Head-On ★★★★

The first 110 minutes or so of Head-On are quite good, and especially if you're one of those viewers who leave movies satisfied if you've found one exceptional element -- that is, you'll love a movie solely for its picturesque cinematography, or its crackling dialogue -- then you'll prize Head-On just for its lead performances. Sibel (Sibel Kekilli, pictured) wants to lead the twentysomething bachelorette life, but the only way she'll be allowed out from under her father's roof is if she marries a fellow Turk. When she meets Cahit (Birol Ünel) in a Hamburg mental ward after each has attempted suicide, she considers the fortysomething punker the perfect sham husband, and he acquiesces if only to shut her up. If this sounds like a romantic comedy waiting to happen, well, it's not -- Head-On is every bit as shattering as its title implies -- but it's first-rate, perfectly acted and quite compelling, all the way up until its botched ending.

Three-quarters of the way through the movie, Cahit and Sibel are forcibly separated -- Sibel describes both their circumstances as "being in jail" -- and their last scene together is as close as they have come to an open acknowledgement of their feelings, even to themselves. They've hit rock bottom and seem to find limitless comfort in the knowledge of the other's love. But at the end of the movie -- and here comes the only spoiler I'm going to present -- they don't end up together.
Lots of movie romances, including many of the greatest, feature couples that don't end up together. But from Casablanca and Roman Holiday to In the Realm of the Senses and House of Flying Daggers, the complication that guarantees separation is the same one that first drove the lovers into one another's arms -- theirs is a love that could never be. The analagous complication in Head-On is nothing more or less than Cahit and Sibel's suicidal tendencies and the implicit acknowledgement that this world isn't for them. Correlating whether they end up together to whether either really finds a place in the universe isn't reductionist; it's drama.
As such, the first 95 percent of the movie is Cahit and Sibel unwittingly getting over themselves and falling in love, and the last 5 percent of the movie sucks. Having done the hard work of selling us on the improbability that these two just might be happy together and convincing us that their suffering would bear fruit, the filmmakers throw in an 11th-hour obstacle that's unmotivated and unfair -- it really only exists to set up a Sophie's choice that can't be decided in the couple's favor. One of them makes basically the only decision guaranteed to short-circuit the possibility of their future happiness. It's not that the circumstance is unrealistic, but it's bad storytelling: Because the years leading up to and following that decision all happen offscreen while they're separated, when those story details emerge in the onscreen narrative it feels like a screenwriter's contrivance to kill the momentum and vouchsafe a glum ending. It's an act of bad faith on Akin's part, a snakebite of pessimism at the end of a movie capable of moments of great romantic optimism, and the whole enterprise turns to ash in your mouth.
In a movie where things worked out for Cahit and Sibel, you could say that even the most unlikely people can forge an emotional-cum-spiritual connection that endures the direst circumstances. But what does Head-On's actual ending say? That Cahit and Sibel are in fact too damaged to be happy? That if your instinct is to be emotionally withdrawn from others, go with that because you're likely incapable of healthy relationships? You can dismiss movies that believe in transformative love as happy horseshit, but the romantic nihilism Head-On ultimately offers is just excrement from a horse of a different color.

Dane 101, September 15, 2005