A rich middle-aged Frenchman pursues a poor Moroccan gamine: On paper, Jacques Doillon’s Raja sounds like a May-September romance with a smarmy neo-colonial backbeat. On-screen, it plays out as an unsettling solipsistic love story—an account of erotic obsession with a family relation to Of Human Bondage. Initially, 19-year-old Raja (Najat Benssallem) seems heedlessly immodest and Fred (Rohmer vet Pascal Greggory), who employs her to work in his garden, appears bizarrely familiar with the help. The coltish object of Fred’s desire is, it’s often pointed out, no great beauty. What’s more, as his housekeeper tells him, “she looks a bit rough.” (Indeed, the orphaned Raja has a boyfriend-cum-pimp.) Mind games and misunderstandings proliferate, thanks to the mutual inability of Raja and Fred to understand each other’s language—which in no way curtails the would-be seducer’s constant philosophizing.
Raja has ample reason to be wary, but Fred is pretty diffident himself, even as he involves his entire household in his love affair. “She’s an emotional cripple . . . a bit like me,” he confides. As demonstrated by the similarly surprising Ponette, Doillon can be a director of considerable delicacy. Fred’s masochistic power trips build to an appropriately convoluted denouement. As the film’s unexpected poignance is heightened by the beautiful Moroccan light, so its social critique is underscored by the fact that everyone is looking for a job—except Fred.