What sounds like pornography is actually an ambitious journey into a Westerner's experience in Morocco. Kate Winslet stars as Julia, the mother of two young daughters who has fled to North Africa in 1972 to escape her philandering poet-husband in London. Here she subsists by selling dolls and infrequent alimony checks. Julia is a frantic and needy parent, spiritually lost on an escapist adventure. She meets up with itinerant Bilal (Said Taghmaoui). The Moroccan soon becomes her lover and a father-figure for the daughters, giving them a closer link to the foreign land, although his faithfulness is often in doubt (especially by the older daughter who is considerably more responsible than her mom).
Hideous Kinky benefits from its underdevelopment of certain themes: Western misperceptions of Africa, economic differences, and the role exoticization and dependence play in relationships are all handled with a mature incompleteness that provokes thought rather than answering questions. When swimming in a lake, Julia speaks to Bilal of the Sufi teachings on "the annihilation of the ego." He responds with indictment and disgust, only to swim to shore where her daughters plead to ride the plastic pony at a nearby hotel. This is one of many moments where the untranslatable is uttered but not defined, where limits of knowledge assume shadowy forms. The Westerners in Africa exhibit a double arrogance of imported values and improperly translated ideas of indigenous culture. This is implicated in the tension, as is simple economic disparity, although Hideous Kinky is ultimately a story of love through conflict.
Marrakech is rendered in all its polychromatic bustling beauty, and the quick camerawork in the city complements the slower, more uniform scenes set in the Moroccan countryside. North African music (the ney flute is a recurring theme) and folk-hippy standbys such as Nick Drake and Jefferson Airplane are united by the thoughtful soundtrack.