Controversy has surrounded this Moroccan-French film from the get-go; banned, unsurprisingly, from cinema screens in Morocco and lead actress Loubna Abidar has even received death threats over her involvement. Much Loved, from director Nabil Ayouch, is a drama following the lives of three upmarket prostitutes trying to make their way in Marrakech, revealing the hypocrisy of the country’s treatment of such women.
Abidar plays Noha, the tough-as-nails matriarch of her dysfunctional group of unapologetic “whores”, which includes sweet and sensitive Soukaina (Halima Karaouane) and possibly gay Randa (Asmaa Lazrak), who is far less enthusiastic than her housemates and consequently less successful. The girls spend their evenings partying with affluent male crowds, including a group of rowdy and hedonist Saudi Arabians. The hypocrisy of their treatment of women and female sex is revealed when they berate their own conservative women, and praise the delights of the Moroccan sex industry.
Much Loved doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative arc, but offers more of a snapshot of the kind of lives its subjects are forced to live. Though early on the women appear confident, in control and even content, this atmosphere gradually dissipates to show the harsher side of their reality, with beatings, unwanted pregnancies and corrupt police failing to provide them with protection. Noha’s vulnerability doesn’t often come through, but when it does it is shown most effectively through her relationship with her family; though her mother disproves of her work, she is more than happy to take money from her, but prevents her from seeing the young son she was forced to give up. Despite appearances, it’s clear the three are at the mercy of an unforgiving world.
There’s little to shout about when it comes to the filmmaking, which is competent but fairly safe, the focal point being without a doubt the strong performances from the central actresses, all of which are natural, believable and sympathetic. The bonds between them manage to appear genuine and robust despite frequent occurrences of violent and nasty altercations. Ayouch makes the often-repeated mistake of indulging far too often in scenes of excess partying, nudity and sex, and neglecting the emotional side of things. One major flaw is the failure to delve deeper into Randa’s character and her struggle with her sexuality, which ultimately is only ever exploited for sex appeal — it’s difficult not to wonder how different a film we may have had if the director had been female.
Much Loved may not do much with its material that hasn’t been done a thousand times before, but it is still an enticing and uncompromising insight into a sordid and brutal underworld.
Much Loved does not yet have an official UK release date. It is part of the Debate competition at the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for Much Loved here: