations for the soul, are thwarted by the people around her. It’s not just the men in the audience with their hungry stares and rapacious touches. It’s the nightclub owner who behaves as though he owns her; her parents who plead for her to return to the country; and fellow musicians (usually women) who accuse her of snobbery. Touda’s interactions with all of these figures clarify the irony of the film’s title. Yes, everybody loves Touda, until she chooses herself.

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