Review by Benjamin Poole
Directed by: Argyris Papadimitropoulos
Starring: Makis Papadimitriou, Elli Tringou, Dimi Hart, Hara Kotsali, Milou Van Groesen
Growing old is a futile procedure of loss, a slow and irreversible course of decline. The things we took for granted in our youth - going out to night clubs, say, or walking up a flight of stairs without losing breath - are suddenly not our privilege anymore, belonging as they do to younger and fitter counterparts. The world favours the new, and nobody wants an old guy haunting the dancefloor, huffing and puffing his way through moves which were on their way out in the early 2000s. Our looks are gradually winnowed away too; hair, physique, even the sparkle in our eyes eventually dims as the rot of time compromises our very being and our beauty flies to pastures new. If we’re lucky, however, we may gain one or two compensatory rewards in our dotage: our own kids, a loving partner to share the misery, perhaps even a sense of hard won wisdom and quiet which restless youth isn’t privy to.
In Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Syllas Tzoumerkas’ superlative Suntan, middle-aged central character Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou), isn’t part of this lucky club. Arriving at a Greek island off season to take up a job as the town doctor, Kostis is deeply alone, with hints of a broken marriage and perhaps hopes of a new start. As if to insult Kostis’ optimism, it starts to rain in the small shuttered town, and then, to add injury, it’s Christmas, and Kostis’ solitude is complete. Is Suntan part of a ‘Greek weird wave’? The deadpan cinematography that renders the town flat and cold would suggest so, as would the cruel alienation of Kostis, who is kind hearted and quiet, but a liminal figure in this world which has left him behind.
Suddenly it’s summer, and perhaps things will pick up for Kostis. Not likely. With the advent of sunshine the island blossoms into a hedonistic fleshpot of young tourists and sex sex sex; drinking and dancing all night to a load of old feta (Wild Cherry anyone? Yes please! Scatman John?), swimming naked in shallow turquoise seas throughout the day, and lots of harmless, throwaway shagging in-between. It looks brilliant, if you’re young enough to get away with it: but poor old Kostis, pugnacious and folically challenged, is like a kid pressing his face up against a sweet shop window. A chance encounter with a group of kids (well, early twentysomethings), where Kostis patches up the gorgeous and funny Anna (Elli Tringou), leads to an all-encompassing fixation on the part of the doctor. Part stalker, part love-struck puppy, lonely Kostis manages to ingratiate himself with the group, tagging along to their mad parties and trying hard to not stare too obviously when the pretty young things sunbathe and cavort on the nudist beach.
There is nothing pervy (well, initially, at least) about Kostis’ fascination with Anna. Director Papadimitropoulos is careful to present the doctor as tragic, rather than lecherous (he gives Kostis a middle-aged counterpart who really is vile and crude - boasting about pussy and blowjobs - just to emphasise the doctor’s comparative innocence). He’s not creepy, just deeply sad. We only see the youths through his eyes, and we get no real sense of Anna’s character or any of her mates’. They are bronzed and beautiful, full of excitement and energy, with no accountability as they race quads about beach roads and splash about in the water. It is Anna’s youth that Kostis is attracted to, and not in a vampiric Humbert Humbert way; this small man, with skin as pale and unsightly as the underbelly of a fish, just wants to sunbathe in the tanned glow of prime youth, to vicariously relive the suntans of his own formative years. Kostis is desperate for what everyone eventually will be: a second chance.
As Kostis bumbles along to parties and makes clumsy advances towards Anna you’ll recoil, and not in the way your toes might curl at a Ricky Gervais creation (that other great Laurette of lost dreams) - this is full body cringe. You fear for Kostis, worry where this awkward relationship is going to end up, just when Anna and her pals will get bored of their new pet. Anna herself is mercurial and, brilliantly, no naïve waif. She flirts with Kostis (and, as the film surprisingly progresses, does a little more than that), not to wind him up but because insouciance is in her nature, a completely innocent pansexuality where anything goes because these kids are young, dumb and full of fun. This sort of openness is beyond Kostis, who is from a different paradigm, and when he pins Anna down in the third act, pleading with her to stay with him and sacrifice her life and future for his second chance, we see that there is a gulf between the two of them the size of the Aegean ocean.
IMDB bizarrely classifies this unique and brilliant study of midlife crisis as a ‘comedy, drama, romance’. They’re wrong; this is a horror film where every terror is real, every misery horribly plausible (for one so vain as me the film was torture, and legitimately gave me nightmares). There is a subtext about how Greece itself is on its uppers (spiritual and fiscal), with the young living only for the decadence of the weekend, but Papadimitropoulos’ film is far more universal than such a niche reading. Like a Shirley Valentine in a dark reverse, Suntan is a remorseful, unflinching account of middle age. However, unlike Willy Russel’s heroine, who manages to find herself during a stay upon a Greek island, Kostis only goes on to lose everything that he may still have held on to, even, in the film’s final, upsetting scenes, his essential humanity. An exceptional character study, Suntan is a searing holiday in someone else’s misery.
Suntan is in UK/ROI cinemas April 28th.