Voulgaris' raw, mercurial film about two twenty-somethings falling in love during a hot summer in Athens is perfectly in tune with its subject. Artistic, angst-ridden Stamatis Anastopoulos (Thanos Samaras) and Goth-girl Elektra (Loukia Mihalopoulou) meet cute in a video shop. Since both adore 'Carrie' their first encounter is a clash over who'll get to rent it that evening. Reluctantly, they watch it together, which leads to an exchange of names, addresses, and cell phone numbers and subsequent dates and tentative making out, finally sex. They not only share musical and film tastes but above all for their time in life the most important thing, they both passionately hate the same things, which means most things--including families, summer, and vacations. He reinforces her dislikes. It's okay to feel bad, better to feel bad together. The two of them against the world. It's a good match, if not a smooth ride. Jerky editing and scenes that don't come in when you would think or end when logic requires become a virtue. The film's construction ignores conventional expectations as do Stamatis and Elektra and the people they sometimes hang out with. If the relationship doesn't progress very visibly from scene to scene as 'Valse Sentimentale' unfolds that makes perfect sense too, because these kids don't know if the relationship is on or off from one day to the next.
On one early date, they sit outdoors and talk about the best suicide methods. Stamatis favors drowning, Elektra, pills. The camera drops back and shows they're sitting in a grassy, sun-kissed park on a lovely afternoon. And ironically, both are good-looking. She wears cute outfits that show off her cleavage, mostly black. She's not incapable of smiling. He's not incapable of funny remarks. But the style is dark, as is the look of the film. One day she comes in red: "everything else was dirty," she apologizes. Despite cutoffs, suspenders, and Doc Martens, he's surprisingly straight-looking and wears a Chapklinesque mustache and short, well-trimmed hair. Perhaps he's too insecure to be conventionally hip; he is a loner and given to self-mutilation in moments of inner pain, which come regularly in the little flat where he lives with a wall full of brush drawings and a cat.
Sometimes they talk about music and Elektra has a nameless pal who writes songs. In one typically abrupt scene she's alone with the pal on a rooftop at night as he plays a small electric keyboard and the two of them sing the dark verses at the top of their lungs in joyous nihilism. Later she gives Stamatis a CD and wonders if he'll like it. In the classic youthful search for elective affinities, they're always on tenterhooks about whether the other will like the same drink, the same book, the same song, the way they both liked 'Carrie.' An image of perfect union--Platonic, perhaps?--lurks behind their constant mismatching of mood and taste.
Both are too depressed and insecure and flat-out negative to go into a "relationship"--he handles the word uneasily, as if with tongs--with any confidence that they even know what such a thing is, and yet little by little it happens in the jerky, stop-and-start rhythm of the film--whose irregular cutting continues to echo the couple's moods and uncertainties. (A blow-job pops in suddenly between one scene and another that follows it. An awkward tongue-tied scene between the pair on a couch is inter-cut with another in which he's tenderly watching her hair in the tub--whether before, after, or never we don't know.) Anyway he does hesitantly ask her to come to his place to take that "relationship" to "the next level"--to make awkward love, which they both love, but can hardly stand the pleasure of. And then naturally things get messy--on the next level.
A movie has rarely caught the uncertainty of young lovers so well. The relationship is painful, and painfully real and touching. It's also punk and Goth, nihilistic and depressed, and glad to be so. It asks for understanding but never for pity. The two main actors are utterly convincing. Voulgaris comes from a well-known writing and film-making family and there are likely to be more good things from her.
This was included in the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and at least one New York writer called it "the one to beat" while others reviled it for being unspeakably vile looking and self-indulgent. Some films do bring out the worst in people, but really, Valse Sentimentale is fresh, urban, youthful, and truthful.
Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.
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