“I want to live, Cahit. To live and to dance and to fuck!” — Sibel Kekilli, Head-On
Save for maybe the spoof, there’s no subgenre with a lower batting average than the modern romantic comedy, and that includes slasher films, torture porn, and other categories of ill repute. Whenever I see a movie like The Ugly Truth or Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past—every couple of weeks or so, basically—I ask myself the same rhetorical question: Why do they have to be so bad? And since I enjoy answering rhetorical questions, I submit the following reason: Because love is the last thing audiences have come to expect from them. All the things that are terrible about rom-coms—the meet-cutes, the logline gimmickry (girl has good luck, guy has bad luck—kablammo! Just My Luck!), the phony obstacles, the obligatory happy (but not moving) ending—are really just symptoms of a genre that’s deliberately awash in artifice. Rom-coms are escapist like any other brand of Hollywood entertainment, but what they’re escaping from are the real, piercing emotions associated with love. And I’m not even talking about messy, complicated, angst-ridden love, either; the sweet, simple, happily-ever-after kind is generally off limits, too.
Rewatching Fatih Akin’s jagged 2004 film Head-On for a second time had me pondering a variation on the same question: Why were late-’30s/early-’40s romantic comedies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Adam’s Rib, and His Girl Friday so brilliant where the rom-coms of today are so inane? Obviously, there’s the writing and acting, and maybe a more general tolerance of sophistication and depth in Hollywood studio films than there is today. But I’d submit an even bigger reason: There’s nothing at stake any more. The tension in those screwball classics comes in part from electric chemistry and frisky dialogue, but the real friction was in watching a great cultural debate played out on screen. Whether it’s Katherine Hepburn squaring off against her husband in open court or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading barbs in a big-city newspaper, love was the resolution of a bare-knuckles battle of the sexes. Only when the women are on equal footing with the men does love follow in kind.
By that standard, I can’t think of a more relevant romantic comedy for the 21st century than Head-On, a film written and directed by a German-Turk who knows well the thorny intersection between Eastern and Western values. Though his film seems like a punk-ish rebuke to traditions that have no meaning in a progressive, ever-changing world, it evolves into something more complicated and nuanced as Akin tries to reconcile the values of his adoptive country with those of his native one. It’s easily the bloodiest take on l’amour fou I can recall, but perhaps also the sanest and most pragmatic in the end, when the bubble finally bursts on its fairytale romance. And by “fairytale romance,” I mean one that includes dual suicide attempts, three or four drunken assaults, casual hook-ups with other partners, and other such sparkly clouds of pixie dust.
You know all those couch segments in When Harry Met Sally… where the potato-shaped elderly couples talk about the adorable way they first met and fell in love? Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) will never, ever be on that couch. Their union is the opposite of a meet-cute; it’s a meet-ugly, as ugly as the dingy port city of Hamburg. Still reeling from the loss of his wife, Cahit goes on the bender to end all benders, boozing it up at a few bars, getting in a fistfight over his some-time hook-up Maren (Catrin Striebeck), and winding down the evening by deliberately slamming his car into a brick wall. His suicide attempt lands him in a hospital for therapy, where Sibel, a patient with telltale gauze over her wrists, presents him with a desperate proposition. She wants to free herself from her conservative Turkish family, but the only way she can do that is to marry a fellow Turk, even if he happens to be a bum who picks up empties at a club after closing time. How desperate is she? This desperate:
Now there’s a woman who wants to party. Sibel goes to extraordinary lengths to wriggle free from her viciously patriarchal family, all for the simple pleasures other libertine young German women take for granted: Experimenting with tattoos and piercings, going clubbing, notching random bedposts across the city, and generally behaving like a wild child. Ünel gets something out of it, too: A roommate who keeps him from wallowing in his own filth and a friend whose companionship pulls him out of a relentless tailspin of boozing and depression. Of course, the two eventually fall for each other, and the magnitude of their love alters the dynamic completely; just before consummating their relationship, Sibel warns, “If we do it, then I’m your wife and you’re my husband.” And from that point, Head-On becomes another movie entirely, one fraught with a whole new set of complications.
It should be said, for starters, that Sibel Kekilli is a house afire in this movie. A casting director discovered her in a shopping mall, but connoisseurs of European pornography had discovered her previously as an adult film star named “Dilara,” which caused a stir in the wake of Head-On’s success. (It was the first German film to take top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 18 years.) In any case, this was clearly a woman comfortable with her sexuality, yet there’s a kind of bright-eyed innocence to her as well; her conquests are not desultory encounters that end with her doing the “walk of shame” early in the morning, but a joyous affirmation of her newfound freedom. Though Head-On takes a decisive and necessary turn once Sibel and Cahit share a deeper connection, I found myself missing the energy of that first hour, when Kekilli makes debauchery look as natural as a kid at play.
Head-On comes down unambiguously against the cruel, thoughtless patriarchy of Sibel’s family, which needlessly compounds her misery and brings back only shame and heartbreak in return. The clash between modernity and ancestral values is an ongoing battle in Turkey, which isn’t easily claimed by the Middle East or Europe, and for Sibel’s family, living in Germany exacerbates the problem. Assimilation is a powerful force, especially for the young, and Sibel’s situation, however extreme, will resonate with any immigrant family trying to get their bearings in another culture. Akin doesn’t have much sympathy for the Turks who resort to violence to put Sibel in her place, but he’s sensitive to the question of how much one culture should yield to another.
The third act of Head-On, triggered by an outburst that sends Cahit to prison and Sibel back to Istanbul, is like another movie entirely, turning on a dime from a free-spirited romantic adventure to face more sobering questions about devotion, family, responsibility, and growing up. The tonal shift puts an end to the invigorating spontaneity of the first half, but it also provides a necessary counterbalance to Akin’s meditation on cultural identity. As much as the film celebrates Sibel’s liberation and condemns men for oppressing her right to self-realization, it doesn’t argue for rootlessness; on the contrary, it’s as much about Cahit returning to his roots as it is about Sibel shedding them. The bittersweet ending seems like a retreat from where the movie started, like a punk band gone adult-contempo. But it’s really an acknowledgement that even the most modern people are still tethered to home and that’s not unhealthy.
Next week: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy
October 15: The Stepfather (1987)
October 22: Army Of Shadows
October 29: Ginger Snaps