Egypt’s cinematic gems: My Wife and the Dog
Or: My Wife and the Voyeur
 
 
 

When I first watched Said Marzouk’s cinematic debut, Zawgati wal Kalb (My Wife and the Dog, 1971), I left the theater with two sounds ringing in my ears: the gushing waves of the sea and the loud smacking of Souad Hosni’s chewing gum. Not only is this film a visual masterpiece and an honest reflection of a young director’s endeavors to find his voice, it is a multilayered reflection on the voyeuristic nature of the film-viewing experience itself.

Thrashing waves and loneliness

On a narrational level, the film tells the story of Morsy (played by Mahmoud Morsy), the ageing manager of a remote lighthouse, who has recently wed the young and beautiful Souad (Souad Hosni). In his loneliness amid thrashing waves and howling winds, far away from the city and from his wife, his doubts about her fidelity start to gnaw at his soul, and he is gradually overtaken by an obsessive jealousy.

From the start, the film highlights Morsy’s loneliness. It opens with a prologue scene, where, upon waking up next to his new wife, a feeling of melancholy starts creeping over him at the thought of their impending separation. As Morsy retreats into his sadness, we hear the melody of Sayed Darwish’s Zorouni Kol Sana Marra (Visit Me, Once in a Year), an appropriate song about the loneliness of exile. We arrive with Morsy at the lighthouse, and as the ferry withdraws the camera zooms out with it, reinforcing the harshness of separation. Morsy looks back at it in sadness.

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Morsy is greeted warmly by his three coworkers, particularly Nour (played by Nour al-Sherif). Nour is also young (like Souad), but immature, with an adolescent fascination with women and sex. He spends his time snipping cutouts of seductive magazine girls and pinning them up on his bedroom walls. Morsi’s internal conflict arises when he entrusts Nour with delivering a letter to Souad during his upcoming leave. In Morsy’s deep loneliness, he begins to obsess over the (seemingly unfounded) possibility that Nour may sleep with his young and beautiful wife, a traumatizing notion that drives him, and drives him crazy, throughout much of the film.

Despite the warm welcome of his three coworkers and the exchange of greetings and gifts, including pin-up magazines for the sex-crazed Nour, both Morsy and the viewer are constantly surrounded by the overwhelming sound of the sea. Every attempt by the four isolated lighthouse workers to resist their feeling of loneliness leads to a stronger sense of solitude, a fact Marzouk eloquently conveys with his exceptional cinematic language. As the four share a merry lunch, full of laughter at Nour’s overzealous nature and Morsy’s comparison of him to a salivating dog — hence the film’s title — Marzouk shows each of them in a round of medium-close shots, set to the sound of escalating laughter, which ends abruptly with a silent long (in both size and duration) shot of the deserted room.

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A few scenes later, when Nour catches a fish, a new wave of enthusiasm takes over the four, who proceed to grill and eat it. The scene then shifts with the nostalgic melody of Sayed Darwish’s song. Morsy withdraws into his memories and daydreams, and in a very clever shot-reverse-shot, we see Souad as if she is sitting across Morsy, eating with him. As the song ends abruptly, so does the scene, leaving us with a close shot of the fish’s skeleton, abandoned for the ants to devour.

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After a lonely and melancholic sunset, they play a round of cards, and once again Marzouk’s cinematic wit conveys their feeling of solitude and isolation. The card game scene unfolds in a series of medium-close shots, allowing us to feel, along with the players, a certain intimacy and to momentarily forget the surrounding loneliness. The effect of this visual closeness and the illusion of company are heightened by the soundtrack of the crowded coffee shop Marzouk chose to superimpose onto the scene. When Morsy and Nour win the game their victorious laughter erupts then gradually fades out, leaving us yet again with the monotonous drone of the waves. Both the game and the illusion are over, and the visual closeness is broken with a long, high-angle shot of the four men sitting on the floor, in the middle of the vast, vacant room.

Voyeurism and the male gaze

Throughout My Wife and the Dog, Marzouk comments on the nature of the film-viewing experience. Aside from the fact that all the actors play characters named after themselves, toeing the line between reality and fiction, Marzouk’s unconventional framing and compositions provide a constant commentary, parallel to the narrative layer, on film viewing as a purely voyeuristic act.

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In several scenes we see the characters through fissures or framed by surrounding objects, and we get the feeling that we are somehow spying on them — a state not so different from the actual cinematic setting of an audience sitting in a dark auditorium, spying on the characters projected onscreen. Marzouk reinforces this effect in many shots when he situates his camera, and with it the audience, in places they logically cannot be. One example of this is in the opening scene, where we see Morsy and Souad in their marital bed through gaps in the bed’s headboard. As we see the room from different angles in the subsequent shots, we understand that it is physically impossible for us or even a camera to fit there, as the bed is placed against the wall.

Marzouk goes even further, commenting on the intrinsically perverted nature of cinematic techniques. In the scene where Morsy tells Nour about one of his sexual adventures, the viewer, just like the fascinated Nour, listens to the story while the film offers us a phantasmatic flashback sequence. In the scene we are invited to watch, from Morsy’s point of view, the seductive woman through openings in a wall. As she passes, she stops at each opening to show us a part of her body, first her legs, then her breasts, her hair and neck, and then finally her face. This shot (besides being very erotic), is one of the most eloquent in-film reflections on the cinematic use of close-ups. It shows how a close shot in cinema dissects an object, in our case an object of desire, and shows it as a series of partial objects. At the end of her passage, we see a close-up of the voyeur, Morsy, lustfully gazing at her, mirroring our gaze as viewers.

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Later in the same sequence, as the woman sneaks out to meet Morsy during the night, Marzouk shows her crossing a bridge with a most unexpected camera angle. He places the upwards-pointing camera directly beneath the rickety bridge and has her cross over it, literally looking up her dress. But what’s astonishing in this shot is the fact that, before crossing, she looks directly into the camera, at the viewer. In an act of what Jacques Lacan would call “returning the gaze,” Marzouk is playing a clever game of deception with his audience. His film offers them the woman as a pure object of voyeuristic desire, but at the same time her gazing back disquietingly exposes the cinematic voyeurs in their own act.

The viewer of this film resembles the character of Nour. He too listens closely to Morsy’s erotic stories, and is invited to relive them on a phantasmatic level. And just as Morsy brings Nour pin-up magazines at the beginning of the film, through his storytelling he also brings the viewer erotic cinematic images of women, presented purely as objects of desire.

The film presents Morsy as a character caught in his own chauvinist male gaze, which views a woman as either a mother (in our case, a wife) or a whore. Within this narrow dichotomy, Souad at first is seen as an innocent child. Even during their sexual foreplay we see them playing hide and seek, and she calls out playfully for her mother when she gets caught. But later, when painful doubts take over Morsy, he imagines her as the other stereotype, seducing Nour in his absence. In Morsy’s imagination he sees her greet Nour in her nightgown, while suggestively smacking a piece of chewing gum between her lips. The overpowering sound of the smacking gum becomes an audial manifestation of Morsy’s view of his wife as “the whore.”

While on a narrational level, the film seems to present Morsy’s problems as rooted in his playboy past (in which he betrayed many of his friends and slept with their wives), they are in fact rooted in this more fundamental and socially widespread perception of women. In his highly masculine film, if you were to describe it as such, Marzouk indirectly criticizes this dichotomous trap by showing how it turns on itself. The vision that once trapped the female character as an object now imprisons the male voyeur himself as he is tormented by the question: which is she, the wife, or the whore?

This two-dimensional view of women is consciously addressed throughout, both figuratively and literally. In a scene where Nour jumps into the water to rescue his prized female cutouts, Marzouk’s film once again reflects on the nature of the cinematic viewing experience. Just like Nour, for whom (by means of desire and imagination) the little cutouts are transformed into real women orgiastically bathing with him, through cinema’s almost hallucinogenic effect the viewer takes the cinematic image for reality. By means of suspension of disbelief, the audience reacts to the series of moving images with laughter, tears and desire.

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This review was commissioned and edited by Lara El Gibaly.

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