Cherif, Samar and Maha

Film has always been a medium with a complex and fraught relationship with reality. Starting with the Lumiere brothers’ famous trick undoing what the audience had just seen by reversing the projector, filmmakers have often altered the notion of normal reality or discarded it entirely. Mainstream audiences’ tolerance for films with an irregular view of time and space has moved steadily forward with the passage of time. One frontier that few seem willing to cross is to trust the audience to follow the transitions between different timeframes or realities.

Films like the Butterfly Effect (which remains a great movie) always heavily signpost what is going on or make a quick roundup at the end in case you missed something. Decor, directed by Ahmed Abdalla, takes an entirely different approach. The film respects its audience enough to make seamless transitions and leave open questions. The result is a sublime and challenging work which still retains mainstream appeal.

The film revolves around Maha, a young and talented set designer working in the Egyptian film industry. Whilst under pressure to finish a film which is actively being ruined by its diva star, Maha begins to imagine that she is really living the life of the central character. At the same time, the character (also called Maha) begins to retreat into an escapist fantasy where she actually lives the life of the set designer which she was never able to achieve. Both characters are unhappy in their marriages for different reasons and each character begins to deeply desire that which the other is trying to escape. The two women’s fantasies begin to get out of control and their lives are adversely affected. Maha must decide what is real and what is in her mind before her life falls apart completely.

Decor never felt tiring to watch, despite the considerable depth of its characters and story. By switching between realities which contain different versions of the same characters, the film allows us to develop a more candid understanding of them. The premise is also playfully exploited to string the audience along and to deny them a definitive version of events. Maha’s conversations with her psychiatrist were some of the most memorable scenes.

During the course of the film, both Mahas receive a stern warning that they must face the fact that their own life is the only one which is truly real. There is much of this wry style of humor woven into the film. The style and precision of the filmmaking is another stand-out point of Decor, and it feels every bit as self-aware and brimming with artifice as the storytelling.

With everything moving along like a finely-oiled machine, the film does falter in places. Maha is painted as a headstrong but conflicted woman in both her incarnations. Despite this, there are times where her motivations are a little hard to believe. As the film progresses, her recklessness in some moments can seem implausible. If Decor is meant as a serious study of mental illness, it feels too romantic and artificial to fill this purpose effectively. Maha remains an excellent central character, but I sometimes found those surrounding her to be more compelling.

Decor is a film which boldly avoids long established narrative conventions without rendering itself completely into an art house classic with limited appeal. The film is beautifully shot with striking imagery and a wealth of affecting sequences. The characters may not always be perfectly constructed, but each one is a cut above the majority of Hollywood offerings which have much higher budgets behind them. Decor is a powerful drama and an art house film to challenge those who normally avoid them.