Head-On Into the Messiness of Love
By Fernando F. Croce

Fatih Akin's Head-On doesn't waste time ramming images onto the lenses, so I won't waste time with introductions. The grim antihero (Birol Ünel), scowl not quite hidden beneath a messy shag and beard, boozes and brawls in one grungy Hamburg dive after another before hopping into his car and driving it head-on, as it were, onto a brick wall. The jagged opening, bleary cuts and all, is the young director's grabby bid at the Kino-Fist hipsterism of Noé, Ińárritu, and the Dogma 95 lunkheads (if there are any still around), and also the set-up for the emergency room Meet Cute of the movie's odd couple. The glum daredevil is one Cahit, a fortysomething janitor with a pigsty of a bachelor's pad and a Dark Secret From the Past; Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) is a lithe, defiantly smiling Betty Blue with freshly bandaged wrists. "You're Turkish? Marry me." Cahit resists, yet somehow his second encounter with the foxy, suicidal 20-year-old, during which she asks him to feel up her tits seconds before smashing a bottle and reopening her arteries, changes his mind.

The marriage is one of convenience only, of course, so the girl can break away from her conservative Turkish family and savor the right to spend the whole night bobbing at raves and fucking guys she's known for two minutes. After muddling through the obligatory courting and the coke-fueled wedding, bride and groom move in together, and, since Ünel is of the scruffily sensitive Javier Bardem mode, and Kekilli (a former porn star, and a shapeshifting furnace) has a most fetching broken nose and is a panther in bed and can cook a mean biber dolmasi, it's only a matter of time before they fall for each other. And, keeping up with the movie's understatement-is-a-sin scheme, Ünel celebrates his newfound love by rubbing his palms in broken glass and hitting the dance floor with bloodied arms. It's also only a matter of time for Akin to throw in a tragedy that will send Ünel to jail and Kekilli back to her native Istanbul, where her frizzy locks are chopped pixie and she jumps waist-deep into drugs, booze, passed-out bar buggering and other assorted Courtney Lovisms.

Head-On won the Golden Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and it's easy to see critics swooning over Akin's insistence on messiness, physical sensation and wall-to-wall blaring (so many scenes get staged in noise that the few bits of silence invariably turn comic or threatening). The film's bruising instability, eye-catchingly if self-consciously rooted in punk pop art, is certainly a welcome change from the tepidness of so many wan studio releases (imagine this couple landing in The Wedding Date), though I can't go along with my colleagues already touting it as a masterpiece. If the exposed nerves reveal an aching cultural dislocation that feels close to the bone (In July, the only previous film by Akin I've seen, also deals with German-Turkish misfits yearning for their roots), its results nevertheless remain exoticism sold as insight -- the bludgeoning passion says zilch about the roles of sex, marriage and culture in life. So I didn't love it. Yet it has stayed with me. Days after watching it, I could still remember Kekilli in the amusement-park ride while Wendy Rene's "After Love (Comes Tears)" played in the soundtrack, and Ünel's battered hope when approaching his beloved after years apart. More coherent films have failed that test.

*

Apologies for reviewing Hotel Rwanda this late into the game, but I just couldn't find that much to say about Hitch or Boogeyman. Another film I like much less than most other critics, though director Terry George deserves credit for attempting a penetrating, enraging political inquiry into a shameful past. The material is from Philip Gourevitch's great, harrowing book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the scope of the horrific 1994 upheavals in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi tribes (that left eight hundred civilians butchered) reflected in the experiences of Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle). A businessman of tidy, brisk smoothness, Paul finds himself amid massacres that threaten to kill off his family and friends, Tutsis who have become "cockroaches" to be exterminated by the machetes of Hutu militia gangs. The Hotel des Milles Collines, the high-class, Belgium-owned place he runs, becomes an unstable sanctuary for over a thousand refugees, and Paul has to depend on quickness, bluff and influence to keep the bloodthirsty rebels at bay.

Where Akin in Head-On labors to charge intimate scenes up into the stratosphere, George in Hotel Rwanda treats wider issues with the gauze of antiseptic taste. The movie wants viewers to remember the blood in the hands of both the "cleansers" and of the rich nations that turned a blind eye to the people's agonies (Bill Clinton's odiously pusillanimous response, certainly some kind of low point, gets a nod here) and George duly executes a lateral pan over a busload of self-loathing white faces staring at the Africans left to die in the rain. Yet the horrors against which the characters' humanity is measured remain a matter of gunfire heard in the distance, as if a holocaust could be tastefully ingested -- a picture of careful long shots where wounding close-ups were needed. If the film, as in Under Fire and The Killing Fields, feels it has to filter a foreign nation's issues through some type of white mediator for audiences (Nick Nolte's U.N. colonel and Joaquin Phoenix's glib cameraman here), it is smart enough to keep Cheadle front and center. Rushing to holster civilization in barbaric times, his eyes never more aware of the encroaching horrors than when by his wife's (Sophie Okonedo) side, Cheadle lends force to a timid, too comfortably "inspiring" work.


Reviewed February 17, 2005.

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