Everyone has feminine and masculine dualities living inside them, but few embrace such qualities like an old friend — much less dance, argue, or make love to them in the moonlight. While the contemporary dance scenes are undoubtedly the highlight of Boaz Yakin’s provocative new romantic drama “Aviva,” the filmmaker externalizes the concept of one’s inner other by casting his main characters with both a male and female actor. The central couple therefore becomes four people, all of whom engage physically, verbally, and romantically in different combinations.
It’s a fascinating concept, and one offering plenty to grapple with on its own. Unfortunately, it’s far more successful during the film’s evocative dance and sex scenes than the droning argumentative dialogue, which drags down some otherwise transporting visuals. If “Aviva” didn’t already have such stimulating choreography and music going for it, maybe the high-concept schtick would feel revelatory instead of indulgent and distracting. As such, there is too much going on in the two-hour film. That’s unfortunate, because some simple streamlining to foreground the dancing would’ve allowed elements of the story to filter through with a lighter touch.
The film opens with the titular character, Aviva (Zina Zinchenko), declaring her camera her one true love. The young redheaded Parisian soon begins an epistolary romance with an American man named Eden (Tyler Phillips), and soon enough she’s headed across the pond to see if the connection is real. “Aviva” makes ample use of nudity and sex, with many cutaways to naked men sitting plainly, full frontal and all. It’s clear Yakin is concerned with what’s going on beneath the surface during sex, and he uses these double personas to explore this. The first time we see Aviva and Eden make love, it’s awkward, with Aviva failing to get Eden to make eye contact with her. They’ve written so many intimate things to one another, little love dispatches rippling across the ocean, but it proves challenging to fit the pieces together in the flesh.
An early chapter titled “Anatomy of a Kiss” jumps to Aviva’s childhood with little explanation, as a flood of memories brushes past in a lyrical montage of fathers dancing with babies, parents fucking, fighting, and a revolving door of giddy teenage assignations. Eden’s childhood memories are similarly abstract, with an early discovery of gender that has yet to resolve. After playing with a new friend on the playground, young Eden is shattered to learn the boy is actually a girl. He bikes off in a huff, declaring, “And that was that. Paradise lost.” This little anecdote is coupled with the first of many fights between the two lovers, and indicates Eden’s inability to connect not only with the woman in his bed, but the woman in his head.
Eden’s inner woman is played by the film’s choreographer, Bobbi Jene Smith, who trained in Israel under revered choreographer Ohad Naharin, creator of an emotion-based style of expressive dance called Gaga. (For a fascinating primer on Naharin, check out the 2015 documentary “Mr. Gaga.”) Inflections of Gaga can be seen in a few of the dance sequences, but Smith’s choreography is at its finest when exploring the mundane rituals that make up everyday physical interaction.
A bar scene with Eden’s “boys” reads like a contemporary interpretation of the iconic dance scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The men’s rigid handshakes morph into a fluid exploration of masculine performance, and then a sensual pick-up ritual. A flashback to Eden’s New York childhood involves an exuberant line of kid dancers decorating the Coney Island boardwalk. The wedding scene takes place between the two women, with Zinchenko and Smith in matching white gowns. It would resemble a lesbian wedding, except that Smith is so dedicated to her performance that she never loses sight of Eden’s slumped frame, skulking in the background.
Yakin uses comedy of the creative invention he’s established, subbing in Eden’s child self while the two are looking for apartments. Under the guise of a 10-year-old boy, his noncommittal sullenness reads as understandable, except when you remember he’s supposed to be a grown man. The script falters under the weight of its grand vision, however, when the two characters talk to the other parts of themselves. As Eden yells angrily at his inner woman, it’s the first time a man’s internalized misogyny has been so starkly shown onscreen here. Unfortunately, that glimmer of freshness can’t overcome an overall doleful tone. It’s an ambitious piece, but in the dance between experimental ideas and grounded storytelling, “Aviva” should have listened to her body.
“Aviva” opens in virtual cinemas from Outsider Pictures on June 12.