Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.

Godly Strength & (Com)Passion; Wonder Woman (2017), dir: Patty Jenkins

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There was something empowering, reassuring and bitter into experiencing even as a viewer the society made solely for and by women. These women, called Amazons have courage, kindness and bravery in their hearts, unique strength in their bodies and flawless technique in their minds. The film managed to recreate a utopian place where we get to first encounter our heroine, when it could easily have turned into a kitche setting. A slow motion spectacle of well-built legs, never-ending pony tales, round shields, sharp swords, elegant bows, shiny horses and white sand gives us an indulging first battle scene.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is the embodiment of her superhero name; she is a godly creation, the perfect woman: beautiful, strong, powerful, brave and kind. She lacks diplomacy and experience but she’s equipped with an unwavering belief in a simplistic story she was taught as a child (not unlike many of us…) and a formidable devotion to her altruistic mission.

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Gadot’s performance is interspersed with small details that bring out the naturalness and purity of the heroine’s spirit. In the scene where she pays her mother the bitter farewell, we can see how Gadot uses her eyes wisely to take us though the character’s emotional transitions throughout the scene.  Bringing her eyebrows together, although used predominantly to express her persistence, focus and at times, frustration did not serve as an overworn mask for her.  Our heroine has a multi-layered personality, a heart-warming smile and a compassionate nature that starts her journey into the world of men entirely pure and hopeful, only to end up realising that good and evil bleed into each other inside the flesh of every human. Diana of Themoscera, Princess of the Amazons is sincere and compassionate but also, a fearless fighter with a mission to defeat the father of all suffering and evil, Ares.

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Chris Pine is equally exquisite to watch as his Steve is funny and ingratiatingly natural in a role that has been portrayed countless times in a shamefully cliché manner. Pine, on the other hand manages to build an intense character with a piercing look that projects his agony and urgency to see evil dominating the world to an end. Similarly to Gadot, little details in his performance makes it a refreshingly sincere one, a great example of which is the boat scene where a disarmingly naïve Diana reassures him that she will restore good in the world with her magic sword. There, between his awkwardness and discomfort, there is a precious glow in his eyes partnered with a shy smile, that of a miserable child that unwillingly surrenders to the hope of happiness for a brief moment.

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It is much in the details of both their performances that I felt most immersed into the story, such as the moment when an emotionally-charged Steve explains the duality of human nature to a disappointed and broken in spirit Diana and suddenly, pushes away a lock of hair blocking his eyes, or when Diana with a broken and sweat voice appoints Charlie as the singing member of their group.

Wonder Woman offers fresh humour that feeds on the contradictions between Steve and Diana, stemming from their different background (literally, worlds apart…), their beliefs and temperament. In addition, the warm feeling of companionship and genuine friendship is guaranteed when Steve and Diana group up with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) to set out for their dangerous journey to the front.

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The film has feminism in its core but without adopting a didactic tone and that makes Wonder Woman inspiring and powerfully evocative. I enjoyed Diana’s sharp criticisms on our society: the slavery of time, the dynamics defining the relationship between women and men, the cowardly position that nation leaders occupy, especially in critical times for their people, etc.

Even the romance is not a typical, cheesy love story but a rather original one, with the comical element replacing unnecessary smoochy encounters between the two. The friendship, admiration and respect for one another supersede lust, thus adding authenticity to their story. Also, their electrifying chemistry and humour support the main storyline without tricking our focus away from the film’s thematic spine.

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Wonder Woman presents an assembly of great and memorable scenes that prove the quality of the script and masterful directing from Patty Jenkins:

Diana’s spontaneous reactions to the clothes she’s trying on is a comical magnifying glass on the oppression suffered by 19th century women and the outrageousness of certain social norms. The entire boat scene is once more a funny statement against societal restrictions and unnecessary rituals and rules.  In parliament where Diana shames men politicians for their disregard of human life when it is not themselves who will be sacrificed in the name of power, we are reminded that true leaders see themselves as no different than their fellow man and that this is unfortunately true only in Themyscira (and other utopian places, where humans are nowhere to be found….).

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Finally, a glorious scene that honours the character’s 75 year-old legacy and pays credit to its iconic status is where we find Diana bravely embracing her inner need to help others by attempting to cross No Man’s Land. I dare you try not to get goose bumps when Diana first steps outside the fortress and takes a rain of bullets in a thrilling, CGI, slow motion spectacle. The score composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams  is not blameless either as its raw, dark and heroic tone enhances the impressive visuals.

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After the film you might feel too emotional and a little numb, admit that perfection might be achievable after all, or admit that there are gorgeous Aliens among us, consider starting horseback riding or sword-fighting, use coloured tablets to make your bath water look extraordinary, have an inner dialogue about whether Ares’s intentions were slightly misunderstood and finally, fantasise the day when men are extinct and women rule this beautiful world.

Kill them, baby, one more time; Alien: Covenant (2017), dir: Ridley Scott

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Prepare yourselves to repeat the ritual of alien penetration in the fellowship of the space exploration or as is the case in Covenant, colonisation. You’ve surely being here before, even if you’ve only watched the first film of the Alien trilogy but that doesn’t mean you will leave the theatre unsatisfied.

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The film deals with the origins of creation and the creator-creation relationship parallel to raw and cruel scenes against humanity in an adventure where the stronger prevails. The Covenant consists the bridge between the end of Prometheus and the events in the original Alien, by diving into the origins of the alien blood-thirsty beasts that first appeared in theatres in 1979.  Good flow of scenes that are smoothly connected and executed with great performances and excellent directing from Scott who is a masterful expert on the sci-fi genre.

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In Covenant, Scott is using the cult cinematic myth of the Alien with no desire to innovate and invent. The film feeds upon the nostalgic feeling of the genuine scares of the original movie without adding something new or remarkable to the classic story. A smarter approach to the scenario would have saved me the disappointment provoked by certain scenes; such as the one where the Captain willingly looks into an opening Xenomorph’s egg when treacherous David  – who minutes before has flipped out when the Captain shot a Xenomorph that had just beheaded a member of the crew – suggests so, or the ending scene that shockingly reveals something we saw coming, if not since the beginning of the film, then by the moment David and Walter are left alone to fight and only one makes it back…

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However, it was a great choice to locate the story on a macabre-looking place, a planet with great vegetation that hides the city of the dead in its core. Aren’t these the perfect surroundings to prepare you for doom?!  And so the rain falls non-stop and the creatures wandering around seem to have made killing and impregnating our misfortunate travelers their life mission.

My favourite bits of the film are its real stars: the Xenomorphs. Similarly to their 1979 predecessors, the monsters in Covenant are more faithful to Giger’s original art and as elegant as the angels of death are a horrifying spectacle indeed. Although, Scott patiently prepares the viewer by slowly setting the atmosphere of terror for the time that the crew will fight for their lives in blood and naivety, the overall predictability of the structure fails this build-up. In an interview, Scott mentions that his goal is giving us time to identify with the characters and care for them but in the 45 minutes (almost the ½ of the film as it last 122 minutes) before the deathly action begins, I felt boredom instead of sympathy…

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However, it was only when Xenomorphs made their appearance that my stomach got tight and one thought governed my mind; had I been them, I wouldn’t last a minute! Oh wait… neither did they!

The choreographed attack by Xenomorphs in a field of tall grass in the first half and the visceral hunting that follows and sees blood and gore gush from every pore of the film are thrilling. Our very first scene of a Neomorph bursting out of a human and the subsequent panicking and killing is gripping and utterly transporting. I particularly loved the scene where David approaches the Xenomorph in an attempt to communicate and gain the creature’s respect.

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Xenomorphs have an elegant shape and a relentless appetite for screams, blood and human flesh, which makes their presence a menace of disproportionate dimensions for the poor, fragile humans. The fact that the opponents are so unfairly unequal made me loose interest when almost all heads dropped down and it was only Daniel’s character that reassured me for the upcoming – and single in the entire film – victory in the final battle. Katherine Waterston is a force of nature and an artful actress that takes you with her in her emotional pain at first, and then in her stubbornness for survival and escape.

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Michael Fassbender’s dual performance is the perk and the differentiating element of the Covenant compared to the other Alien movies.  He acts against himself and delivers an interesting performance. A good example is the scene where an ecstatic David attempts to prove his point to his look-alike Walter and manages to set scenery charged with homoerotic energy and ample narcissism that is actually – and I hope intentionally – rather funny.

The film failed to immerse me into the existential and religious Odyssey supposedly experienced by the characters. David despises his maker and the entire humanity in fact, considering them a weak and rightly dying bread. He resists to a servant’s life that was destined for him and thanks to his appointed talents and abilities David manages to do plenty of harm. David is technically and emotionally more evolved than Walter but suffers from a delusional fever of creation obsessiveness and a severe God complex. Although, he is not a relatable character he is admittedly the most interesting one.

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After the film you might wonder if you’d ever consider taking part in a space colonisation mission, think of the way you’d like to be killed by a Xenomorph (probably the least painful or the most eccentric..), pick which one you’d like best: being a human or an android, start appreciating the flute, never take a shower listening to loud music again and think how cool it would be to have a look-alike to take your place whenever you fancy!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales/ Salazar’s Revenge (2017), dir: Rønning and Sandberg

 

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Low expectations had already infested my mind when I entered the theatre to watch the fifth film of one my most beloved franchises. I fell in love with the first film in 2003, watched it countless time and dreamed of white shores, boats, rum and crazy, lowlife companions. I liked the second and third but they didn’t quite live up to the fun and the thrills of the original. As to the fourth film, we can all pretend it never happened. Coming now to the fifth time that Jack Sparrow’s adventures are brought to the big screen, I have to tell you it’s a film worth watching if like me, you follow the characters since the beginning. Being a loyal fan, you will be able to experience all the breadth of emotions, laughs and victories with the characters along the way. 

Salazar’s Revenge is directed by the Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, known for their Academy Award-nominated high sea film Kon-Tiki who managed to bring back some of our favourite elements of the first films, mostly their simplicity and humour. There were also many artful shots that reflected their expertise in using water as the perfect setting for creating engaging visuals.

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The plot lacks twists, the alliances formed are easily-followed and the ending although predictable is source of pure joy for fans. There is a new ‘couple’ of course, Elizabeth’s and Will’s son, Henry Turner, played by Brenton Thwaites and the accused-of-being-a-witch astronomer Carina Smyth, portrayed by Kaya Scodelario both of whom do a great job, being fresh, witty, and convincing by setting the right tone of romance, friendship and rivalry. 

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Captain Hector Barbossa, my personal favourite, is in a fantastic state of wealth and sea-domination when Jack’s past sins take a toll on him too, being a pirate and all… Geoffrey Rush is once more an absolute master of the art, and revives a character that has shown multiple layers through the series. In Dead Men, his devotion and protecting nature emerges once more and not only for his beloved Black Pearl. His signature laughter and scornful grimace can rightfully compete with Depp’s zigzaggy and rock n’roll persona. 

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Speaking of which, if there was one thing I didn’t feel as familiar here that was Jack Sparrow! Bizzarely, he felt heavy and tired, as if he was reluctantly awaken in the middle of a good dream and went along with the action only because there was no other choice (just like in his actual opening scene in the film). What I mean is that there wasn’t much passion in the performance that the teasing and cunning look he delivered every sentence with in the past is missing here. Perhaps it was intentional, as part of the character’s development and in order to reflect his downfall given that he hits bottom when in the absence of the Pearl, his crew and his rum, he trades his once most precious possession after his ship, his magic compass. 

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Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) is a dark, tormented and merciless figure that has been consumed by hate all his life and all his death! Salazar and his crew, who have fallen victims of a curse – just like Barbossa and his own in the Curse of the Black Pearl – that turned them into ghosts and kept them trapped in the Devil’s Triangle and we all guess who was the culprit… Having read reviews that accused the film of being overly surrealistic, I expected outrageous additions to the Pirates’ universe however; I found more similarities to the first film than contradictions. If surrealism and fantasy is not your cup of tea and you expect an accurate depiction of pirate life then I suggest you not to watch it or if you do, to not criticise the film for not being something that it has never pretended to be! The whole franchise is based on mythology, magic, curses and monsters. In my case, it was only the fish-like crew of the Flying Dutchman that seriously challenged my aesthetics and posed a threat to identification with the character of David Jones, as it was simply too hard to see the man beneath the mollusc. However, it didn’t feel far-fetched because I’ve embarked on the adventure with the Pirates on a ship of skeleton-looking fellas under the moonlight, admitting there were supernatural creatures in the unknown sea…

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Salazar’s Revenge is an entertaining vision with memorable bits, including the bank robbery attempt, finding the stunningly sparkly island where Poseidon’s trident lies, hearing the tale from Salazar’s mouth and all the ending scenes basically (yes I cried, so what?!). It is also rich in funny moments, like when Jack encounters the very French guillotine, when Carina is trying to explain to pirates that she is an astronomer and a horologist, when Jack is brought into a horrifying marital engagement etc. 

Love of many kinds is touched upon again in the franchise: the father – son/daughter bond and sacrificial nature of the relationship, friendship, romance, and of course the love for the sea/freedom and for the beauty that captured both Jack’s and Hector’s heart, the Black Pearl. 

The ending brought me tears because I’m soft, a sucker for romance, sacrifices, reunions, and that signature score of the Pirates of the Caribbean that is embedded in my brain and brings about strong emotions every single time it touched my ears without fail. 

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After the film, you might want to watch once more your favourite Pirates of the Caribbean film (chances are it’s The Curse of Black Pearl), start counting the stars, you might develop an interest about astronomy, have a drink with rum, say “hombre” with unprovoked hostility, call your dad to declare your love for him and fantasise that your next holiday will involve a boat. 

Bite the flesh and loose control; Raw (2016), dir: Julia Ducournau

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I very much anticipated the film that made viewers faint in Toronto Film Festival as a result of the realistic depiction of cannibalism. Horror and cannibalism have never been my cup of tea on the screen – with the glorifying exception of the Bryan Fuller’s NBC TV series, Hannibal – so I wasn’t sure how I would react to young Justine’s cravings. My stomach was tight throughout the film but I genuinely liked it. Raw has an incredible energy as the tension and the horror build up slowly from the beginning only to climax towards the end. It scares you, disgusts you, shows you the darkest corners of human sexuality, upsets you and terrorises you at a very realistic level as you gradually spot the similarities between the protagonist and yourself.

The film’s French/Belgian title is Grave that means serious, important and is connected to a vital scene in the narrative. And a serious condition it is, the one Justine, our heroine finds herself into. Triggered by a bite of raw meat as part of the initiation ritual for sophomores by the veterinary school’s fraternity, she is experiencing for the first time (having being a vegetarian all her life) an unquenched desire for flesh.

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Ducournau’s first attempt to direct is heavily inspired by the 2000 Canadian horror Ginger Snaps and the erotic French 2001 Trouble Every Day. The cult films explore the relationship of two teenage sisters that unite against the threat of an unwanted transformation. In the case of Raw, it is not the myth of the Lycanthropes (aka Werewolves) or that of Vampires that messes with the siblings’ lives but their cannibalistic desires. Our two sisters, Alexia and Justine have an imbalanced relationship, charged with antagonistic feelings that spur violent confrontations.

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Justine enters a new world much crazier and brutal than what she can take. Initially, she lowers her head and undergoes the fraternity’s hazing in silence. It becomes clear from the first scene at the school – the raid of dorms by the masked elder students that reminded me of a hostage situation or an attack at gunpoint – that violence is the weapon of power. At the beginning of the film this weapon is at the hands of the fraternity that terrorises Justine and makes her everyday life insufferable (when she has to wear pampers in class, her mattress is thrown under the window, etc.). Later on however, it is Justine who is handed the power thanks to her transformation. She is the most dangerous being amongst them and she is no longer in absolute control. The veterinary school therefore, functions as the platform of personal growth and self-discovery for her and she manages to enter adulthood in a reluctant and horrifying way.

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Ducournau’s script gives us a story about transformation that cannot be interrupted once it starts and perhaps, it shouldn’t be anyways. Surely, it is not a sweat deal for Justine and her sister (and their mother as we learn by the end of the film in a shocking moment of revelation) to be possessed by their yearnings for fresh human flesh but it is part of their identity, of who they truly are. This is a coming-of-age film that doesn’t judge its heroines but praises their empowerment instead.

The craving for fresh and the physicality of the outbursts of this desire can easily be a metaphor for sexual awakening. The metamorphosis of an innocent teenager who is shy, quiet and feels awkward around boys into a strong, sexy and untamed woman with taboo desires touches upon the female empowerment and sexual liberation in today’s society.

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A proof for the above in my case was the unexpected level of identification with the character that I experienced. Her vulnerability and insecurity when new sensations and urges overwhelm her on the one side and her force, courage and lust for life on the other make Jusitne a highly relatable heroine who you can root for because she goes through an ordeal that remind you a lot of your own adolescent troubles. Finally, the much talented 19-year old Garance Marillier (Justine) gives a brave and dynamic performance that is imperative to the film’s quality. She captivates the viewer as she mirrors their reactions to what is being unfold before them because her heroine seems to be one of us, just like us or could she simply be us?

 

 

 

Erotic Thriller or A Tale of Sadistic Deceit; The Handmaiden (2016), dir: Park Chan-wook

Park’s recurrent themes are prevalent here as well as sadism, deceit, violence, sex, revenge and freedom intertwine, by weaving a thrilling and sensual tale of dramatic proportions.

For weeks I’ve been passing by the film’s poster and each time it caught my eye! I was curious but I remained stubbornly away from trailers and reviews until I finally visited the theatre this evening. I needed a genuine thrill for a change but as the Rolling Stones wisely mark, you can’t always get what you want….

I might not have had the most intense experience but I liked the film as a whole. It was engaging for the most part thanks to the stirring narrative and the surprising twists and revelations. The visual art of its photography, the aesthetically masterful shots and the purposefully created costumes are some of the strongest elements of The Handmaiden. The film is a psychological thriller with a sufficient character study and sparkling sensuality. The photography is amazing by praising landscapes and interiors and by indulging us with portraits and aesthetic sexual frames.

Although, I recognise that The Handmaiden is an artful creation I did not achieve immersion into the story, or identification with any of the characters. As a result, the end arrives and despite the classic conclusion where ”the good prevail, the evil are shattered”, I am not experiencing catharsis or satisfaction (with the exception of the destructive activities that take place in the library).

The acting style adopted in the film matched inappropriately overtone facial expressions with scenes that would have benefited of strict focus on sensuality and sexual tension. As a matter of fact, I believe the last sex scenes (that also happen to last the longest) did not add to the story or the character study. The film is ultimately sweet and romantic with scenes that spur laughter in the place of tension and focus, interrupting transportation into the narrative and disconnecting the senses.

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In contrast, I particularly enjoyed Hideko’s (the lady’s) theatrical readings of Marquis de Sade’s works. Her performance is spotless, stunning and gripping. Also, the bathtub scene where Sook-hee employs her amateur dentistry knowledge to smooth her lady’s tooth provokes titillation and excitement far more than the more graphic scenes that the protagonists share throughout the film.

Finally, the way Park chooses to deliver the story is brilliant and the three-part storytelling reveals the different perspectives and inner instincts of our two heroines (1. the handmaiden’s, 2. the lady’s, 3. the story’s epilogue). The first two parts consist of repetitions that enhance the cinematic experience instead of tiring viewers (an arguably rare thing!) as moments are revisited from different angles and previously concealed facts are revealed.

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After having watched  The Handmaiden don’t be surprised if you want to wear colourful gloves, have sex, visit South Korea, read a chapter from one of Sade’s scripts, or if you happen to have a nightmare about wet, dark basements and gigantic octopuses.

Hedonism burns a man of disappointed dreams; Suntan (2016), dir:Argyris Papadimitropoulos

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.