Thursday 29 April 2021

Two hearts beat as one: "Aviva"

There can't be many contemporary American filmmakers with a CV more bafflingly diverse than Boaz Yakin. Having first announced himself on the indie scene with 1994's excellent inner-city drama Fresh, Yakin went on to oversee potential awards bait (2000's Remember the Titans), multiplex filler (2003's Uptown Girls), a superior Jason Statham vehicle (2012's Safe) and one of those hero-dog movies that always seem to be in production somewhere (2015's Max). With this week's Aviva, he gives us something else entirely: an acutely horny study in gender fluidity, with sporadic dance interludes and an assortment of attractive players enjoying sexy times in many and varied combinations. As the Stath might say: blimey. As Max would doubtless put it: woof. Advance notice is served when all the key players in the on-off transatlantic romance between free-floating Parisian sprite Aviva and depressive New Yorker Eden are introduced in the buff, and there's double the fun to come, because - in an initially headscratching twist that begins to make a sense of sorts over the two hours - both lead roles are simultaneously played by an actor and an actress. Eden is at once Bobbi Jene Smith, the choreographer whose hummingbird intensity proved so compelling in Georgia Parris's Mari, and Tyler Phillips, who - with his goatee and fringe - very much looks like a Tyler, but could equally pass for an Ethan or Josh. Aviva is the redheaded Russian import Zina Zinchenko, who readily confesses to camera that her accent isn't terrifically French, and the chiselled Israeli Or Schraiber. What Yakin seems to be doing is applying the conceptual flourish of a film like last month's Mouthpiece (where two actresses played the same woman, sometimes in synch, sometimes squabbling like cats in a sack) to a narrative as intensely personal as Marriage Story (and if you know where to look, you can figure out who Aviva might be in relation to this filmmaker). There may be a more immediate, wider-world application: to explain pronouns and polyamory to Daily Mail readers, while simultaneously giving these habitual grumblers something that might get them off and loosen them up a bit.

The ambition is vaulting, the execution sometimes a touch wobbly. Some of Yakin's dialogue falls on the riper side, for one, and - however open your mind - there's still a fair bit to get one's head around. The complication of who's playing who at any given moment is only heightened in one scene where Eden is played by Smith, Phillips and a child actor (Roman Malenda) who represents the character's bratty, sullen former self. You'll also require a tolerance for fourth wall-breaking: this is a musical where one character directly addresses the viewer as to how much he hates it when characters in musicals suddenly break into song and dance. Yet this struck me as Yakin pushing usefully at another boundary: in a film where the characters aren't entirely at home in their own skin, it does make sense they should also be unhappy with the movie they find themselves in, and constantly be on the lookout for wiggle room. (In relationship terms, they just need some space.) It helps that the dance sequences are pretty great: choreographed by Smith and shot on pre-existing locations, they're a little like those impromptu jives that broke out in early Hal Hartley movies, with a bit more scope and an extra dash of eroticism. These characters dance as either prelude to or substitute for fucking - and the sex scenes, when they follow, prove no less precisely choreographed. That's why they're often as funny as they are frenzied, Yakin musing the pros and cons of having three or four people coming together beneath the same sheets. If anything at all connects Aviva to the rigidly cishet Safe - one of the least queer Statham movies - it's this abiding fascination with bodies in motion; Yakin isn't just reconnecting with his indie roots, but with a spectacle that has attracted the camera ever since the cinema's inception. It'd make for a wild date movie, if you can get beyond the artfully applied toplayer of pretence, because both you and your plus one (or two, or three) would emerge down for, at the very least, rigorous post-film discussion. (Even if you didn't want to get into one another's pants, you could poke around in your divided selves.) But then Aviva, too, is putting itself out there, laying itself bare at risk of looking foolish. If it doesn't turn you on, the least it deserves is points for bravery.

Aviva will be available to stream from tomorrow via the BFI Player, ahead of its DVD release on May 24.

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