It’s a cruel, cruel summer….for a reserved doctor and a sexy tourist. The film made me recall a line from The Stranger of Albert Camus: “It is better to burn than to disappear.”
The tragic and violent story revolves around a 40 year-old doctor, Kostis who finds himself in Antiparos, a Greek island that revives only during summer when it receives tourists. Summer arrives and so does Anna, an attractive 20 year-old woman with her multiculti friends. The group serves as a window to the excitement and opportunities of youth that Kostis has long forsaken. But Kostis is a frozen man of winter, a lonely soul who needs to step miles out of his comfort zone to digest the gifts this hedonistic (and excessively nude) summer brought along.
The film has a documentary feel which makes the narration refreshing and its effect immediate. Efthymis Papadimitriou (Kostis) gives an amazing performance that elevates him to one of the greatest Greek actors of his generation. His meaningful silences and his tormented facial expressions mark his mastery in adding depth to a character. This is the first appearance for Elli Triggou (Anna) who seems natural and strong in her performance, which makes me looking forward to her next work. The film won in the Best International Feature Film category at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.
This is not the film that will carry you away to sandy beaches with the sun’s burning sensation on your flesh. Nor is the film that will bring you back to erotic summer stories steeped in salty adventures and primitive conquests. In Suntan the conditions are ideal for a terrible thing to occur but so are in real life. It is an anti-romantic thriller that winks at the feelings of numbness and discomfort we all have experienced at some point in our lives, by feeling lonely or unwanted, receiving an unpleasant or shocking surprise, facing an irreparable damage etc.
Anna and Kostis are opposite poles. Kostis has a joyless job and an empty life. He is an outcast who bares the guilt of his lack of achievements. Anna has playful friends, a passionate nature and a desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Despite not having access to his background story, we can imagine him seating alone at the school yard, having a crash on a girl but allowing himself only observe her from afar, later at University focusing on his studies, and watching life pass him by.
Anna senses his shyness and frailty, and becomes overly friendly and even tender towards him, (the scene where she serves him food she almost looks like a mother figure). She draws him to the beach, to entertainment and to the desire of being someone else. She has a childlike (with a child’s attention span as well…) and liberated nature that radiates freedom (spiritual and physical). Anna is understanding, sensitive and mature in a way that Kostis is evidently not.
Kostis is experiencing something totally new when he befriends Anna’s group, the cool kids who think he is good enough to join them in their summer adventures. Indicative of his unnatural and suppressed nature is his first visit to the beach where he covers his face with a thick layer of sun cream and a hideous hat resembling more of a zombie than a man. From the start, there is a lurking suspicion of danger regarding the effect his new experiences would have on his temperament. He surrenders and forgets who he is for a moment. However, the random encounter with his old friend, Orestis (who went to Los Angeles and is now a successful plastic surgeon with a beautiful wife and daughter) serves as a reminder of his failures.
Partying and hanging with the guys entails great freedom in exercising his impulses but it is also challenging for him to sense the untold rules. In this story, these rules are not pretentious norms and conformities but refer to the absolute sexual and expressive freedom of being and sharing. However, Kostis is not interested in rediscovering himself, and soon enough he becomes convinced that his love affair with Anna is the key that will free him from the chains of his own hell.
And so the decay begins. The ultimate confusion between his coveted reality and the widely accepted facts determine his behaviour. Gradually we sense that he is unstable and obsessive, especially when he proclaims “I want you forever” for someone he just met and barely had sex with… Kostis develops a romantic fixation that exceeds his resistances to psychotic episodes and harmful obsessions. His true nature doesn’t betray him by the end; he does act brutally but we leave him while he is taking care of her wounds, instead of raping her, which vastly affects the film’s final flavour.
Something unusual happened with this film; 90% of the times I feel great compassion for the fragile and sensitive characters who are struggling mentally and socially. I feel the sort of attraction a therapist feels for a troubled person who needs their support. In this film I felt repulsion for the character and indifference for his miserable existence. I felt he could have turned his life around at any moment, prevent his lowest self from emerging. However, that doesn’t explain it as I am aware that despire their intentions troubled people could do better in theory but are practically unable. Also, I’ve witnessed worse actions than those of Kostis and haven’t detested the characters so [de Sade in Quills (2000), Stanley in The Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Humbert in Lolita (1962) are some of the examples that come in mind…). Thus, I presume it is neither his monstrous act that determined my reaction, nor any of my real life experiences. And so, my absolute resentment for him remains a mystery to me….
Suntan left me with a bittersweet nostalgia for the Greek summer and a reminder of how dangerous the sensitive and presumably harmless loners can be when provoked by the despair of rejection.