Film Review: The Damned Don’t Cry


The British-Moroccan director of Lynn + Lucy, Fyzal Boulifa, returns to screens with this deeply moving tale of a mother and son living on the margins of society. Sharing its name with a 1950 Joan Crawford film, The Damned Don’t Cry has thematic resonance with its namesake as a study of women’s vulnerability in a patriarchal society and the criminalising of marginalised lives.

Fatima-Zahra (Aicha Tebbae) and Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji) are on their own. Moving from town to town, picking up work where they can, this mother-son duo are bound to one another as each day brings with it another struggle to survive. A young man, Selim harbours great resentment towards his mother, who throughout their lives has turned to sex work to put food on the table, meanwhile having lied to Selim about his father, who raped Fatima-Zahra.

Selim’s profound confusion about the world, his place in it, and his feelings towards his mother drive the film toward an uncertain conclusion. Their relationship is a knot of contradictory emotions: Selim loathes his mother for what she is, his feelings towards her a sublimated defence against a world he perceives as having rejected him and a non-existent father for whom he longs and simultaneously detests. Moreover, his disgust towards his mother’s sexuality is the product of internalised self-loathing over his own sexual preferences, and later economic decisions he takes which echo his mother’s.

At the same time, there are fleeting moments of intimacy and tenderness between the two: Selim gently washes Fatima-Zahra’s hair as she bathes in a reverse act of parental caring, and after she reports to him that she was mugged, she smiles with pride at his instinctive protective rage. After Selim gets a job as a day labourer working for rich French tourist Sébastien (Antoine Renartz) on his Moroccan summer home, he falls into a transactional sexual arrangement with him, while Fatima-Zahra begins courting a religiously-conservative bus driver but apparently affectionate bus driver.

Particularly with Selim’s storyline, there is something of Rainer Fassbinder here, both in the sexual themes but also in Boulifa’s compositions, keeping his subjects in the middle ground while using interior foreground architectural features and slow dolly shots to frame scenes. Nothing ever feels fully still; there is no time for reflection or composure. As Selim and Fatima-Zahra move from apartment to apartment and city to city, survival obscures emotional nourishment or even sexual fulfilment. The result is an intense simmering of emotion, underscored by Selim and Fatima-Zahra’s unbearable emotional and material precarity.

Christopher Machell