Thursday 27 April 2017

Stranger on the shore: "Suntan"

Set against its Greek Weird Wave predecessors, Argyris Papadimitropoulos's Suntan can't help but appear relatively normal: it makes full narrative sense from scene to scene, and the only animal anybody on screen threatens to turn into is a fully-fledged party animal. It is, finally, a piercing character study - rather more straightforward in its critique of the male sex than 2015's droll Chevalier - and, with the exception of one isolated instance of eyeball-licking, any perversity on show is that of the protagonist, not of the film. That man is Kostis, a somewhat squished and solitary middle-ager (played by Makis Papadimitriou, apparent lovechild of Toby Jones and John C. Reilly) who lands on a Greek party isle to take up a position as chief medic. He first arrives in late winter, when all is cool and calm, and he has a chance to fit in; when summer comes around, however, he finds himself surrounded by hot young bodies, tempting him to try and seize (or reclaim) a youth most viewers will surely sense is long behind him. Thus does the 40-year-old Papadimitropoulos, bless him, begin to consider the place of a paunchy, balding professional in a world overrun by honed and buff flesh, turned seemingly irreversibly towards the superficial. If ever a film was made to win favourable reviews from the critical fraternity, Suntan would be it.

Kostis's fate is to fall in with a gang of sunseeking twentysomething hedonists who are initially only too happy to let it all hang out - and to let him hang out with them - but he cuts an incongruous and increasingly pathetic figure during their afternoon trips to the beach: he's the Aegean equivalent of Perry Benson's character in This is England, a relic of a previous era washed up among a crowd at least half his age. As a throwaway line heard as he pays to get these kids into one of the island's clubs ("Thank you, dad") makes blindingly obvious, this rejuvenation is made possible by the fact that Kostis has no children of his own to have to return home and tuck in with a bedtime story; unlike late-life dad Prince Albert (seen in dispatches on a TV newscast) and the old uni friend he bumps into while sunbathing, he is entirely free to dance and drink and screw and snort the night away. Equally, though, we sense that he has nobody to check his mounting excesses: as the summer season progresses, its protagonist assumes the look and wayward bearing of an addict, stumbling around, pale-faced and sunken-eyed, in search of the next passing high. Physician, heal thyself.

It may sound like another unsparing bulletin from ordeal cinema's grimmer fringes - and certainly we're headed towards a chastening final act - yet Papadimitropoulos's film has more than a few aspects in its favour. Firstly, there is the shimmering beauty of Antiparos in peak season, which lends even Kostis's sporadic vomiting jags an appealing backdrop. You twig immediately why the not-so-good doctor might want to be outside among the lithe and limber rather than cooped up with the frail and coughing in his cramped office; it's rare that an arthouse movie can provide you with your recommended daily dose of vitamin D. Then, there is Papadimitropoulos's utterly unabashed young leads, giving the kind of physical turns (running, dancing, swimming, more often than not as naked as nature intended) which you couldn't ever imagine buttoned-down Brits, raised on two wet weeks in a caravan near Filey, summoning up. As for Papadimitriou as the old man of the party, his is a laudably non-vain turn, willingly playing something close to his age, weight and looks, submitting himself to the harsh glare of the noonday sun. There's something quietly masterful in the way Papadimitropoulos's camera spends the first half backing away from this tiny man, as if to underline his insignificance; only belatedly does he come into focus, and what we see isn't at all pretty: a case of white-knight syndrome no amount of sunscreen can cover up.

By then, however, we too are hooked. Where the Lanthimos/Tsangari school of new Greek cinema has tended to look at human nature askance, Papadimitropoulos confronts it square-on, in direct sunlight. He's especially sharp-eyed around Kostis's overbearing contemporaries, full of festering misogyny, talking one another up as "legends" because there's no real competition on the island, and no-one to call them on their relentless BS. And in the week of Jonathan Demme's sad passing, it's reassuring to encounter an emerging director who similarly intuits how to work a soundtrack, both to suggest growing intoxication (who but the tipsy would care to listen to Scatman John in the year 2017?) and to create inspired juxtapositions. It may just be coincidence we should get The Undisputed Truth's cover of "Brother Louie", theme song of TV's Louie, modern pop culture's pre-eminent consideration of what it is to be male and middle-aged. There can, however, be no doubt that Papadimitropoulos knew exactly what he was doing setting Kostis to lurch through one fleshpot to the strains of the Gibson Brothers' late disco classic "Que Sera Mi Vida". Here are the pulsing pleasures of hedonism and the nagging doubts of existence, side-by-side in your ears and your gut - but it would take a sober, responsible adult to hear them both.

Suntan opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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