The Un-Queering of Queer Cinema: Panos H. Koutras, Xenia (2014)
Xenia is a deceptively simple film which needs a detailed analysis and exploration. Recently, it received a number of prestigious awards by the Greek Film Academy and many positive, albeit mixed, reviews in the international circuit of film festivals. Guy Lodge in Variety talked about the film as “brashly uneven and wildly overlong” in need of more “disciplined editing.”[i] Boyd van Hoeij pointed out that “though the story [i]s finally too predictable and a little too thin to captivate for the film’s entire two-hours-plus running time, the characters, their chemistry and their plight are compelling.”[ii] Fabien Lemercier was more positive in his assessment: “Very much at ease with tragicomedy and not one to shy away from any combination of genres – from fables to hyperrealism, or from focusing on a single human relationship to a vast portrait of society, via euphoric moments of musical comedy and amazing forays into dream worlds and fantasy – the filmmaker allows himself to take every possible liberty in Xenia”. Lemercier emphasises that “the film is above all a very successful portrait of brotherhood.”[iii]
Despite its shortcomings, especially in the script (an endemic problem in the Greek film-making) and in editing (especially in the last thirty minutes of the film), there is no doubt that Xenia is one of the most significant European films of the last decade, a filmic space in which local experience and transcultural aesthetics converge in an extremely imaginative and challenging manner.
The screenwriters Panagiotis Evangelidis and Panos Koutras avoided the usual sins of the Greek script tradition: ponderousness, highly artificial dialogues and lack of characterisation. They insisted in a mixture of plot and character, merging in distinct episodes, and linked by a distinct sense of verbal drollness, enhanced by a liberating sense of frivolity and youthful carelessness. Within the context of the high melodramas and of the ‘weird wave’ that dominate Greek film production during this time of economic crisis and social implosion, Xenia liberates its audience from its pretensions, re-enchants a social world without sublimating myths and finally challenges the boring questions of identity, belonging and memory. In contrast to the gloom and doom atmosphere, it projects images of euphoric self-invention, through accomplished characters and a cinematic language of suggestive non-sequiturs.
Furthermore, the camera movement by Hélène Louvart and Simos Sarketzis alternates between high angle long shots and low angle medium shots developing the story in two levels: the historical and the imaginary. The narrative structure of each sequence, especially in the River Scene, invites viewers to empathise while at the same time distances them, by manipulating space, size and volume: the imaginary rabbit grows more and more until it becomes gigantic and disappears, as the frame is unable to contain both its form and symbolism. Beyond however this specific scene, the intimacy of colours, the affectionate portrayal of urban ugliness and the imaginary landscapes that punctuate the story enhance the emotional energy with a burning feeling of euphoric provocation. The voice of Patty Pravo and the melodious sonorities of the Italian language create a soundscape of innocence fused with guiltless sensuality evoking the rebellious hopefulness of the sixties.
The atmosphere of enhancement is further multiplied by the awkward and over the top acting of the two main characters. Kostas Nikouli and Nikos Gelia are the two opposites that complement each other. The hybridity of their origin gives a special tension to their language—always playing with nuances, ambiguities and equivocations. “You are not only Albanian but also a faggot,” Ody says to his brother. “Yes,” he replies joyfully, “mountain and sea at the same time.” Their very nature is the royal way to the indeterminacy of modernity: they stand for the emerging self, a post nation-state individuality centred on the primacy of corporeal presence.
The central story-line of the film is structured around the life of these two Greek-Albanian brothers, one straight and the other gay, as they travel through Greece to find their lost father, after the death of their Albanian mother. On the way to the father they encounter extraordinary dangers and individuals, or get involved with the rituals of bonding established by the contemporary hearth of all myths, the television. Their meeting with the dominant culture takes place in front of the committee of the Greek Star for one brother and with the confrontation with their presumed father for the other. Both stories are left unresolved, with the cameo appearance of Patty Pravo, bringing an optimistic closure to the story.
The film can be read as a denouncement of racism, homophobia and xenophobia. However it is also about adolescence, a vanishing adolescence, according to Koutras himself. It is also about “fraternal love” because as he states in “gay culture fraternal love is very important. The idea of sticking together which develops between two siblings, two men or two women, is somethings extremely strong, a very deep connection. You grow up with a human being that looks after your back, which is very important for gay mentality.”[iv]
Maria Katsounakis wrote: “Xenia doesn’t let its viewers in peace. It secretly plays with thriller, with threat with subversion. Nothing really is as it looks in the first sight. Everything changes, it develops nuances, changing moods, humour, desires, gest for life, for a better future.”[v] Hristos Mitsis stresses the “Almadovarian” character of the film, “a socially sensitive story, an intimately emotional road movie.”[vi]
What unifies the film is the cohesive and well structured ‘queer gaze’ of its director over the fluid and collapsing realities of contemporary Greek society. There are many interesting ‘queer’ films produced in Greece over the last twenty years, like the Giannis Diamantopoulos’s Galazio Forema/ True Blue (2005), Vladimiros Kyriakidis’s-Efi Mouriki’s Straight Story (2006), Vardis Marinakis’s Mavro Livadi/Black Field (2009) and of course Koutras’s own Strella/A Woman’s Way (2010). Xenia however seems to complete a whole cycle of exploration into the cinematic representation of masculinity. Both in its representational codes and narrative lines, Xenia fuses seamlessly antithetical visual regimes without neutralising their distinct potentialities. The tension that we find in the film belongs to the wider ‘scripts’ that are currently developing and compete with each other contesting their ability to visually configure the current crisis that permeates Greek society.
Recently, contemporary Greek cinema has become an unexpected space of contesting aesthetics. On one side, the so-called ‘weird wave’ a hyper-formalist reversal ad extremis of dominant codes of representation, and on the other, a narrative-oriented movement aspiring in foregrounding microhistories and voiceless subalterns. Yorgos Lanthimos, Athena Rachel-Tsangari, Alexandros Avranas, Elina Psikou, Kostas Zapas, represent the first trend, continuing a tradition of negative capabilities, essentially going back to Nikos Nikolaidis (The Zero Years  for example) by deconstructing language, narrative and continuity.
The narrative-oriented production as found in Constantine Giannaris, Syllas Tzoumerkas, Stratis Tzitzis, Filippos Tsitos, Yannis Economides, and Panos H. Koutras reinvents visual narratives structured around powerful and sometimes emotionally overpowering stories, with one meta-diegetic element added to their form: they are self-reflexive movies, testing the limits of their own representational codes by introducing self-parody, pastiche and ironic distance from their own subject-matter.
Due to the oppositional dialogue between the two discourses, new stories have emerged: especially as the Greek demography has changed, the internal other, the immigrant, the sexual outlaw, the domesticated alien became the dominant themes in the new cinematic mythography. The new stories about these outsiders struggle to visualise new aesthetical territories that can localise their historical specificity within the dominant cultural continuum.
Together with certain successful comedies, narrative cinema photographs the changing urban landscape in the country while exploring the reorientation of its cultural imaginary. If until recently, the central axes of identity were history and memory, (the Civil War, immigration, the dictatorship) now the new narrative cinema searches for new narrative potentialities in alien bodies, the resident aliens, the migrants, the new hybrid cultures emerging through the mixing of people and the fusion of their cultural conditioning as it has taken place the last three decades on the ambivalent social territory of the Greek society. Their main themes are structured around the frantic new temporalities that have emerged after Greece ceased being a monocultural and monolingual society.
The death of the nation-state and its symbolic dominance was also expressed through the discrediting of its patriarchal and heterosexist ideology which has dominated mainstream politics. It was obvious that the masculinist, hyper-heterosexual, icons of the cinema in the fifties and sixties were cleverly disguising a traumatised masculinity, and a male dominator who was unsure of his phallus, a penis with political power but without moral authority.
Few film-directors questioned such masculinist primacy during the heroic years of Greek cinematic production. First of all, Maria Plyta was the first director who depicted sensitive and feminised men unable to control their desires. She was followed by the most significant gay and queer film-maker of the cultural imaginary of post-war Greece, the underestimated and undervalued Yannis Dalianidis. Dalianidis’s hyper-sexual goddesses ‘queered’ heterosexuality, by hiding in their sexualised body the male, homosexual gaze, displacing its overt eroticism through provocative dresses or cunningly homosocial subtexts.
Koutras belongs to this group of film-makers connecting themselves to the dismissed tradition of good commercial Greek cinema. Yet he adds something totally new to Dalianidis’s disguised attempts to dismantle the emotional, sexual and existential centres of masculinity. Together with Costantine Giannaris, they are constructing radical representational codes that frame new configurations of masculine presence without identity problems and without the cultural or moral panic that characterises the dominant ideology of contemporary Greek political order. Koutras’s aesthetics counteract the current anxiety of the hegemonic class after the demographic and cultural change has loosened its grip on power. Against this background, Xenia is the answer of the powerless, the subaltern and the outsider to the manipulation of the cultural and political imaginary by discredited elites that desperately struggle to maintain their authority.
Koutras’s films are predominantly about masculinity and its polymorphous expressions as well as about the sexual subjectivity of contemporary males. In his films, he takes gender not simply as social performance but as an internalised stereotype to be dismantled. Through his whimsical stories, he subverts and undermines the presumed self-evident character of such behaviours. In his films, the individual rebels against its own constitution, either physical or cultural. His characters don’t simply ridicule or demolish stereotypes, but expose their very heterogeneity and contradictions. They ‘queer’ them by making them normal human beings, full of dilemmas, fears and frustrations.
Koutras’s first film I Epithesi tou Gigantiaiou Moussaka/The Attack of the Giant Moussaka (1999) was a hilarious parody of science fiction films and at the same time a spoof on the society of the total spectacle that has taken over social experience in Greece. Bright cinemascope colours from the fifties, impressive digital effects, hilarious sexual transgressions, parodic melodramatic music emphasised the growing gap between appearance and reality, between expectation and realisation in an era of high hopes and minimal efforts.
His next film Alithini Zoe/Real Life (2004) took a new turn as his cinematic language came closer to magic realism, a dimension quite significant for him as no other director has made a conscious use of this style with the easiness and the effectiveness of Koutras. As in his first film, striking and bright colours expressed the deep Freudian subtexts permeating the story in an atmosphere or emotional seriousness, verbal jocularity and sensual reserve.
Koutras’s great breakthrough, Strella (2009) is an ambivalent film—ambivalent towards its own story and towards its own form. Without ceasing being a critique of a specific moment in Greek history, the film is about bonds and connections between cultures, mentalities and temporalities teasing its viewers by reversing the social performance of gender. With this film, gender identity became a question, indeed a project, as national identity fell into disrepute while class identity was somehow forgotten.
Xenia builds on all his previous films but pushes the limits of narrative and style to new levels of complexity by constantly weaving references to other films, directors and cinematic epochs. It is consisted of what I have called elsewhere ‘inter-filmic transcriptions’.[vii] It adopts and adapts frames or sequences from other films, from Federico Fellini, for example, or Nicholas Ray, or the most obvious Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955); but it re-inscribes them through completely different signifiers and visual cartographies. Each frame becomes a prism of various emotive markers and stylistic registers: the film synthesises them in a highly provocative way as composite cinematic spaces.
The culmination of this prismatic visuality comes with the magic realism that punctuates the dark landscapes of the brothers’ unpredictable journey. Fredric Jameson characterises magic realism in cinema as “a metamorphosis in perception and in things perceived”, which means that it is not a simple stylistic device for surprise or shock. Such metamorphosis has its timing and takes place in specific moments in the film maintaining thus its critical edge without ever veering off to the childish cuteness of Guillaume Laurant, Amélie (2001), the pathological mnemonic fantasy of Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), or the extreme nihilistic magic of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001). However both Giannaris and Koutras are closer to the cinematic extravagances of Todd Haynes and more specifically to Francois Ozon’s and Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s, cinema du corps, or even to the so–called new French Extremism in which under sexual ugliness and brutal intimacy they depict “the soul that lurks underneath the shocks.”[viii] It is their very strong sense of realism that makes their films grounded on the contested space of contemporary history.
The magic transfiguration of the real, the successful fusion of imagination and diegetic realism, brings Xenia closer to Jay and Mark Duplass’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) than to any story by Pedro Almadovar, whose phenomenology of colours nevertheless is akin to the Mediterranean sensibility of Koutras. On the other hand, as a consciously ‘queer’ film, Xenia goes beyond the usual stereotypes of gay men as constantly involved in sex or drugs, or even as beings constantly persecuted, as we see in a number of very good films like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), Eytan Fox’s The Bubble (2006), Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open (2009) or indeed Patrice Chereau’s His Brother (2003). The sexualisation of the male body is not a pornographic depiction of its presence: on the contrary it is the political act of exposing the paternalistic pretensions of an all-powerful phallic god.
Koutras takes homosexuality seriously as an existential and political principle for organising life and sensitivity. Homosexuality is a different way of structuring reality and sensibility, not simply sexual behaviour or the titillating depiction of gay characters in stress. The two brothers looking for their father become also the anti-Angelopoulos children from the Topio stin Omihli/Landscape in the Mist (1988). Their father is not the metaphysical source of life, but a gangster, a pimp, a criminal: Xenia assassinates the legacy of the socialist 80ies with its messianic, un-historical, pretentions. The innocent adolescents can only counter the criminality of the father, with their own talents, their creative ability to sublimate a horrible beginning and transfigure it into a purity of vision. Each era has its own visions and their vision is embodied by a secular deity, Patty Pravo, the only sacred voice that remained on earth after the holiness of Virgin Mary vanished for ever. In a sense, this is the Greek response to Terence Davies’s Trilogy (1976-1983) and its anguished homosexuality and sadomasochistic sacrality.
Xenia is a ‘post-queer’ film in the sense that it disrupts the self-evident character of a dominant way of conceptualising and representing sexual identities. In this sense, it defamiliarises the homosexual from his/her own homosexuality: it is the fraternity of opposites, the differential dynamics between oppositions that make images significant and formally cohesive. Consequently, it cancels the inherent essentialism of such categories: the gay brother finds its heterosexual self through his straight brother, and vice versa. At the heart of the homosexual there always exists a desire for the in-between, for its own self-transgression. Culturally, the embodied self is interstitial and de-essentialised: it liberates the repressed desire not by satisfying but by multiplying it.
Xenia suggests counter-myths and anti-heroes, looking at history from below and exploring the structures that make such submerged gaze significant. Koutras however goes beyond the facile illusionistic realism that usually makes many recent queer films so one-dimensional, presenting the homosexual character as something unique and exceptional. Koutras introduces imagination, the realm of the absolute interiority, in order to explore the existential presence of his characters. They are not marginal cases, or exceptions or superfluous heroes—and the film is not addressed only to gay audiences. Their anti-romanticism is distinct and pronounced. They are mundane beings that experience a fullness of existence, replete with the fluidities, the uncertainties and the discontinuities of every ‘normal’ human being. Through his peculiar magic realism, Koutras normalises his characters: he makes them our neighbours, our ideal siblings, our own family. Instead of falling into the narcissistic mythology of despair and self-victimisation, he depicts self-sufficient subjectivities, whose sense of self is based neither on lack nor on excess but on the usual bundle of irreconcilable contradictions that make all life so interesting, unpredictable and exciting.
Indeed, his queerness belongs to the second wave of the queer cinema which, leaving behind political statements or identity politics, “they redefine queer cinema and traverse its territory with humour and sensitivity, realism and artifice, mainstream address and camp subversion, documentary convention and realist form.”[ix]
Xenia is a film about the multi-focal subject of modernity, not the centreless subjectivity of post-modernism. It celebrates the centrality of the body, of the male body, indeed of the embodied consciousness, as it challenges the expectations and the fears of a cultural community in its twilight years. It does not simply challenge heterosexim and heteronormativity: it reimagines projects of realisation and patterns of moral valuation through a queer gaze over the biopolitics of today.
Beyond its aesthetic, cultural and social challenges, Xenia responds to the most fundamental question of Christian ethics: “Who is my neighbour?” Responding to this question, Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke, 10, 25-37)—and this queer film is the modern version of that parable.
These two outsiders are the Samaritans who dispel the fears and the phobias of an established culture by actively showing the new perceptions of mutuality and reciprocity that ideology and anxiety have silenced. In failed states like the Greek one, always the underclasses are called to solve the problems created by the dominant class: it is because of them that the cultural imaginary persists and the societal bonds as philia politike remain.
Focused on this underclass, Xenia is a contemporary urban parable, “unreal but not untrue,”[x] as Bruno Bettelheim would have said. It re-imagines oedipal conflicts, phallic fantasies, castration fears and separation anxieties through an innocuous televisual style. It presents the unbearable queerness of all human beings, from the fascist thug to the most docile housewife—and therefore it politicises queerness as predominantly a class category, avoiding the allure of minoritisation or the seduction of universalism, as James Penney has theorised.[xi]
Furthermore, it exposes the lack of consciousness and the inability to empathise with the ‘neighbour’ publicly exhibited by mainstream culture reverting to archaic self-perceptions and indulging in fantasies of ideological redemption, sexual domination, or sagas of nostalgic self-justification. Greece is a culture of successive traumas which has created a society of strangers—only when the outsider enters the trauma is healed and the ethics of recognition prevail. Xenia is a symbol of such ethics of recognition. Koutras’s film visualises a homosexual conceptual journey and explores the truths of the body which a whole social formation wants to forget.
It is really strange what one can find when un-queering a queer film.
[ii] Boyd van Hoeij, in http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/xenia-cannes-review-701756
[iii] Fabien Lemercier, Xenia: identity and Brotherhood, in http://cineuropa.org/ff.aspx?t=ffocusarticle&l=en&tid=2713&did=257650
[iv] Popaganda at Cannes: interview with Panos H. Koutras, 22-4-2014, http://popaganda.gr/popaganda-stis-kannes-sinentefxi-ton-pano-ch-koutra/
[v] Maria Katsoukanki, Xenia in a darkening country, newspaper Kathimerini, 15 October, 2014 http://www.kathimerini.gr/768187/article/politismos/kinhmatografos/h-xenia-se-mia-xwra-poy-vradiazei
[vi] Hristos Mitsis, Xenia, Athinorama, 1-10-2014, in http://www.athinorama.gr/cinema/article.aspx?id=2501882
[vii] Vrasidas Karalis (2011), ‘Cinematic Realism in Michael Cacoyannis Early Films,’ Modern Greek Studies (Australia and New Zealand), vol. 15, p. 162.
[viii] David Fear (2007), Time Out New York, Issue 607, May 17–23. Access date: April 25, 2015.
[ix] Barbara Mennel (2012), Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys, London and New York: Wallflower, p. 116.
[x] Bruno Bettelheim (1976), The uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy tales, New York: Vintage Books, p. 73.
[xi] James Penney (2014), After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics, London: Pluto Press, p. 2.