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Girl on a swing

Lila Says is a simple tale that speaks volumes

Look in virtually every neighborhood on Earth and you'll discover restless youth playing pointless games and obsessing over sex. But the erotic, culture-crossing film Lila Says finds unique pressures in the Arab quarter of Marseilles. Not only do young Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) and his scofflaw pals deal with boredom, joblessness and raging hormones, they routinely face anti-Muslim police harassment. "Since those fuckers blew up New York, we're paying for it here," Chimo remarks.

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Newcomer Lila (Vahina Giocante) would set temperatures rising in any community, but she's especially provocative in Chimo's impoverished inner-city neighborhood, where the traditional Muslims believe it's sinful to display your thighs. Blond and immodestly dressed, Lila all but lights a fuse upon her arrival, and she's an even bigger bombshell than anyone imagines. The girl first chats up Chimo and turns out to be a shockingly brazen coquette, sparking a love affair that's both charged with lust, yet strangely chaste.

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Lebanese-American director Ziad Doueiri photographed Quentin Tarantino's early films and makes Giocante one of the most gorgeous subjects in modern cinema. The actress sustains unnervingly direct eye contact with the camera and sidles up so close you can imagine feel of her breath. Lila knows she's got it going on, matter-of-factly declaring, "I'm like a Ferrari in the middle of a junk yard."

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Lila and Chimo's early meetings prove far from innocent. She flashes him from a playground swing and, later, reaches down his pants when they're both balanced on a bicycle, coasting through the city's deserted shipyards. But otherwise, their encounters resemble in-person phone sex, with little physical contact. Lila's sexually graphic conversation becomes increasingly kinky as she expresses interest in multiple partners, voyeurism and amateur pornography. She speaks of sex with a kind of clinical candor, as if trying to draw attention away from some unspoken sadness.

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Lila becomes a kind of muse for Chimo, who shakes off his teenage malaise and begins writing. (His introspective musings provide the film's narration.) But whether constrained by Lila's aggressive words or his own low esteem issues, Chimo barely touches Lila and never pushes their intimacy any further. He's similarly paralyzed with his friends, and won't reveal his special relationship to them.

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Led by pushy Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou), Chimo's none-too-bright buddies first offer strutting comic relief, frittering away their days with pinball and petty theft like extras in a Mediterranean Mean Streets. Increasingly they emerge as sexual predators, sharking through the neighborhood in a taxi, and Mouloud becomes especially infuriated when Lila rebuffs him.

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Doueiri's screenplay draws from a largely apolitical source, a raunchy, anonymously published novella that caused a brief sensation in France. From a post 9/11 perspective, Lila Says explores the attraction and tension in racial differences. In her first scene Lila extols the beauty of her blue eyes and the "angelic" whiteness of her skin, as if fully aware that she fulfills a stereotypical Western ideal of beauty. She also tells Chimo that she likes his "olive skin," suggesting their "otherness" helps bring them together.

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Chino and his friends are rebels without religious or political causes, and one even remarks that he'd take "pussy over Free Palestine." Implicitly, the likes of Mouloud share similar resentments with potential terrorists. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has written about young Islamic men torn between their convictions of spiritual superiority and their jealousy of the West's material riches. When Mouloud's wounded pride and hostility toward Lila grows increasingly threatening, Lila Says could be an allegory for the cultural frustrations that build to unjustifiable acts of brutality.

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At heart, Lila Says tells a simple story that takes few detours. Fortunately the young leads and even Marseilles' old-world neighborhoods look so sumptuous that the film achieves a higher level of sensuality than the script alone would suggest. In many ways Lila Says is all talk, but it's not a tease.