Tribeca Film Festival 2011: Flowers of Evil, A Film of Love and Protest (With Lots of Tweets)

This review originally appeared on Capital New York, as part of my coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Much of the current conversation about social media and technology, in the world at large and in cinema, focuses on how it supposedly isolates us, and keeps us glued to our blackberries or iPhones instead of engaging with the world around us. A manipulative documentary like Catfish shows what we already know: There are crazy people out there ready to take advantage of the good nature of others. People are suckered all the time (there was the Kaycee Nicole hoax of 2001, among others). Anxious op-ed columns worry about how no one reads books anymore and everyone’s attention span is blunted. The anxiety about social media represents a rather blinkered view, unnecessarily alarmist, when you consider the fact that networks like Facebook help long-distance families stay in touch, help people find others of like-minded interests, and, let’s not forget, as the events in Egypt and elsewhere have recently shown us, can be an important tool for a population to get the word out about what is happening. Social media can isolate, but it can also connect. This is the theme of French director David Dusa’s extraordinary feature film Flowers of Evil, which tells the story of a young Iranian woman, sent to Paris by her parents to keep her safe from the the violence in Iran following the highly contested 2009 election, and a young French-Algerian man who works as a bellhop in a Paris hotel. Dusa is interested in how social media works in the lives of young people who don’t even think to question it or worry about it. It is their landscape, it is how they navigate the world. Energetic and emotional, Flowers of Evil has real heart, and actually has something unique to say about technology, and Dusa has found a unique way to say it.

Anahita (Alice Belaïdi) is first seen crouching in the lobby of a posh Parisian hotel, huddled over her open laptop. With sunglasses on, and an elegant headscarf, she is lost to the world around her. Gecko (Rachid Youcef, in an amazing debut), wearing a bellhop uniform (charmingly at odds with his wild black hair), helps her with her bags. He shows her around her room, but she has already thrown herself on the bed, typing frantically on her keyboard. You can sense the young man is drawn to her, but she barely takes him in. He asks her where she is from and she says, “Iran.”

Gecko knows nothing about Iran, although he vaguely remembers they have “a lot of traffic jams” there, based on a random Google search he once did. He is completely unaware of the political upheaval going on in Iran, and despite his own exile status, seems happy with his rootlessness. We eventually learn he grew up in a foster home, and has always been on his own. He lives in a small apartment over a busy freeway, and he spends his free time doing parkour, putting videos of himself breakdancing and “freerunning” onto YouTube. Dusa films Gecko catapulting himself through the architecture of Paris, on his way to work, flipping and crouching and leaping and spinning, as passersby look on, laughing. Gecko cannot stand still. If he finds himself waiting for an elevator, for example, he must flip himself over backwards and spin around on the floor. It’s reminiscent of Cary Grant’s spontaneous acrobatics in Holiday (1938), where, to relax himself in tense moments, he suddenly does a somersault or a cartwheel. Gecko’s constant almost-obsessive physicality (if there is a wall, he must find a way to leap over it) is delightfully weird, and gives the character a depth and an oddness that makes Flowers of Evil special. He is not just there to be a witness to Anahita’s distress, or a passive listening ear. He is his own man. His connection is not to country, his connection is to himself.

The two check one another out on Facebook (the vetting process most of the modern world goes through now when meeting someone new), and they text one another, sweetly, the content of their texts appearing across the screen, overlaying the action. There are shots of her watching Gecko’s parkour videos on Youtube, as a confused and yet warm smile flickers across her face. Who is this man? But she can’t keep her mind off of what is happening back in Iran. She communicates through Twitter (her Twitter moniker is Miss_Dalloway. Think about it.), and her anxious Tweets and the Tweets of her friends back in Iran are also replicated across the screen, emoticons and all. A friend Tweets, alarmingly, “Help us protect the university.” “Miss_Dalloway” begs for news over Twitter, her questions for updates appearing on the screen.

Dusa makes social media seem immediate and urgent.

Gecko and Anahita have a nervous edgy energy together, perhaps due to her distraction which leaves her unable to be in the moment, but is also due to the oldest reason in the book: They like each other and want to kiss each other. It’s a romantic movie, a movie of courtship in a time of political strife. The two actors are wonderful in their scenes together, and their relationship unfolds slowly, intercut with scenes of Anahita feverishly downloading Youtube videos from Iran and Gecko doing parkour in public places. He says he wants to make her dinner, and there’s an amazing scene in a grocery store, with blinding white tiles and fluorescent lights, and as she gets the food he writhes and flips and spins up and down the aisles, making her laugh.

We’ve seen him do parkour from the getgo, but here, it looks different. It is like a gorilla thumping his chest, or a male peacock fanning out his tail. Gecko is showing off for her. Over dinner at the apartment her parents rent for her, she finds out he is a Muslim when he refuses a glass of wine. A fellow Muslim. How exciting. She grins at him mischievously, and pulls her scarf back up over her hair. He grins back and says (the most charming line in the movie), “Don’t worry, my dove. Sometimes I stray from the righteous path.”

Almost against her will, she is drawn into the pleasure of Gecko’s company. She tells him she wants to go see “The Flemish Masters” at The Louvre, especially “The Tower of Babel”, an eloquent symbolic choice. Her ears are filled with the screams and gunfire from Iranian Youtube videos of the protests, as well as the fearful yet determined Tweets of her friends in Iran, and the Babel of the world is overwhelming. Nothing makes sense. The guilt of not being back there is excruciating.

Gecko is tender with this aspect of Anahita, although he does not understand the situation (after all, he had to look up Iran on Wikipedia). But they find a chastened pleasure in one another’s company. They go to a nightclub and dance like maniacs, sweaty and laughing and singing along. They dance around in her apartment, listening to music on her iPod. In a romantic moment, she recites some Omar Khayyám to him, and she makes the connection between the Persian poet and France’s Baudelaire.

Baudelaire was a poet of revolt, and his scandalous and influential volume of poetry, Fleurs du Mal (published in 1857) got him into a lot of trouble. He was prosecuted for indecency and then fined. Anahita loves Baudelaire. She makes Gecko read Baudelaire out loud, and he is awkward and halting, he has never read out loud before. He has never even heard of Baudelaire, although he has lived in France his whole life. The culture of his adopted country has not trickled down into his consciousness, a subtle comment on the lack of assimilation many immigrants experience. The luscious, violent words of Baudelaire are in direct contrast to the innocence of their blossoming love, but it does bring up the question: Can flowers blossom from evil? Not to mention the fact that they are both Muslims, and what they are currently doing would be seen as “evil” back in her homeland (she shouts at him during one painful argument, “We would be arrested for this back in Iran!” and then, shockingly, “You’ve soiled me!”). Anahita tells Gecko that in Iran you “learn to lie” from a very young age. Growing up under theocratic rule creates a duplicitous population who live one way in public, and another way in private. The ease of lying is part of her culture, and it pains her. She is unaccustomed to transparency, and Gecko is the epitome of it. His openness unsettles her.

David Dusa, who was born in Budapest, and grew up in Sweden and South Africa, said in an interview that he had been very impressed by the people of Iran in 2009, and their Youtube onslaught on the silence imposed on them from above. This was the germ for Flowers of Evil.

The 2009 protests in Iran were notable for many reasons, one of which was that the population took on the collective role of citizen journalist, since most of the press was either imprisoned or silenced. People filmed the violence, and, in some cases, the actual deaths of people, and posted these clips on Youtube. The apparent death of one woman, known as “Neda”, was filmed in its entirety and quickly went viral. These were powerful and horrifying images, a cry for help and a scream of outrage. Iran still lives under the stifling crackdown resulting from 2009 (the recent imprisonment of Iranian director Jafar Panahi has called worldwide attention to the situation), and Flowers of Evil can be seen as an act of protest in that light.

Social media has changed our world, and nobody has a good perspective on it yet. In Flowers of Evil, Dusa doesn’t worry about perspective, because young people like Anahita and Gecko don’t worry about it. Anahita and Gecko live in a world where their presences online are as real as their presences out in the “real” world, and the film acknowledges this reality in a casual way, which feels real and immediate. Dusa floods the frame with technology: the texts between Anahita and Gecko are reproduced across the screen, as well as Tweets, and Facebook status updates. Gecko’s energetic humorous parkour routines are filmed like music videos, with blasting dance beats and quick sexy MTV-inspired cuts. Dusa repeatedly interrupts the action in Paris with actual Youtube clips from Iran, grainy and handheld, including the famous “Neda” clip. This is a questionable strategy, the only one I questioned. Using images of the real deaths of real people in service of a fictional story is a sketch move. The clips, some of them quite lengthy, are unnecessary. Belaïdi, the actress, shows us everything we need to know, with her engrossed and serious face staring at her blue-lit laptop screen in the dark of her apartment. The background screams of protest and gunfire is a supplementary soundtrack. We don’t need to see the images of real-life people in Iran being brutalized.

Flowers of Evil is strictly a two-hander, with Anahita and Gecko the only people in it. Belaïdi and Youcef create sweet, attractive, complicated, and funny characters. There is real pain behind many of their conversations, and neither actor flinches when it comes to showing ugliness or misunderstanding. Their fights erupt with jagged edges, and the passion of their anger comes directly out of the fact that they have come to care so deeply. His tenderness is real, and so is hers, but the world is “too much with us” and full of evil, inhibiting the flower of their love. She begs with him to understand her position, and in one moving moment of solidarity, the two stand on the roof of her apartment building, facing the city of Paris, screaming, “Allāhu Akbar” together, over and over and over. Gecko is slightly envious of her ties that bind. He doesn’t “belong” anywhere, but in that respect, he is strong. He is not infected with nationalism. He is free. When Anahita emails her friends back in Iran about the boy she has met in Paris, the text of her email unfurls across the screen: “He has the freedom of our dreams. Be stubborn and subtle.” Anahita is not free. Iran calls her. She cannot escape the summons.

Dusa has gathered all of his considerable forces to make a visually exciting film that also manages to really be about something. The omnipresence of social media has vast implications in our current-day world, and we can see the results in the Middle East right now, with citizens taking to Twitter to protest what is happening. But Dusa does not forget that our “way in” to understanding the technology revolution is through the relationship of these two nice young kids, who, instead of being isolated by social media, as the naysayers warn, are connected by it.

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