“Summer loving, had me a blast,” warbled John Travolta in 1978 — but the schlubby, grubby anti-hero of Argyris Papadimitropoulos‘ Aegean-set anti-romance Suntan isn’t so lucky. A professionally mounted but bluntly misanthropic character-study, the director’s second solo outing wallows in the worst of human nature with little reward at the end of a mechanically inexorable downward spiral. An opportunistic and arguably irresponsible work which will do absolutely nothing for its cash-strapped country’s crucial tourist industry, the picture nevertheless made a sufficient splash on its Rotterdam bow to portend further exposure around the circuit. For many critics and programmers, of course, ‘Greece’ is still very much the word.
After debuting with the high-tempo crime-comedy Bank Bang in 2008 — a box-office success at home but which received relatively little play elsewhere — Papadimitropoulos teamed up with cinematographer Jan Vogel to co-write and co-direct 2011’s schematically downbeat Rotterdam opener Wasted Youth. On Suntan his main collaborator is co-writer Syllas Tzoumerkas, whose 2014 A Blast was among few high-profile Greek films of recent years to tackle the country’s deep social and economic problems head-on. Symbolic abstractions and evasions are more generally the norm, especially among those examples of the so-called ‘Greek Weird Wave’ which has made so many ripples since Yorgos Lanthimos‘ 2009 Dogtooth.
Much heat, little light.
But Tzoumerkas and Papadimitropoulos downplay Greek’s well-chronicled woes in Suntan, presenting a seaside holiday community with little to distinguish it from similar settlements all over the world. As depicted in a nicely deadpan 12-minute prologue, the island of Antiparos is sleepy to the point of catatonia during the winter — 42-year-old protagonist Kostis (Maki Papadimitrou) arrives during a glumly un-festive Christmas to take over as the town’s sole medic. After the title-card, however, summer is in full hedonistic, energetic, decadent swing, with party-hearty youth in abundance: days on the beach, nights in the bars and discos.
Seeking to forget unspecified personal problems in his recent past, sad-sack Kostis eagerly befriends one particularly insufferable bunch of good-looking but noisily vapid international twentysomethings — and quickly forms a romantic fixation on Anna (Elli Tringou) the 21-year-old Greek beauty who’s become part of their clique. Anna sends out decidedly “mixed” messages, leading Kostis on all the way to a disastrous coital fumble that leaves the doc in a state of apologetic embarrassment. Much worse is to come, however, as Anna joins her cruel pals in thoughtlessly humiliating their befuddled sometime buddy. This accelerates Kostis’s mid-life crisis into a full-blown existential maelstrom of resentment and amour fou, with nightmarish consequences for all.
As Kostis‘ neurosis shades into psychosis, the limitations of Papadimitropoulos and Tzoumerkas‘ increasingly blunt, tonally wayward and two-dimensional screenplay become apparent. The characters, especially the hapless Kostis, are revealed as little more than pawns, shifted around to create situations of the most excruciating awkwardness. Kostis‘ behavior very quickly places him beyond our sympathies, not that there’s anyone else around who could remotely be considered good company. The possible exception is a successful old friend of Kostis (gamely played by Tzoumerkas) who turns up on the nudist-friendly beach in his birthday suit.
Plausibility is also blithely sacrificed on the altar of tolerance-testing extremity: as Kostis gradually neglects his crucial duties, he’s able to do so largely because he receives zero supervision from his mainland superiors. It’s a surprise, meanwhile, to learn that Antiparos is a real holiday-island rather than a fictional location, so unappetizing a picture does Papadimitropoulos paint — despite the glimpses of scenic beauty captured by Christos Karamanis‘ widescreen cinematography. Film reviews will often muse that movies shot in particularly picturesque regions might as well be paid for by the local tourist board — but so hideous an image of Greek holidaymaking is presented in Suntan that more likely sources of funding are the relevant authorities of Croatia, Turkey and Spain.
Production company: Marni Films
Cast: Makis Papadimitrou, Elli Tringou, Milou Van Groessen, Dimi Hart, Hara Kotsali
Director: Argyris Papadimitropoulos
Screenwriters: Argyris Papadimitropoulos, Syllas Tzoumerkas
Producer: Phaedra Vokali
Cinematographer: Christos Karamanis
Production designer: Aliki Kouvaka
Editor: Napoleon Stratogiannakis
Sales: Visit Films, Brooklyn
No Rating, 105 minutes