Love as a Game By Pawel T. Felis

in 55th Mannheim International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Pawel Tomasz Felis

All of love’s a stage
And all the lovers merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances.

The young directors who presented their films in the international competition should learn from William Shakespeare even those who are aware of Shakespeare’s phrase from the pay “As You like It”. The filmmakers — not only the young ones — also are aware that in a post-modern world with the two extremes, melancholy and ecstasy, love is a game, love is manipulation and love is a theatre playing with masks. It is not possible to talk directly about the feelings, because today love functions rather like a clever idea and myth – a myth that our everyday life can hardly provide a match for.

The Brazilian director Roberto Gervitz underlines this topic in Underground Game (Jogo Subterrâneo). The movie is about the pianist Martin searching for the woman of his life. To find her, he creates an underground game. He carefully plans his route in the subway. Then he chooses an attractive woman in the carriage, hoping she will travel the same route he does. If she manages to follow his imaginary steps, she should be the only one for him. The game subverts the classic rule that lovers should meet accidentally. And this point of view seems to be meaningful for contemporary cinema. It is not love which becomes an obsession for the protagonist, but rather a game, a love game. That is why Martin is disappointed about his almost girlfriend. “It’s not the way we should have met”, he says. Unfortunately, this idea of game based on a short story by Julio Cortázar is only an artificial concept, and the director collapsed in finding interesting ways to amplify it. The more the director tries to seduce the viewer, the more the film becomes hysterical, showy and vapid.

I heard opposite opinions about The Lovers from Marona (Kochankowie z Marony) by Polish director Izabella Cywinska. I understand that this film can please some viewers and disgust others. Anxious sophistication, an excessively pompous score by Jerzy Satanowski, pushy symbols and out-of-date modernism could indeed be irritating. However, if you accept the theatrical frame, the splendidly acted story about demonic Arek, consumptive Janek and teacher Ola (Karolina Gruszka who recently acted in Inland Empire by David Lynch) can be compelling. Love mocks images of romance: it is dark, wild, full of sacrifice and arrogance, sanctity and sin. It is full of lies, betrayals and manipulation, particularly in the behavior of Arek. He forces his lover Janek and friend Ola to enter a dangerous game. Taking the position of psycho and clown, he pushes his limits and the limits of others, but maybe he loves in the most mature way?

The flipside of the modernistic Lovers of Marona was the Czech-Finnish Restart by Julius Ševcik about a young couple in an example of a modern free relationship. “Promise me you will not marry me, promise me we will not have sweet children”, Sylva says to her boyfriend. She works in the world of media and publicity and needs ceaseless spurs, radical experiences and physical and emotional extremes to not be bored. She is addicted to moments of trance and ecstasy. Love as a game – dangerous and perverse – is the only love she can accept. But one night on the 1st of April she plays a prank on her boyfriend. Too daft and too wounding, Sylva realizes she could lose now her relationship, she knows that she went too far.

In my opinion Restart is one of the most important films from the international competition. It brilliantly and cruelly shows the moment when theories about free relationship, lack of liabilities and everlasting fun turn out to be only a mask and façade to hide a bashful desire for intimacy and safety. But Julius Ševcik’s film may be annoying because it shows the world from Sylva’s perspective. Not only can we see her hysteria and desperation, we penetrate the impassioned chaos of her mind as well. The borderline between reality, imagination and some paranoiac versions of events become blurred. We might be in the middle of Sylva’s imagination, or in among her rickety emotions. Kasimir Lehto’s handheld camera, with lots of formal effects and feverish editing, seems to be showy but that is an intentional way to exhibit the character of Sylva, her way of living and thinking. Eventually she discovers that this love theatre or life theatre is artificial and empty outside. She wants to restart, in her imagination she says to her boyfriend: “Promise me you will marry me, promise me we will have sweet children”, but it’s too late. Not because of her boyfriend, but because of her. She is a woman with a propensity for self mutilation. She realizes that she wants to love and to be loved, but on the other hand she needs to be hurt by others and by herself.

Nevertheless, the myth of romantic love still exists, but not necessarily with pure naivety. This is the point of view I recovered in Orangelove (from section International Discoveries) by Ukrainian director Alan Badoyev. His young characters, Katja and Roman, take part in a game with an old AIDS sufferer who offers them an apartment for free, but with one condition: They cannot go outside until his death. The plot, unfortunately with a disappointing ending, is a quite predictable variation about love and death. But there is something much more interesting: how the young couple is indicated on the screen. Roman accidentally meets Katja on a tram. This is a game of coincidence, a game of first looks, a game of romance (they both are barefoot and wet through). She is an artist playing the cello; he is a photographer who captures extreme moments with his camera. Their story is filmed with masterly composed shots and every frame is thoughtful in each detail. At the same time, the director builds up a distance between the viewer and the screen as if he were a storyteller spinning his story in the rhythm of a romantic and melancholic ballad.
Clearly we can recognize lots of sentimental and romantic cliches but — much like in Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction — they are used by design. The film is a game with the myth of love, the director and his characters are trying to fight with and they find something full blooded in it. Katja and Roman have had their lessons of cynicism and they both know very well that love doesn’t work this way. But at the same time we see people trying to create their own myth and find true feelings in it – even if the effect is only partly successful.