Levan Akin’s grounded, richly textured Georgian love story brims with dance and forbidden romance.
“A man is a man, and a woman is a woman,” says a priest during a wedding homily, “but in these times of “globalization”, as they call it…” the rest is cut off, but the implication is clear: we were once strong and knew who we are, but ideas from the rest of the world have confused and weakened us. A common accusation made by homophobic countries is that homosexuality is an unwelcome import from Europe and America; as if queerness was an invasive species stowed away in Western media that’s overtaking the native heterosexual population.
This tension between a traditional worldview pushing against globalization is the focal point of And Then We Danced, with its juxtaposition of traditional dance against a backdrop of a Georgia that’s hungry for foreign products. The characters praise English cigarettes, dance to Swedish pop music, and fawn over anime posters all while wanting to honor their heritage. It’s a tension that Levan Akin is probably familiar with, since the Swedish-born director is of Georgian descent.
Taking place in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young dancer vying for a place in the National Georgian Ensemble. However, his standing in the group is shaken upon the arrival of newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Merab is frustrated by Irakli’s talent but finds himself drawn to the young man’s rebellious nature. As the pair grow closer, their growing attraction could put them in jeopardy.
It would have been easy for Akin to film And Then We Danced as a weepy melodrama or a saccharine romance. Fortunately, we are spared soft focus and swelling orchestras and are instead given a more subdued romance that is tempered by the culture in which the characters inhabit. Merab and Irakli don’t kiss until the film reaches the hour mark and before that their romantic tension is little more than a few wayward glances and Merab smelling Irakli’s shirt. Even when they do finally kiss, there are no declarations of love and the sex scenes are portrayed in a frank (although decidedly not graphic) manner. If you’re looking for a frothy love story, this isn’t it.
That isn’t to say the movie feels like a gritty tragedy either. Akin doesn’t shy away from the realities of being queer in Eastern Europe: a spot in the Ensemble opens up due to a dancer being caught in bed with another man, Merab is taunted when he is suspected of being gay, and trans/gender-nonconforming people are virtually forced into prostitution. And yet the story isn’t bleak, nor are the characters looked on with pity. There is hope for Georgia’s LGBTQ population and Akin shows them living their true selves with resilience.
The subdued nature of the romance is enhanced by the nuanced performances of the leads. This is the first film role for both Gelbakhiani and Valishvili, but they both give performances of more seasoned actors. Gelbakhiani, in particular, is phenomenal as he uses his dance training to embody Merab’s physicality. As a dancer, Merab is precise and confident, but in his personal life he tends to pull himself inward and Gelbakhiani uses his dichotomous body language to create a portrayal that doesn’t require subtitles to understand.
Valishvili is also fantastic, his Irakli brimming with an infectious charm that makes it easy to see how Merab fell for him. The pair’s chemistry is endearing, with their physical encounters containing an urgency that turns to awkwardness upon climax. But their relationship isn’t devoid of sexiness, as one touching scene has Merab dancing seductively for Irakli to Robyn’s “Honey”. While the two steadfastly refuse to talk about their feelings, they manage to show their emotions through their interactions and body language. The result is a love story that manages to feel innocent without being naive.
There is hope for Georgia’s LGBTQ population and Akin shows them living their true selves with resilience.
Akin also manages to keep the supporting cast from feeling cliche. Merab’s dance partner/girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakisvili) discovers the affair and could have been the typical jilted lover. While she’s understandably upset by the revelation, she still cares for Merab, and while she urges him to stay closeted for his future, she ultimately wants him to find happiness. Similarly, Merab’s brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) could have been a prototypical boorish brother who gets into barroom brawls, but he is given a tenderness and inner depth that makes him more than an archetype.
In Western media, countries in the former Soviet Bloc are often portrayed as utilitarian and drab. However, cinematographer Lisabi Fridell captures the beauty of the region. Tbilisi is filled with flowers and gorgeous old architecture while the Georgian countryside is filled with an almost heavenly golden light. Even the queer underground clubs are filmed in an inviting neon. Most impressive of all, however, is a long take that follows Merab during a wedding reception. The camera follows him as he leaves the apartment, only to stay and watch the partygoers before moving to the window so we can see him and Mary reconcile. The three-minute shot is well choreographed and thrilling to watch.
While And Then We Danced was filmed in Georgia with a Georgian cast, reactionaries will probably see it as a Western product. Despite Akin’s heritage, he is from Sweden, and the production has already met with backlash. The cast received death threats, the choreographer of the gorgeous traditional Georgian dances had to keep anonymous for fear of losing his job, and the premier was met with protests. However, the opening weekend sold out in less than 15- minutes, and the film is getting good buzz in Eastern Europe. Hopefully, the march of progress will continue unabated, and we’ll soon be seeing queer native Georgians telling their own stories.
And Then We Danced stomps its way to its NY premiere this weekend, then comes to Chicago and a wider release next week courtesy of Music Box Films.