Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Head On

Head On is a German-Turkish film that exemplifies the way that foreign and independent films deal with emotional issues in a totally different way from typical Hollywood studio product. The film's premise is a fairly conventional setup, a young woman sets up a fake marriage with an older man as a way of getting out of her parents' oppressive home, but soon they begin to develop real feelings for each other.

Stylistically, the film is incredibly pop. The events are frequently emotionally devestating, but thanks to the soundtrack and shooting style, it's always an exciting film to watch. In that respect, the film reminds me of Liilja 4Ever, though this film is a bit more upbeat than that one. My favorite moments of the film weren't particularly tied to the narrative, they were more just perfect combinations of image and music. After Sibel meets Marin, she gets a makeover and is dancing around their apartment, Cahit joins her and they both shout "Punk is not dead." It's such a fun moment and you share in the ecstascy of these characters.

From there, we proceed to a fantastic club scene, with the camera swirling around, we watch Sibel through Cahit's eyes, and as she dances, he falls in love with her and we do too. Obviously, the actress is beautiful, but a lot of the reason that she seems so attractive there is in the way she's filmed. The film is subtle enough that when Cahit runs over to have sex with a guy, we only need to see Cahit's face to know that he now has feelings for her.

The narrative of the film is rather rambling, there's a lot of territory covered and it would be easy to get lost along the way. The emotional anchors are the two lead actors. As Cahit, Birol Unel shows us an utterly broken man who gradually climbs back to life. He goes from this utterly slovenly guy to a clean cut, suave guy by the end of the film. I love the moment where he gets out of prison, wearing 70s police style glasses, and the light shines through the glasses letting us see his eyes. In that moment, we can sense his determination and see that his love for Sibel kept him from giving up. He's come out of prison in a better state than he was when he went in.

Watching the film, it's clear that Sibel goes through a lot, but it was only when I went back and looked at the trailer that it became apparent just how stunning her performance was. She goes through an incredible transformation, from timid suicidal girl to excessive clubber and ultimately she winds up as a domesticated married woman.

Her physical appearance is critical to expressing the characters' inner self. When we see her putting on black eyeshadow, it's clear that she's emulating Marin, she's completely abandoned her traditional Turkish background and is embracing the German club life. What she wants is total independence, and her emotional connection to Cahit deprives her of that. When they're about to have sex, she notes that this will make them really man and wife. From that point on, she can't indulge in the lifestyle she had, she has to drink and do drugs to excess to try to numb the pain of her loss, and ultimately she sees physical pain as a way of dulling the emotions stemming from the loss of Cahit.

I'm curious about what exactly happens between that night when she's beat up and her move to a homelife. I'm guessing that the guy took care of her and offered her shelter and she took it because she was exhausted. So, once again, she takes up with a guy she might not really love after attempting suicide. I feel like her choice to not follow Cahit is her shaking off her old life, she knows that to follow him would mean losing stability and after coming so close to death, she can't risk that again. So, she chooses stability over love. Of course, it's possible that she does love this guy, and having sex with Cahit one last time is an exorcism, ridding herself of those old feelings.

One of the things that makes the film so effective is its grittiness. Because the world feels real, the fact that Cahit falls in love with Sibel doesn't feel contrived. We've seen just how bad off this guy is, and Sibel represents an opportunity to grow up and seek out real emotion rather than wallowing in grief about the loss of his wife. Sibel saying that having sex means they're really man and wife forces him to recognize the fact that this won't just be a fuck-buddy relationship like he has with Marin, it will be a real emotional commitment. Some people could say that the sex scenes are gratuitous, but the fact that they don't have the ubiquitous Hollywood sheet covering them makes you feel like this is real, not something that's staged to avoid showing anyone's nipple.

The emotional arc of the film reminds me of Leon: The Professional, with a younger girl moving in with an older man and opening him up emotionally. Both Cahit and Leon find that the difficulty of moving beyond their loner lifestyles is justified by the emotional bond they form. And in the end, each has to sacrifice themselves so that their young charge can live a normal life.

It's not easy to watch Cahit and Sibel torn apart, or Sibel's meltdown. Part of me was wishing the film could just continue following their happy times, going to clubs and dancing. I love the swirling camera moves when they dance together for the first time, colored lights flashing around them. However, Cahit's temper spoils things there, and ultimately ruins things permanently when he attacks Niko. I think the characters are so flawed that an easy resolution would feel false, so even though we may want them to stay together, it's just not possible. There's no other way things could end than with Cahit leaving and Sibel staying behind in her new life. To leave it all for Cahit would be reckless, she left that kind of reasoning behind when she was beaten on the street.

So, I thought this was a fantastic film. The handheld camera work, fantastic soundtrack and utterly convincing, transformative acting made it a really enveloping experience. People talk about something like Capote or Ray as an example of an actor transforming into a character, but I feel like the work here is a better example. Rather than perfecting an impersonation and sticking with it, both Sibel and Birol go through many stages of the characters' life, taking them each to completely different places than they were when the film started, but staying emotionally true to the characters' core. That's great acting. And moments like the club scene, where the music, lighting, camerawork and performance come together to illuminate the characters' emotions are great filmmaking.

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The Marriage of Maria Braun (10/29/2004)
On Foreign Film (1/26/2005)

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