My Bloody Valentine

'Head-On' plunges a mash note into the heart of punch-drunk love

Lars von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson--the two great movie melodramatists to emerge in the '90s--share more than just the occasional actor (Emily Watson, Philip Baker Hall). More important, they made onscreen emotion look naked, torrid again, as it did in the '70s films of John Cassavetes and Frederick Wiseman. From humble genre beginnings, von Trier and Anderson propelled themselves into the auteur stratosphere by dragging their audiences into emotional quicksand. Rent a copy of the former's Dancer in the Dark or the latter's Magnolia and what you hear coming through the speakers is the shrill bray of a show-off, an artist who will not be ignored.

Fatih Akin, the German-born, Turkish-bred writer-director of the shattering (and show-offy) new Head-On, has clearly racked up a lot of late fees from his long looks at those signature movies. Like Anderson and von Trier, Akin gives you the feeling of being pulled by your collar into chaotic events--post-breakup bar fights and screeching street-corner encounters--that involve the abuse of both drugs and those who take them. Head-On has a narcotic effect itself: It leaves you with the feeling of having gone through an adventure that may have consumed at least one vitally important, deeply hidden part of yourself. You feel changed after seeing it--exhilarated and forlorn and, I say at the risk of turning you off, pillaged. A friend put it best: "It really takes a toll on you. I can't wait to see it again."

Birol Unel--a craggy-faced German-Turk who could be the next transatlantic superstar--plays Cahit, a fortysomething punk-rock dude who makes a meager pittance picking up empty glasses in a friend's bar and spends the rest of his time doing the two things he's good at: drinking and fucking. (His carelessly tooted lines atop a tiny compact indicate how he's able to balance these skills.) After driving his car into a brick wall--his intention, if any, isn't clear--Cahit collides with Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a young German-Turkish woman with a pair of slit wrists. Sibel drags Cahit into a bar after they're released from the hospital and tries to perform emotional blackmail on him. When she doesn't appear to be succeeding, and spontaneously smashes a beer bottle on a barroom table, gouging her wrists and sending Peckinpahesque gouts of blood in the air, you get the message--simultaneously chilling and elating--that Akin could take you anywhere, that the storytelling is going to allow for no safety net.

Under the influence: Birol Unel in 'Head-On'
Strand Releasing
Under the influence: Birol Unel in 'Head-On'

Actually, Akin does offer a faint whiff of familiarity at points--suggesting the old rep-house double bill of Harold and Maude and King of Hearts when Sibel twists Cahit into becoming her husband and thus taking her away from her stifling, conventional Turkish family. Scenes of the two on their wedding day, sharing an intimate ceremonial dinner (and snorting speed), make you momentarily worry that Akin aims to be a Nora Ephron for nihilists. But there are many, many more twists and turns ahead.

Head-On becomes the story of two people who are so caught up in the drama of their own self-annihilation that they don't even recognize the extremity of their need for each other. This definition isn't clear, though, until a day or two after you've seen the movie, because Akin makes the narrative's unraveling feel as haphazard and suspenseful as life itself. The film's last half-hour limns a situation in which the happiness of one character rests entirely on a decision to be made by the other. As this final segment plays itself out, you may find yourself staring at the impassive face of the decision-maker--staring as desperately as the one whose life depends on what is happening behind that face.

Akin keys into his actors' most endearing qualities and writes them large. As played by Unel, Cahit resembles any aging, drunken rock 'n' roll dude in any city in the world, but the actor's unwavering gaze--under a mop of dirty bangs--give him the cloud-encrusted quality of a Gothic poet. As for Kekilli, she has, even in her fiercest moments, a virginal blitheness that you long to protect in a plastic bubble. Her sunny, flush-faced demeanor seems constantly on the verge of being pierced by experience--and eventually it is. Akin doesn't so much set the scenes for these two as crack them wide open. The movie takes what could seem contrived--Cahit shredding his own wrists in a half-despairing, half-exhilarated conniption, then pogo-dancing in pools of his own blood--and makes it all seem perfectly real. That's because Akin has locked us in: We've become life partners with his characters from the get-go.

Head-On carries the charge of a breakthrough work by a major filmmaker, but it hasn't been seen that way in the United States. Most of the major American critics haven't lobbied for it, and its distributor, the superheroic Strand Releasing, seems not to have the resources to make the movie known. I have to think that the film will get its due eventually, because there's genuine greatness in it--an emotional daring and sophistication that's as rare as the dodo. It's a movie that makes your heart beat faster for hours afterward, a movie that can fool you into thinking its highlights are actually half-remembered scenes from your own life.

 
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