Here's a cute idea for Valentine's Day: Take your sweetie to the ferociously compelling German-Turkish love story Head-On (Strand Releasing), and then, when the credits roll, whisper, "Our relationship has problems, but at least it's not like that wreck." Directed and written by the 31-year-old Fatih Akin (also an actor), the movie is one part screwball romance to one part Sid and Nancy, with Turkish wedding music interludes to weird you out even more. Head-On hovers on the outskirts of comedy, on the brink of farce, before taking a swerve into the land of worst-case scenarios. And what do you know? That border between screwball and tragedy is more porous than we ever dreamed.
The central couple meets cute—well, kinda cute: They're both in a German hospital after violent suicide attempts. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is an unkempt, alcoholic druggie who works in a punk club collecting empty glasses. He deliberately ran his car into a brick wall—head on, of course. Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) cut her wrists—but not, Cahit explains, helpfully, at the right angle to make her bleed to death. As she hears this, she gazes on him with big dark eyes and sees her liberation. A promiscuous nonconformist from a repressive Turkish family, Sibel thinks she can use Cahit—also the son of Turkish immigrants—to keep her clan at bay. She can marry him and continue to screw around.
This is the farce part: the attempt to put one over on Sibel's immigrant family, including the brother who once punished her disobedient, wandering ways by breaking her nose. Although Cahit is a good (libertine) German with an active loathing for patriarchal Turkish culture, his life has, in all senses, dead-ended. He lost his first wife. (We never know how). He lives in squalor. He has nothing better to do than take part in this charade. And he seems to take an odd pleasure in taunting Sibel. He slides his wedding band on his middle finger and gestures at her; and, as they dance at their wedding reception, he hisses crude, sexist insults into her ear. When the newly married couple is ushered into a private room for the customary deflowering, they do lines of cocaine and stare into space.
Hollywood romantic comedies have primed us for the pair to fall madly in love, and I'm not saying they don't. But there's madly and there's infuckingsanely. Both Cahit and Sibel are prone to making wildly self-destructive spectacles of themselves, and they're almost never in sync. They're also enablers: They bring out each other's most reckless sides. When Cahit decides that Sibel actually means something to him, he drains a glass of booze, ecstatically smashes it down on the bar, and then pounds the shards with his hand; by the time he hits the dance floor, he's practically hemorrhaging. And Sibel has racked up a lot of lovers, not all of whom are pleased to be so blithely abandoned.
We're used to seeing this sort of love story end buoyantly. The guy and the gal act out in endearing ways, make each other jealous, break up; then the guy comes to his senses and leaps into a taxi and tries to reach the gal before she leaves on the plane or train or bus or boat. This comforting ritual isn't entirely removed from the real world. It's just that what seem like intractable problems of character and circumstance melt away like chocolate in your true love's mouth. But Fatih Akin laces that bonbon with strychnine.
Head-On doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it keeps you on edge, laughing nervously, appalled and, against all odds, entertained. Akin uses a traditional Turkish band to mark the start of each new act. The group—including a female singer—stand in a line by the Bosporus before a picture-postcard view of Istanbul, and these stylized interludes not only remind you of the Turkish culture that the characters have left behind, they give the movie a much-needed lift.
So do the actors. Ünel's Cahit is handsome but prodigiously unhygienic. He can bathe and comb his hair, but dissolution (and chaos) seems to leak from his pores. The voluptuous Kekilli has a motor that runs much faster. An actress who once did porn films (the revelation created a mini-scandal in Europe, where the movie has been a huge hit), she pushes everything to the edge. That gorgeous, bumpy nose reminds you that Sibel has been walloped and that she's daring the world—specifically, the world of her fathers—to wallop her again. She's hungrily self-destructive. When she ends up fleeing to Istanbul, it's less a refuge than an explosive reckoning.
Head-On is a downer, but it doesn't leave you demolished. There's something tonic about experiencing screwball conventions without the fairy godmother of comedy flying in to wave a wand and dissolve all the obstacles. These two shouldn't live happily ever after, and their head-on collision—along with its painful, lingering aftermath—provides a strange comfort. People can't always escape their culture, their upbringing, their personality disorders. Not even in movies. Not even in love stories.