Director Fatih Akin is a German of Turkish descent, and he examines this melding, blurring and clashing of ethnicities in all of his films. He does it excellently in The Edge of Heaven (2007) and rather blandly in the comedic effort In July (2000). In Head-On (2004) though he examines it through a quite confronting and very personal love story. And it is utterly brilliant, in my mind definitely one of the best films released since the turn of the millennium.
The two main characters Cahit and Sibel meet in a mental institution, both having been admitted following attempted suicides. Cahit is a drunkard, who has never gotten over the death of his beloved wife. The much younger Sibel feels utterly constrained by her traditional Turkish family in the more ‘western’, open society of Germany. She wants to go out and party, drink, take drugs and have lots of sex. All things which are frowned upon by her parents and domineering brother. In Cahit, she sees a way out – and proposes a marriage of convenience. It is from this starting point that Akin crafts a love story like probably no other, in which these two troubled people find some measure of redemption, perhaps not a final one though, in the sharing of their lives. If that sounds twee at all, believe me it is not. It is a rollercoaster ride where emotions are torn and blood is spilt with an intelligent, if perhaps not entirely crowd pleasing, ending. The journey taken by both characters feels real and the manner in which their relationship evolves is similarly satisfying. Cahit, perpetually hungover or drunk at the beginning of the film, is brought back into the world by the spirit of Sibel, though unfortunately the result of this is not always positive. Their relationship is a funny one in many ways and runs an entire gamut – from domestic bliss, to passion, to indifference, to childlike adulation, to jealousy, to tenderness, to lust, to anger. It is all there and none of it feels forced.
Technically, I think that Akin utilises music better than basically any other contemporary director. The film opens with a shot of a Turkish band playing, what I am guessing is, traditional tunes. This band delightfully reappears throughout the film. Akin uses them almost like chapter markers, delineating the film into digestible portions. It is always the same wide shot of the band playing, and the film closes with them taking a bow after their performance. This device is also backed up by the regular soundtrack which is sharp as a tack and enhances everything shown onscreen. The script is a fantastic one, and it is that which allows the film to avoid many of the trappings that the narrative could have allowed. This is dialogue with depth and with cutting intention that tells a story that is crammed full to the brim with emotion.
The film is graphically violent so may be confronting for some people, especially one scene involving wrist cutting and a couple of intense assaults. But none of it is in the least bit gratuitous. It is simply part of the cold world where Cahit and Sibel are desperately trying to find a place to anchor themselves. In comparison with Edge of Heaven, this film is less a broad study of multiculturalism and transnational identity. However the personal tale definitely sheds light on these things, and it is especially notable that neither main character can ground themselves in Germany and eventually return to their Turkish ‘homeland’.
If you haven’t seen Head-On then I strongly urge you to do so. It is a ride that will really pull you in and also make you think. It is not always entirely easy to watch, but then again many of the great films aren’t. But I genuinely believe this is one of the top 10 films made over the past decade and should not be missed.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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