Marriage of convenience is not a new subject. In films, in novels and in countless television shows, we have been invited to witness both the drama and the comedy of the setup: Two people who barely know each other enter into what must appear to be a devoutly serious emotional commitment. It's a desperate measure, inevitably the result of desperate times. One partner is gay and determined to hide it from his family; one partner is an alien and wants to stay in the United States; one partner has a preexisting condition and needs health insurance. (We haven't seen it yet, but it's coming.) Rarely is it the case, however, that a woman seeks a marriage because she craves sexual freedom.
That's one of the twists that makes Head-On, a dark German film from writer/director Fatih Akin, more interesting than its premise. While it suffers from a few common missteps (particularly in giving its protagonists' relationship more credit than it merits), Head-On is a solid, well-crafted drama, with a tight script, sharp editing and strong performances by the leads. Beware, however: This is no comedy.
Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) is a young Turkish/German woman held prisoner, for all intents and purposes, by her strict Muslim family. Unmarried, she lives at home, where the vicious lot of them (brother and parents) punish her for attempting to date in any form. (Holding hands with a man results in a broken nose.) A suicide attempt lands Sibel in a mental hospital, where she meets Cahit (Birol Ünel), a brutish, fortysomething, alcoholic shaggy dog who drove his car into a wall. But never mind -- Cahit is Turkish, and Sibel's parents would approve. She begs him to marry her, simply to get her out of the house. Her beautiful breasts are a-wastin', and she wants to expose them to at least a few men while she's young and lithe. Cahit is her only hope.
At first, the fallen man resists, but later he caves to her pleas (which, it bears mentioning, include smashing a bottle of beer against a table and opening up several of the veins in her wrist). So, marriage on. In no time, Cahit must endure the awkward ceremony of meeting with Sibel's parents and asking for her hand, jousting with her crude beast of a brother (Cem Akin) and enduring a full-fledged Turkish wedding. (It's not every day that you hear a groom snarl "You lying cunt" as he guides his bride onto the dance floor.) None of these scenes is played for laughs. Instead, Akin allows every moment all of its discomfort, filling the camera with the single face, one at a time, of every player. It's exactly as this sort of exchange would be in life: excruciating.
After the wedding, Sibel moves into Cahit's bachelor flat, a garbage dump of beer cans and dirty dishes. She cleans and redecorates ("It's like a chick-bomb exploded in here"), and for a time, all goes well. In fact, as early as her wedding night, Sibel scores with a sexy bartender and, the following morning, bounces back to Cahit's place with pure freedom in her step. A happy young woman skipping through the sunny streets in her wedding dress -- nice scene. Soon, however, the tangled web is weaved, as Cahit begins to fall for Sibel and she, a bit belatedly, realizes that she has fallen for him. In the interim, she has gotten entangled with a nasty German man (Stefan Gebelhoff) who does not take kindly to her breezy turn of heart.
Thus begins a spate of violence that sends the film into dark territory indeed. This is where Head-On is likely to lose its audience, which it has thus far fairly won. For just as we come to trust Sibel and Cahit and hope that what they have might be real (and lasting), they mess up but good. (Expect your fair share of shattered glass and bleeding hands, among other things.) It's hard to invest in people who are so repeatedly self-destructive. It's tough to believe, too, that their connection will endure, since events go south soon after the couple comes together and since, by the way, Cahit is twenty years older; not merely alcoholic but desperately, fiercely alcoholic; and suicidal. Yet the movie asks us to believe. It's a stretch.
For the most part, Head-On is successful, if difficult. It's packed with emotional authenticity, real and meaty moments between troubled people. The acting is superb, especially from newcomer Sibel Kekilli (who was plucked from a shopping center). The economy of pace, too, is excellent, with only enough of any one utterance, or scene, to get the point across. And Head-On offers a new approach on familiar material, enough to feel original. Its errors, however, are violent and dark, so brace yourself.