Director Levan Akin confronts Georgia’s (former USSR/Eastern Europe) conservative, moralising, antiquated attitude towards sexual freedom, the masculine tradition and gay love with an aggressive fervour. The structure, tone and central relationship will conjure warranted comparisons to Call Me by Your Name, but this feels timelier and more urgent, trading originality for nuance, specificity, and authenticity.
One of the most frustratingly inaccurate-yet-popular notions expressed by white, western gays is that the LGBTQ+ community – typically with a heavy bias weighted towards the “G” – has entered a new era of ‘post-liberation’. With social attitudes towards gay relationships coming towards a progressive peak, gay marriage afforded mostly across the board, and heightened representation in the mainstream media, there are those that feel that the queer minority are no longer threatened by moral conservatism. That’s regardless of whether the conduit is religious traditionalism, miseducation, or just plain bigotry. Fine, homophobia is probably dwindling in the west, and the public sphere is far more accessible for queer people without wearing a hetero mask, but what about the rest of the world?
This is a central point to Levan Akin’s urgent, unashamedly queer coming-of-age story, which focuses on Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), an immensely ambitious dancer who shares a similar ‘by all means’ attitude to Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman in Whiplash. Unlike what the pervasive western stereotypes would suggest, traditional dance in Georgia is a form of hyper-masculine expression, all about rigidity and strength. As David (Kakha Gogidze), Merab’s horrendously stern, aggressive tutor is keen to remind his students: “there is no room for weakness in Georgian dance”. Merab, while determined to succeed, is not as masculine as his peers – and his femininity, by extension, is perceived as fragility. This sets the groundwork for the film’s most obvious dramatic crux: in a country where the heteronormative and the masculine are championed as the ideal, and the feminine rejected, is there a place for gay men like him?
Even before his sexuality is explored Merab is at a disadvantage. Despite his ambition he struggles to keep up with his peers, never quite perfect in his spins, or rigid enough in his stance. When Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives – outwardly masculine, confident yet carefree – he becomes Merab’s main rival. He arrives to the dance studio to practice earlier than Merab, who had previously been the first through the door, and Merab is one-upped by Irakli in most of their practice sessions. Irakli never returns the competitive spirit, at least not actively, despite being sensitive to what’s at stake for both of them. Soon Merab’s competitive energy is converted to passion of a different kind. Irakli becomes Merab’s muse, his muscular body and handsome face becoming the objects of Merab’s gaze, their power dynamic similar to that between Elio and Oliver in Call Me by Your Name. Although perhaps less problematic, given that there is no significant age difference.
While the comparisons to Call Me by Your Name will be pervasive and are, honestly, warranted – the film’s structure, central relationship, tone, pace and visual direction are immensely similar, which is not inherently a bad thing – Akin’s script feels far more nuanced and urgent because of the political context which surrounds it. As with many of the post-Iron Curtain ex-Soviet states, Georgia is marked for it’s conservative, homophobic culture. The film certainly reflects this, Merab and Irakli being constantly hyper-aware of the consequences of being caught. In one conversation, the ensemble dance troupe discuss a previous student who had been caught having sex with another man and consequently viciously beaten.
It’s something the filmmakers are conscious of, too. In his introduction to the film’s Cannes screening, Akin repeatedly asserted how “brave” the cast are for performing openly in the film. Over half of the crew have asked to remain anonymous. In this sense, And Then We Danced feels superior to the self-gratifying, petit bourgeois, romantic fairy tale that is Call Me by Your Name. The latter is by no means a bad film – in fact, it was my favourite release on last year’s awards circuit, and there are narrative and stylistic choices in Call Me by Your Name which feel more advanced. But And Then We Danced is a truly revolutionary statement, not only rejecting the oppressive hegemony of its native country, but of global prejudice.