There are two movies packed into Huda’s Salon, a sociopolitical thriller from Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. In the first, young mother Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is blackmailed into working with Mossad, the Israeli secret service, by her hairstylist Huda (Manal Awad); in the second, Hasan (Ali Suliman), a brute employed by the Palestinian secret police, snatches Huda in the dead of night and interrogates her about her relationship to Mossad. Both movies are good, but packed into the same shell, they jockey for space. Abu-Assad thoughtfully finds a reason for these stories to intersect. He doesn’t, however, leave them enough room to keep from wrinkling.
It’s not every day a film comes along that would work better as television. Usually it’s the other way around. Huda’s Salon uses strong thread to sew its dual narratives together, but “together” is all they are. They don’t cohere or complement each other save for providing two distinct paths into Abu-Assad’s exploration of Palestinian identity and life, contextualized in women’s experiences as members of a patriarchal society. Reem is given latitude for motherhood and nothing else. Huda, like any stylist, lives by the ethics of doctors and lawyers: Everything her clients tell her is ostensibly confidential, and that makes her a living receptacle for boilerplate complaints about jackass husbands—plus the neverending inequities of being a woman in Palestine. Unlike doctors and lawyers, Huda isn’t legally bound to said ethics, so secrets become leverage and gender discrimination becomes a way of coercing ordinary people into entertaining extraordinary peril.
In a stroke of reverse expectations, peril only influences Reem’s segments in Huda’s Salon. Huda’s fate is a foregone conclusion. As Hasan digs deeper and deeper into her background and levies judgment after judgment against her character, Abu-Assad’s filmmaking achieves an increasing sense of calm: Huda has no way out, and she accepts her inevitable doom with unfailing grace. Meanwhile, Reem exhibits muted anxiety the minute she falls into Huda’s trap. Every person she sees on the street could be a threat, an agent of one merciless clandestine organization or the other, whose members would gladly execute her given proper justification. In Reem’s plight, Abu-Assad builds up dreadful momentum, as if any second she might stumble and put her life, and the life of her beautiful infant daughter, in danger.
The contrast between placid and panicked is a nice touch, further emphasizing how the women driving Huda’s Salon suffer from the same cultural malady with different outcomes. But Abu-Assad transitions awkwardly between the film’s tones as a meditation on crime and punishment (couched in Huda’s plotline) and an adrenalizing paranoiac nail-biter (in Reem’s). Where Reem’s moments end and Huda’s begin are arbitrary; no elegant segues are made to guide the audience from one story to the next. The film shifts perspectives abruptly, as if Abu-Assad forgets the ways that Reem and Huda reflect each other—surprising, given his skill as a filmmaker. Abu-Assad approaches Huda’s Salon with a clean aesthetic sensibility, focusing only on what’s necessary for the sake of pacing and theme. Nothing here is wasted, save for what he achieves in his competing character arcs.
Could the film have been split in half? Could Reem sustain an 80-minute picture on her own? Could Huda? The question isn’t about Elhadi or Awad, exemplary actresses whose efforts at reflecting their characters’ interior lives while playing to separate genres command respect—Elhadi the endangered innocent in over her head, Awad the defiant rebel prepared to accept the grim consequences of subterfuge. No, the question is about Huda’s Salon itself, and whether Abu-Assad has enough to say about the pair to accord them a broader stage on which to dramatize their struggles. Don’t fault him for his talent as an artist: Technically, he knows what he’s doing. All the same, in his hands Huda’s Salon is a rare kind of misstep: Simultaneously too much and not enough.
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Writer: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad, Ali Suliman
Release Date: March 4, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.