The broad expanse of his hand covers almost the entirety of her back. As she walks with his hand on her lower back, the camera zooms in close enough to absorb every detail of his tan hand and its contrast with the bold aqua of her dress. In its simplicity, this shot from Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time permeates the scene with an asphyxiating longing that never comes to fruition. Patricia Clarkson’s and Alexander Siddig’s characters are forever encased in this one-shot, their underlying desire for one another unfulfilled due to the external factors surrounding their lives. Factors completely out of their control.
In a piece for Letterboxd titled “Sensual Cinema,” Filipino filmmaker and actress Isabel Sandoval revisits sensuality and sex in films. What makes a film sexy? According to Sandoval, it’s not the graphic simulation of sex; although that’s important, the key element is desire. The more repressed and unattainable the desire for someone or something is, the more it becomes palpable to its viewers. As Sandoval puts it:
“Sex sells? That’s old-hat. I say it’s desire—and the more repressed, taboo, unfulfilled that desire is, the more consuming it is, and the more it plays like gangbusters.”
So what happens when female desire becomes all the more explicit in a film? When the idea of female desire departs from the status quo of sex and sensuality of cinema? What if it’s the close-up shot of a man’s hand on a woman’s lower back, guiding her gently as she walks? For all intents and purposes, the gesture is merely a formality. Yet, when the camera closes in and lingers, viewers are granted access to a world of aching and unfulfilled desire. That’s the manifestation of sensuality on film that Sandoval mentions.
Cairo Time (2009) is a small indie film starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Backdropped by the beautiful scenery of Cairo, Egypt, Clarkson’s character decides to visit her husband, who works for the United Nations. However, upon arriving in Cairo, her husband is held up in Gaza and sends his former bodyguard, played by Alexander Siddig. Unintentionally, the two begin to grow closer, as Clarkson’s Juliette Grant seeks Siddig’s Tareq Khalifa for companionship in a city foreign to her. They become a snapshot — a moment in time bigger than anything they could have ever imagined.
Cairo Time is a meditation on feminine mystique and desire. More importantly, it focuses on the desires of an older woman. At the beginning of the film, a woman arrives in tailored button-down shirts and slacks which slowly unravel from both the Cairo heat and Tareq’s easy companionship. This is Juliette’s portrait of sensuality, as she soon trades her pressed slacks and shirts for flowing dresses and spaghetti-strapped shirts. Juliette’s emotional and physical disrobing allows audiences to find a woman brimming with desire underneath.
There’s a particular scene where Juliette has just come to the hotel after spending the day with Tareq sightseeing. After showering, she puts on a silk robe while still wet from her shower. She’s backlit by the soft glow of her hotel room, and is nude underneath the robe. It’s the suggestion of nudity that becomes enchanting — not just for the overall aesthetic of the scene, but to Juliette’s characterization. A casual sensuality captures Juliette as a woman, not just a wife or mother. Sensuality doesn’t equate to nudity or the simulation of sexual intercourse. It can be the soft silk of a robe over wet skin or a casual toss of hair.
Sensuality is also reflected in the manifestation of unfulfilled romance onscreen. Nadda’s interpretation of female longing further exemplifies Sandoval’s “sensual cinema.” For Juliette and Tareq, the taboo nature of their companionship lies in Juliette’s marriage vows to her husband. He’s the looming figure lingering across every interaction between Tareq and Juliette. Viewers spend the entire film wondering whether or not Juliette will cross that line. As time goes on, the line becomes all the more blurred, in this dance between would-be lovers. However, there’s a care and romanticism to their emotional affair, a gray area that adds to the sensuality of Juliette’s desire. She knows she can’t possibly be with Tareq. She honors her marriage and her vows. But there’s that slight “and yet” so clear in her eyes every time she glances at Tareq. In those moments, she drops the veil and lets her desires shine through.
Sensuality through the lens of a female auteur seems to shape female characters on screen, controlling their desires both narratively and visually. There’s a connection to the involvement of not just female bodies, but their narratives and the spaces they inhabit. Female desire contributes to the setting, cinematography, narrative, and overall aesthetic of the film. This is especially poignant when an older female character is portrayed as the object of that sensuality and desire through an appreciative gaze. Objectification is no longer a means of exploring femininity and feminine desire. In Cairo Time, an older woman’s femininity takes center stage, and, in turn, becomes a narrative tool to explore these areas of passion and sensuality.
Juliette’s character becomes both the object of desire and the one to desire. Her desire permeates other areas of the film, such as its setting. Everything around her is heightened and smolders: shots of the pyramids of Giza during a sunrise, sunsets in the middle of the desert. Even the crowded streets of Cairo become extensions of Juliette’s growing affection and desire for Tareq. When her husband comes back from Gaza, the two shots of Juliette visiting the pyramids with Tareq and her husband vastly differ in terms of setting. With Tareq, the pyramids bask in the warm glow of the sunrise, and the scene is covered with soft hues that envelop these characters as they approach. Juliette’s smoldering desire makes the landscape that she and Tareq inhabit together sensuous and decadent. However, when Juliette revisits the pyramids with her husband, the shot is static and bright. The sun is completely up. The light is steady throughout the entire shot as they walk up. There is a contrast between Juliette and how her desires almost blend in with the enduring love she feels for her husband. Indistinguishable.
It’s not so much that her role as a woman gets diminished with the presence of her husband. It’s the promise of who Juliette is outside of the years of being a mother and wife that makes the contrast so sharp. That “what if” captivates as Juliette slowly reveals herself to both the viewers and to herself. Her agency becomes all the more arousing as she lets herself imagine, for just a moment, what it would be like to give in to her attraction for Tareq. To the longing glazes and soft touches here and there. It envelopes her character in an aura of warm hues as if she were glowing on the screen.
Nadda’s film is a slow dance in female seduction and appreciation. It captures an alluring Patricia Clarkson in all her dynamism. Cairo Time is a meditation on how depictions of female desire become essential to the paradigm of Sandoval’s “sensual cinema.” Expressions of feminine sensuality often come at the cost of male desire and the voyeuristic male gaze. What happens when depictions of female passion and sex don’t align with the views of women through male objectification? Nadda film represents female desire in ways that redefine “sensual cinema’s” own perceptions of femininity and sex.