Selma (Zoé Adjani) enjoys her honey cigar.

I watched this film as part of My French Film Festival 2022 and the next day it turned up on MUBI. Fortunately I enjoyed the film and I’m grateful for the chance to watch it more than once. The odd title refers to a delicacy made by a group of village women in the mountains of Algeria. It’s a cigar-shaped cylinder of thin fried pastry filled with honey and here enjoyed by a young French woman of Kabyle ancestry visiting her parent’s homeland. ‘Kabylia’ is the Berber-speaking region of Northern Algeria.

Visiting Algeria.

The making of honey cigars by village women comes towards the end of the film but we first meet the central character Selma sucking suggestively on a honey cigar in a short prologue as part of the opening titles. These titles are certainly unusual and suggest that this will be a narrative suffused with the physicality of sexual desire as experienced by a young woman. Selma is then introduced more formally as a 17 year-old being interviewed for a place at a prestigious Parisian school that should ensure her progress into a highly-paid business career. She is fluent in English and handles herself well in the interview. One of her two interviewers appears to be an American who questions her in English. The narrative is set in 1993 and the questioning refers to the Algerian Civil War. Selma is articulate in defining her ‘double identity’ of French and Algerian. She also realises that she will have to face the casual racism and ignorance of the business world typified by the American’s questions.

Selma with her mother played by Amira Casar . . .
. . . and her father (Lyès Salem).

Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature film written and directed by Kamir Aïnouz, herself French-Algerian. Selma is played by Zoé Adjani (niece of Isabelle Adjani, who I now discover is also the daughter of a man from Kabylia) in a powerful and affecting performance. In an interview on Cineuropa’s website Kamir Aïnouz tells us that the idea that underpins the narrative came to her when she repeatedly saw in her mind’s eye an image of a young woman, spread out on her bed and seemingly in pain – as if her body was tearing itself in two. Aïnouz realised that the story of this young woman was also the story of Algeria in the 1990s. The woman feels torn between two cultures, both of which seem to have designs upon her body while Algeria, still a ‘young country’ after independence in 1962 is experiencing the rise of fundamentalism and terrorist attacks. The soundtrack of the film contributes to the narrative with occasional quotations from the story of Scheherazade, the epitome of a young female rebellion against the male hegemony of an historical Muslim world, here expressed through her sexual desire.

Selma’s family belong to a successful Parisian élite living in the upmarket district of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her father is a lawyer who travels to Algeria frequently looking after clients. Her mother is a gynaecologist who has seemingly given up work to be supportive of her daughter. The couple are secular but still traditional in terms of wishing to influence Selma’s possible decisions re marriage. But there are tensions in the parents’ marriage which will also have an impact on Selma. Towards the end of the narrative, Selma and her mother make a trip to Kabylia to meet her grandmother, still in her mountain village.

Selma with Julien (Louis Peres).

It’s interesting to see a representation of a French-Maghrebi young woman that reverses the typical relationships of a girl from les banlieues. Julien, the young man who Selma meets in her new school/college is in his final year and it is he who is from a working-class family. Selma struggles with her sexual desire and we assume that she has had a relatively sheltered life up to this point. Her experiences with Julien are contrasted with a brief but painful interaction with one of her parent’s preferred successful young men, Luka (Idir Chender), a young banker. There is also a third but underdeveloped interaction with Sélim (Jud Bengana),  the son of her parents’ friends.

Selma in Paris – but this image could be anywhere. The world is open to Selma if she wants to find it.

Honey Cigar is beautifully presented in a ‘Scope ratio with photography by Jeanne Lapoirie, one of the top current French cinematographers and with the ravishing performance of Zoé Adjani it’s always a pleasure to watch. The presentation of Selma’s family is nuanced with the father appearing at first to be ‘modern’ and outward-looking, but revealing his attachment to more traditional values in terms of his daughter’s behaviour. Meanwhile, the mother seemingly moves in the opposite direction. Her desire to keep her links to Algeria eventually may prove her to be the ‘modern’ woman. In fact, Honey Cigar is clearly a female narrative with a strong link appearing between Selma and her grandmother via her mother. We hope this will help Selma to find her own way with confidence. Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature with a great central character. It’s not perfect and I recognise some of the reviews that suggest Kamir Aïnouz has been very ambitious with perhaps too many issues to deal with, especially in the Algerian sequences. But I think this is outweighed by what she has achieved in her presentation of Selma. I hope the film gets seen widely and I heartily recommend it.