Just as the publicity for Ismaël el Iraki’s Zanka Contact contends, this film indeed pulses with “the spirit of rock n’ roll.” The problem is, rock n’ roll can be brilliant, but it can also be hollow and exhausting, and Zanka Contact spends most of its time in the latter category. From the first seconds, its primal-scream energy is palpable, as a whirlwind cold-open sequence plunges the viewer straight into the bustling streets of modern Casablanca. Cocky call-girl Nisrine (real name Rajae, played by Khansa Batma) swaggers around the city, hops in a cab, and jovially engages the driver with a ribald, extremely Tarantino-esque yarn — before they get T-boned in a traffic accident. In the other car is washed-up bad-boy rockstar Larsen Snake (Ahmed Hammoud), who also swaggers around the city, simultaneously bored, bewitched and bemused with the world. As this salacious duo literally crash into each other, a white-hot story of passion, crime, and the loving embrace of music gets set in motion… or, if Zanka Contact could maintain its energy, focus, or creativity, it would have. Instead, writer/director el Iraki’s film meanders its way into lilting self-parody, and what begins as a refreshing jolt of life ends in a dreary slog difficult to finish.
Before the backslide, there is a welcome absurdity to the general proceedings. Nisrine as a character is so outrageously derivative of the pulpiest of paperbacks that she functions as a giant nod towards the same sneering retro-chic energy Tarantino and his offshoots have modernized so successfully. The same cannot be said for Larsen Snake, who would seem a bit much even in the 1980s, the period when his entirely snakeskin outfit and glam-rock nihilism were last considered cool. To be fair, el Iraki does take a self-aware approach to his character, who seems partially conscious that his fame and celebrity have largely faded with the passing of time, as has the general aesthetic of his life and livelihood. Whatever that livelihood is – Larsen seems to waft between ripping off loan sharks, drinking himself silly in hookah bars, and playing surprisingly popular gigs. Though the lack of specificity is part of the film’s charm, the nebulous plot begins to grate fairly quickly.
Even considering the moments that indicate el Iraki has been winking at the audience, the overall effect is too scrappy to suggest a coherent style. At one point, Larsen remarks that he’s named after the Larsen effect, and proceeds to underscore this comment in the most on-the-nose way possible, by demonstrating the effect itself: he cranks up a nearby amplifier so it produces ear-splitting feedback, and startles everyone around him. These characters laugh and grin at his edge-lord wit; whether his behavior is meant to demonstrate an inner social anxiety or just meant to be cool, his character is too shifty to justify either interpretation.
This erratic tone is even harder to fathom considering el Iraki intended Zanka Contact as a rumination on trauma rooted in terror and tragedy. The director was present at the 2015 terror attacks on the Bataclan in Paris, and narrowly avoided being shot. While el Iraki’s real-life experience is easily compelling and heartrending, the translation of such palpable trauma into this film is executed haphazardly. The clearest parallel is implied by Larsen’s tragic backstory, which is messily squeezed in between the various events with little room for insight or meaning. This backstory provides the earliest indication of the film’s lamentable, slapped-together approach; early on, while flirting and playfighting with Nisrine, Larsen suddenly freezes and flashes back to a gruesome, unspecified trauma involving a bloodied woman levitating eerily above the ground. While the frenetic, surreal visuals of this moment are memorable, this approach to depicting trauma and the permanent scars of life is a tired one, and only succeeds in yanking peripheral details into the spotlight for a few seconds at a time.
Still, certain aspects of the badass-boy meets badass-girl plot are enjoyable; unfortunately, all of them seem directly lifted from Lynch’s Wild at Heart. The snakeskin jacket, the escape into the desert, the ruthless thugs on their tail, it’s all derived from fun but recognizable tropes, and while homage can certainly be delightful at times, Zanka Contact fumbles these elements more often than not. The thugs in question spend far too much time languidly imposing their masculine toughness on victimized women or on each other, while the climactic scenes of violence are filled with shoddy editing and inexplicable, poorly-judged appearances by never-before-seen characters.
Overall, the film offers very few chances to connect with its characters or events at anything but surface level. A shame, because Zanka Contact could have presented an exciting Moroccan escapade if it maintained the wide-eyed wonder of its opening. Instead, the film falls out of tune almost immediately, and for all its hard rock and hard stares, Zanka Contact does not coalesce into a harmonious experience.