2020, NR, 116 min. Directed by Boaz Yakin. Starring Zina Zinchenko, Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips, Or Schraiber, Roman Malenda, Camille Roux, Zélie Palluault, Isaias Santamaria.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 19, 2020
In film, so the conventional wisdom goes, story is the starting point. What comes next is structure and form, and that's what changes everything. Take The Last Five Years. It's a straightforward tale of a divorce where the form is everything: not just that it's a musical, but that her story runs backwards – from walking out of their old apartment forever, to the first time they slept together – while his shambles from that blissful, innocent night towards the foreseen collapse.
Writer/director Boaz Yakin launches Aviva with narrative and structural fearlessness that begins in a very simple place. Aviva (Zinchenko) is a French artist who starts an email relationship with New Yorker Eden (Phillips), and she moves across the ocean to be with him. However, as time goes by, Eden (Smith) and Aviva (Schraiber) begin to fall apart, their relationship increasingly complicated by the old baggage they brought with them, and the new tensions they create as they get to know each other.
If that cast list seems contradictory, it's because each lead is played by two performers – one man, one woman, all more dancers than screen actors. That decision launches a simple romance-and-split from a vertiginous height. Fortunately, nearly every creative decision Yakin makes from that point onwards only lifts the film higher.
With this dance-and-narration-driven examination of the human heart, Yakin reenforces his reputation as one of the least categorizable creative forces in contemporary cinema. That Aviva comes from the same writer as The Punisher and canine PTSD drama Max, who also directed Jason Statham action vehicle Safe and Remember the Titans, makes no sense and all the sense in the world. He's clearly a filmmaker that relishes pushing his own boundaries, and Aviva is fearlessly, even recklessly bold. It's not always perfectly successful, but even in the slight missteps the sheer ambition of intimacy provides more than enough momentum.
Honestly, it's refreshing to have a movie built around dance and dancers that emphasizes both art and character, especially after the tedious schlock of Gaspar Noé's severely anticlimactic Climax. It's not just playing with gender and sexuality (although they're obviously huge factors). Each performer plays an aspect of the character – so much so that, when Eden petulantly pouts through apartment-hunting, he suddenly becomes his 12-year-old self (Malenda). But it's not a throwaway visual gag: Yakin sends the story into a flashback about Eden's wild youth, hanging out on Coney Island with his friends and with no responsibilities.
Each transition carries weight, even allowing for internal monologues between the different performers of the same character that blow the narrative wide open. Again, that's something of which Yakin's far from afraid. "Fuck consistency and tone," Eden says, explicitly blasting through the fourth wall. The characters are not just in relationships with each other, but with themselves, and most often expressed through their own languages – Eden through words, Aviva through dance.
Where the narrative takes its broadest shift is in the third act, where the relationship between the male and female aspects of Eden begin to clash the most violently. Suddenly, his internal relationship becomes the center point and Aviva shifts out of focus. The decision seems radical, but is to the film's benefit: While everyone is a strong performer, Phillips and Smith are the more rounded actors, and letting them carry the later emotional struggle gives the story new strength. Not that it was lacking before: Yakin's script uses the multitude of actors to build out every aspect of each character, including a surprisingly delicate digression of their sexual awakenings and footings. It could have been clumsy, could have been a gimmick. Instead, it's another feather in the wings that lift this extraordinary film.
Aviva is currently available as a virtual cinema release through local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (Tickets here).