Tarantino vibes permeate this amusing, at times outlandish tale of a couple of beauties getting mixed up with a deadly gambling ring.
French director Henri Barges blasts a cartoonish Tarantino vibe into Lebanon’s film scene with his enjoyably outre sophomore feature “Nut$.” Set in a privileged world of bored housewives, high-stakes gamblers, and sadistic hit men, the movie combines violence with wry humor and Spaghetti Western flourishes all meant to draw attention to its firmly planted tongue in cheek. Though cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for sardonic, self-conscious chortles, “Nut$” has moments of outrageous fun and should do well locally following a mid-January release. International play is more of a wild card, likely limited to Francophone territories, showcases, and streaming.
The influences come thick and fast in an amusing opening segment that barrels along, channeling Tarantino, Fellini, and even the “Ocean’s” franchise, among others. Lana (Darine Hamze, “Halal Love”) is introduced as Housewife and Jenny (Alexandra Kahwagi, “Very Big Shot”) as Love Seeker, yet the more accurate moniker for both would be Thrill Seekers. Exuding a fearless swagger that comes from a mixture of inner sangfroid and outer beauty, these best friends enjoy shaking up their bourgeois lives. Then they meet Qassem (Gabriel Yammine), the boss of a gambling racket, and Lana wants in on the game.
While Lana plays the tables in various private establishments and rakes in the dough, Jenny flirts with Wael (Edmund Hedded), Qassem’s amoral hitman. Everything is going swimmingly for the two women until Lana loses big-time against sleazy Jaba (Tarek Tamim), and she has to come up with the money to pay back Qassem’s bet on her. From here all semblance of narrative control pretty much veers off the tracks as Barges climaxes with a “Once Upon a Time in the Middle East” finale featuring a hilariously scabrous desert opening.
Twenty-two years have passed since Barges’ last film, “Half Spirit: Voice of the Spider,” and his subsequent career in commercials has honed an eye for dramatic slickness rather than plot cogency, but he tackles “Nut$” with such glee that the flaws tend to take a backseat to the overall sense of daring. Like a Christmas tree overloaded with baubles, lots of short scenes made with bold strokes adorn the main plot: Qassem’s vixenish second wife Samara (Christina Sadeh) instantly ends one of his tirades by disrobing; older women discuss the value of Ethiopian maids over Filipina housekeepers.
They all add more color than depth, and the result is vaguely derivative and faintly ridiculous, yet the film’s no-holds-barred bravura also feels refreshing in a Lebanese film. While “Nut$” lacks the realism and punch of “Very Big Shot,” it does represent an expansion on the usual Levantine feature sent for festival consideration. That doesn’t mean it deserves an affirmative-action green light abroad just because it’s different (although the more diverse an industry, the healthier it is); the film remains enjoyable on its own, notwithstanding plagiaristic elements. Delicious performances by Hamze and Kahwagi, obviously relishing the joy of playing such powerful women, add to the overall fun.
Cinematographer Pascal Ridao meets Barges’ edgy requirements with a delirious blend of action sequences, stylized set pieces, and drone shots over Beirut. Music helps keep things pumping, from Walid Sarrouh’s original background compositions to leading indie band Mashrou Leila’s noticeable contribution.