A century ago, it was unthinkable for a young woman to travel abroad unaccompanied, and the selection of a suitable chaperone, not to mention the delicious consequences of the wrong decision, propelled the plots of many of the novels of the time. In books such as Daisy Miller, The Wings of the Dove, and A Room With a View, there’s little question about what constitutes a proper chaperone: she must be middle-aged, unmarried, and possess an appreciation for antiquities tempered by an imperviousness to the sort of travel-induced sentiment that might allow one to make the disastrous choice of visiting a non-Baedeker-approved neighborhood. Her young, headstrong, romantically inclined charge’s attempts to elude her chaperone provide these novels’ propulsive tension, at least until the Inappropriate Gentleman comes along.
Today, of course, we all know that women can travel anywhere they like all by themselves, thank you, and the narrative function of the chaperone has changed accordingly. Instead of protecting (or failing to protect) our fragile heroine from the rough experience of foreign cultures and, gasp, romance, the chaperone now is a conduit to experience itself, liberating our heroine from the stultifying confines of her hotel and whisking her off to canoodle in the shade of an especially picturesque rubble-strewn ruin. And she is now a he.
Cairo Time, by Canadian director Ruba Nadda, is the latest entry in the Sexy Chaperone genre (which often overlaps with the Italy Porn genre). Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine writer from the West who travels to Cairo to meet her husband, Mark, an official for the U.N. Wouldn’t you know it, Mark is held up, and sends his suave friend Tareq to meet Juliette. After a solo foray into Cairo, and an ill-advised attempt to go see Mark in Gaza, Juliette surrenders to Tareq’s courtly Middle Eastern charms, letting him escort her through the city’s markets, cafés, and on a sunset cruise up the Nile. (“Yes,” the hydrophobic Juliette tells Mark on the phone, “I went on the water!”) Hookah pipes are smoked, pyramids are glimpsed, bellies are danced, ideas about the role of women in Egyptian society are raised and left to float as lightly to the ground as the hijab Juliette borrows from the hotel maid for a visit to a mosque.
The problem with Cairo Time is that the movie wants Juliette to be as naive and fragile as Daisy Miller, while at the same time epitomizing a modern, liberated Western woman. She ventures out in revealing sundresses, chafes at the notion of a men-only café and doesn’t think twice before boarding a bus filled with Egyptian men. But too often, instead of appearing independent, she comes across as a bit of a ninny, making unwise decisions, then calling Tareq to rescue her.
Similarly, the movie flirts with raising Juliette’s consciousness of the condition of women in Muslim countries (Tareq takes her to a rug factory where the girls work instead of getting an education; she meets a woman on the bus who is fleeing Cairo because her family doesn’t approve of her boyfriend; another Western woman says her relationships with Middle Eastern men never last because of their attitudes) but quickly abandons these plotlines once things heat up with Tareq.
Once Mark returns, Tareq hands over Juliette like a piece of jewelry he’s been keeping an eye on while its rightful owner is indisposed. For a while, the film tries to summon tension around the question of whom Juliette will go with—Mark or Tareq—without ever considering she might be OK on her own, with no chaperone at all.