El Houb (aka The Love) is an intimate coming-out drama about Karim (Fahd Larhzaoui, who also co-wrote), a Moroccan-Dutch gay man coming to understand his truth and how to communicate it to his old-fashioned family. It’s not as difficult as it used to be to find stories about strict families struggling to understand their LGBTQIA+ relative’s sexuality, but director co-writer Shariff Nasr approaches the subject matter with a unique storytelling sensibility that sets it apart from the pack. It’s a dreamlike odyssey through Karim’s past and present that traffics in literal and symbolic imagery to create an emotional, honest experience.
The film opens with Karim having just spent the night with a lover, Kofi (Emmanuel Boafo), and enjoying a bit of morning-after bliss in his posh apartment. He grew up in a Moroccan immigrant community to parents Abbas (Slimane Dazi) and Fatima (Lubna Azabal). Abbas is loving but traditional, a mixture that caused a rift between himself and his sons, Karim and Redouan (Sabri Saddik). The latter never found the success of his elder brother and remains at home. Fatima raised her sons at the cost of her own professional potential; despite living in the Netherlands, she never learned Dutch, certainly not well enough to practice medicine. She wants nothing more in her life than for Karim to find a nice wife and settle down. Despite finding his own successful life, Karim’s repressed sexuality and his parents’ wishes for him are haunting.
Everything bursts open when Abbas unexpectedly visits, catching Karim and Kofi. Forced to out himself to his family, Karim starts an odyssey of self-reflection … and traps himself in his parents’ closet to force them to pay attention to what he’s telling them.
Look, I agree, it’s a little on the nose. A gay man comes out to his parents and traps himself in their closet until they understand him? It sounds a little goofy. But in the context of El Houb, it actually works. Once the story really takes off, Nasr, Larhzaoui and co-writer Philip Delmaar quickly break down the boundaries of traditional stories to deliver Karim’s conflict with his parents simultaneously with his self-discovery. They use flashbacks, dreams, and other devices to explore his feelings about his sexuality, cultural hangups and journey to love. The literal closet is a blunt metaphor that grounds the rest of the story’s aesthetic choices.
Given the subject matter, El Houb may not sound like a dark comedy; there’s certainly a lot of pain and anguish. However, by mastering the voices of Fatima and Abbas, the script manages to make the “judgmental parents” the two most generally affable characters in the film. It’s hard to not like them, or find humor in them, despite their very, very sad views. The script avoids making them outright villainous, in turn making their continual rejection of their son all the more tragic.
Nasr fills the film with a lot of gorgeous imagery. From the neon red-blue of the gay nightclubs where Karim seeks companionship he can’t admit he needs to the immigrant neighborhood where he was raised and the odd fluorescent dreamscapes of Karim’s troubled mind, it’s a consistently beautiful film. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that a lot of the present-day dialogue between Karim and his family is spoken through the closed door of his self-imposed barrier, but never lacks the required emotional intensity. It’s strong filmmaking with an excellent, nuanced script that sets it apart as a coming-out story.