Contains general reference to the complete plot arc of the film, and similar discussion of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Call Me By Your Name as well
In a recent interview, Céline Sciamma described true love stories not as stories of love without end, but love as an emancipation. Her gorgeous and thoughtful Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story in that sense, a movie where although these two end up apart, their passion remains in something else: it grows and transforms their relationship to painting and music, and their own artistic expression. To borrow Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s phrasing in Fleabag, this is portrayed as a worthy place to put it, this love they have for one another. Their enriched sense of self goes into their creative work, and that is what lasts, what will carry forward from and beyond their slowly changing memory of each other. This is a love affair as an artistic manifesto.
Earlier I wrote of some formal similarities I feel Portrait of a Lady on Fire shares with Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 Call Me By Your Name, in that they are both gay romances with a pre-set time limit. Lushly filmed and designed, they immerse you in this warm magic spell of a world, creating a brief time-outside-of-time where the lovers can come together during their semi-isolated stay in a big grand European country home, before the calendar runs out and they are pulled back apart, ending with a long unbroken take close on a character’s face. And now along comes something different, and yet similar again: Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced (და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ). Technically a 2019 film along with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for most U.S. markets both are only starting to arrive in theaters as of late February. You could watch them back to back right now at one of the art house cinemas in my city if you liked, and I imagine walk out feeling quite emotional about queer identity and art. For where Portrait of a Lady on Fire shares structural elements with Call Me By Your Name, it shares Sciamma’s ethos of emancipation through love with And Then We Danced.
A movie which in turn, following in the tradition of queer cinema being like a sprawling found family, has its own Elio in the young Georgian dancer Merab, another besotted stripling whose every embarrassing emotion crosses his face like a reflection in a clear pond. While not his wealth and ease, hardworking Merab also shares Elio’s hopelessly endearing kinetic freshness, dancey and nuzzley with shirts and backpacks forever sliding off his shoulders. To see Merab is to love him, and Irakli, the handsome, dark-eyed newcomer to the national dance academy, sure sees him. Fairly early on, after Merab’s fellow dancer brother totters in late to their shared bedroom with Irakli stumbling behind him, Irakli remarks in the morning that one of the posters above Merab’s bed matches his tattoo, and I about clambered onto my friend next to me in excitement. Because Merab’s tattoo is low on his ribs, under where his arm would fall—Irakli had been looking at him, too. God I love when crushes inadvertently reveal themselves!
That’s rather the tenor of much of this movie, a bunch of beautiful Georgians being delightful. From the look of it this must be a country composed entirely of beauties, every last one a babe. And it’s not coming from dressing elegantly or anything, no one has that kind of money—Akin unobtrusively conveys to an international audience that decades of territory struggles with Russia has left small, modern Georgia a little rundown, with buildings fallen into shabbiness and a luxury like British cigarettes to be doled out like treats, even beyond their actual number (I laughed at this punchline so much, Mary is so great). But we’re also shown what a pretty country this is, rich with green mountains and golden leaves rustling gently on grape vines twining up the balconies of an apartment building. You can tell they shot it all very quickly just by the consistent (and lovely) amber & mist look of autumn.
The short production window was a necessity, as it turns out, as the subject matter had strictly conservative, Christian Georgia balking at letting at them shoot there, so Akin resorted to a semi-guerrilla filming style to make his gay movie anyway. And the risk paid off with a film that feels vibrant and sincere, with an engaging energy that I didn’t find either rushed or dragged, despite the limited amount of footage they had in the edit. Even the balance of dancing scenes is there, with the right amount to make it truly feel about Georgian dance, and the characters’ relationships to it, while still leaving space to be about more than that too. Like Portrait it is largely score-less, most if not all of the music diegetic, but for every live drum beat in dance practice there’s a pop song on a porch, and god bless Georgian-Swedish Levan Akin for being like, let’s put ABBA in here. Let’s put Robyn.
Though the joy and sweetness of this movie does not come without pain as well. The rigidity of the Georgian dance form, seen as a reflection of the strength and purity of Georgian culture, has no room, as Merab is barked at by his teacher, for softness. He is a beautiful dancer, but with a fluidity that strikes the instructors as flouting the ‘masculinity’ that the dance is about. Irakli, by contrast, embodies this sturdier form with an easy grace, and so there is a complex poignancy to the way Merab is drawn to him. And even though Irakli is drawn to him as well, the dangerous homophobia of their community is ever nearby. The first time they touch each other, we can still hear the deep voices of the family patriarchs in the background, holding court around the fire just up the hill. We know and they know that they won’t be allowed to be together here, and especially not in the highly regimented world of Georgian dance, where both are striving to make a career and support their families. In real life, the film’s choreographer is still credited anonymously out of certainty he’d lose his job. But even though this movie honestly represents the heartbreaking reality of the situation, the sadness is not overbearing. There are lights of love and acceptance around Merab too, one of them surprising me and then delivering one of the most tender scenes in the movie.
And I was so proud of how And Then We Danced ended this story. Like Portrait, like CMBYN, it’s not the “happy” ending, but again like Portrait, feeling love can free you all the same. The work of making art is a combination of inspiration and sweat, lit by passion. Merab understands where his is rooted now, and in his final statement, he takes this traditional art form he has devoted himself to for a decade, and gives it a point of view, a breathing life. This is the way forward, and he walks on, out the door into the future.