Venice 2023 review: The Summer with Carmen (Zacharias Mavroeidis)
icsfilm.org | Matthew Joseph Jenner
“The Summer with Carmen is a reconfiguration of the traditional romantic comedy through a proudly queer lens.”
★★★★ International Cinephile Society
As we have seen on countless occasions, cinema could benefit from embracing a more libertine sensibility once again, since the art of provocation has become increasingly rare, often being relegated to the shadows, which unfortunately conceals a lot of terrific work. However, an exciting new example of a film that employs the concept of “anything goes” is The Summer with Carmen (To kalokairi tis Karmen) in which director Zacharias Mavroeidis and co-writer Fondas Chalatsis put together one of the year’s most charming and unforgettable comedies. Offbeat and hilarious but filled to the brim with such joyful liveliness, the film is a welcome return to a style of storytelling that is driven by carnal passion and a sincere desire to push boundaries, which is particularly notable for a film that contains a very uplifting message, rather than one that strives to be a sobering social realist fable. Greek cinema has been in a renaissance for the past decade, and while Mavroeidis is certainly not a greenhorn, this film feels like a major breakthrough for someone who has been contributing solid work to this movement towards a more distinct style of filmmaking in a country known to represent a remarkable amount of artistic ambition and integrity. Unabashedly queer in a way that is encouraging for the state of the industry, as well as being beyond entertaining, while being driven by the most steadfast audacity, The Summer with Carmen is a major step forward in terms of queer storytelling as a whole, while conveying it in the most glorious detail.
At a cursory glance, you may think that The Summer with Carmen is hopelessly straightforward and perhaps quite simplistic – queer cinema is no longer in a place where it needs to only tackle the most serious subject, and it is more than permissible to craft a film centred on gay characters dealing with life’s most inconsequential minutiae, rather than being in a state of despair. However, the more time we spend with these characters, the clearer it becomes that there is something slightly deeper to this story, which is not only indicative of the plot itself, but also the overall structure that the story takes. Mavroeidis uses the principles of metafictional filmmaking to guide the story – he is certainly not the first to employ the film-within-a-film structure, but the choices he makes in its construction give it a distinct sense of humour and deeply resonant mood that anchor it within a very recognizable reality. Ultimately, it seems like the writers set out to make a film that redefines the romantic comedy – rather than trying to steer away from the tropes and cliches, the film embraces them and reconfigures them into a gloriously upbeat story that focuses on two young men recalling a particular summer from their recent past. That summer was characterized by one of the protagonists struggling to come to terms with the end of a recent relationship, compounded by the time spent with Carmen (the revelation of the titular character is a hilarious moment that I would be reluctant to spoil for anyone who has not experienced it for themselves), who represents something quite profound that both main characters learn to understand.
The Summer with Carmen serves as a deconstruction of both the genre in which it was crafted and the psychological state of its main characters, and in both cases it manages to be extraordinarily charming and insightful. This is not the kind of character study that is brutal and bleak while it focuses on vulnerable characters falling victim to their flaws, but rather a heartwarming and captivating exploration of the process of coming to terms with one’s shortcomings, the growth in self-awareness that anyone who has found themselves on the other end of a bad relationship will undoubtedly understand. This manifests in the two central performances, with Yorgos Tsiantoulas and Andreas Labropoulos turning in impressive work as two men who could not be more different – they are divided by age, profession, demeanour and desire. Yet, it’s their shared experience as insecure people trying to navigate life as openly queer men in contemporary Greece that draws them together, along with a penchant for allowing their imaginations to run rampant, leading to the framing device we find throughout the film. Drawing a lot of inspiration from traditional Greek comedy structure (which many consider the primordial root of all humour), the film develops its characters as complex individuals with many existential questions, most of which go unanswered, since they soon realize that it is not always about finding the answers, but rather asking the right questions, an ambiguous concept that these actors convey with great sincerity.
The extent to which The Summer with Carmen is based in reality is not clear – the structure of the film, as well as the hilarious final piece of dialogue after the credits, make it seem somewhat autobiographical, which adds layers in terms of both the human element and the narrative structure, with the metafictional elements being profoundly compelling and consistently entertaining. This is a beautifully made film, and it becomes clear that Mavroeidis is as skilled a visual stylist as he is a storyteller, since he manages to find the beauty in both the human body and the natural landscapes that we traverse throughout the film. The setting oscillates between gorgeous beaches littered with sun-baked bodies and quaint, gorgeously designed homes, both serving as the location of some of the most profound philosophical conversations. The blend of humour and pathos gives the film a distinct atmosphere, which the writers intentionally keep quite vague since this approach draws us into the eccentric world inhabited by these characters. Fun and freewheeling, but never lacking an iota of depth, The Summer with Carmen is a fantastic comedy that looks at subjects that should resonate with many viewers – queer identity, friendship, and the insecurities that come with questioning one’s place in the world all form the foundation of this film, which offers a reconfiguration of the traditional romantic comedy through a proudly queer lens. Existential philosophy has never been more playful than it is here in this absolute delight of a film.