The Greek Interloper
'When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.' Arthur Conan Doyle, The Speckled Band
I write on what is apparently the hottest June day experienced by the UK and its unfortunate residents in forty years. Now, I don't know about you, but given the choice between being out in the middle of an overwhelmingly hot and sunny day, and watching an overpoweringly hot and sunny day on a cinema screen in a comfortably cool and quiet room, I'll choose the latter every single time. And so it was that I ended up taking refuge from the heat in front of Argyris Papadimitropoulos' Suntan, which is the kind of film to very nearly put you off the idea of summer for life.
In accordance with my occasional 'stroke a bandicoot' policy (i.e., give films from other countries and cultures a chance), this is a film from Greece, a country currently producing many interesting movies (apparently), although the only one I've actually seen was Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster. Suntan is less outlandishly strange than The Lobster, but it still has a very distinct and not entirely comfortable flavour of its own.
Makis Papadimitriou plays Kostis, a middle-aged doctor who, as the film starts arrives on Antiparos, a small resort island. But it is the depths of winter and the place is grey and desolate. Kostis himself is clearly still in the shade of some great, if nebulous, disappointment in his recent past. From the start he is a withdrawn figure, rather melancholic – the nature of his work means he gets dragged out of Christmas parties to attend to the recently deceased, which is hardly the sort of experience to leave one cheery.
Eight months later, the island has been transformed by the arrival of legions of holiday-makers – it is, as the Mayor (Pavlos Orkopoulos) reminds Kostis, the one month that pays for the rest of the year. Kostis' life seems as unremarkable as ever, until the arrival in his surgery of Anna (Elli Tringou), a twenty-ish young woman who's come to the island for a month of utter hedonism and debauchery. Anna has done herself an injury falling off her bike, but Kostis fixes her up and she seems genuinely grateful, inviting him to hang out with her and her friends.
Youth is wasted on the young, of course, but older people can get pretty wasted on the idea of youth, too, and Kostis finds spending time with his new young friends to be quite intoxicating. He goes to the beach with them, buys them all drinks, is taken to nightclubs – and finds himself growing particularly drawn to Anna. His work begins to suffer as partying becomes his top priority. And then the fleeting possibility of a more serious connection with Anna presents itself...
There's nothing particularly original about the theme of Suntan, which is that of the devastating effects a midlife crisis can have on a vulnerable man. It's also about how people who appear relatively close in age can turn out to have totally different values and attitudes and fundamentally misunderstand each other, and it touches briefly on a very toxic type of masculinity.
No-one seems quite sure whether Suntan is in fact a comedy, a drama, or even a very specific type of horror movie. Certainly it looks somewhat comic as it starts – there are many scenes of the pudgy, balding, pallid Kostis shambling around in baggy shorts and a monstrously uncool sunhat, surrounded by the bronzed naked bodies of his young companions (there is pretty much wall-to-wall nudity for much of this movie, a lot of it somewhat desexualised), and the effect is indeed somewhat humorous. But there is a detached, vaguely threatening quality to Papadimitriou's performance that gives the film an ominous, unsettling tone even in these early stages.
That said, he's also vaguely touching, in a pathetic sort of way, when his fantasies about Anna look like coming to fruition. The film explicitly makes reference to Lolita, although the relationship here is ambiguous in a different manner – is Anna toying with Makis' affections for her own amusement, or is she simply unaware of the significance of what's transpiring between them? It is never quite clear. The casual cruelty and thoughtlessness of young and beautiful people is made quite clear, of course.
In the end, of course, something very nasty bubbles to the surface in Makis' personality, resulting in some extremely disquieting and unpleasant scenes. This isn't quite a case of a central character gradually losing the sympathy of the audience – but that's not just because he's such a dismal individual that he always remains somewhat sympathetic. It's also because the very withdrawnness of the character, his inability to demonstrate feeling, means he's never a completely comfortable or likeable person.
There are many good things about Suntan, which is an atmospheric, well-structured and engaging film, but there is a sense in which the main characters, at least, are more archetypes than fully rounded individuals. We don't actually learn a great deal about either of them, so they never quite come to life as vivid characters in their own right. On the other hand, the movie obviously wants to deal with a universal story.
Part of this emerges from the very predictability of the unfolding narrative – you're never in any doubt as to what's going to transpire in the movie, generally speaking. Perhaps we should simply say that Suntan is a classical tragedy for the modern age (maybe even a Greek tragedy) – the story a basically good (or at least not obviously bad) man who comes horribly undone as a result of a flaw in his character. Whether this is loneliness, lustfulness, or a simple lack of a grasp on reality is for the viewer to decide, I think. But come horribly undone he does, and while the end of the film is extreme, it is still humane and tells a recognisably human story. Definitely not a film for everybody, and an occasionally challenging one, but made with great intelligence and skill.