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The Summer with Carmen


BFI Flare 2024
Reviewer | Richard Maguire

This queer comedy from Greece is smart and sexy even if Carmen is a dog, not a drag queen. While trying to write a screenplay about something else entirely, two gay men, Demosthenes and Nikitas, end up writing about their previous attempt at writing a screenplay. Meta and wry, The Summer with Carmen is about the value of friendship rather than the pursuit of sex.

Demosthenes and Nikitas are on a rocky outcrop that is mainly used for cruising. Demosthenes, naked, and Nikitas, in trunks, are struggling to turn their stage play, Sissies, into a film. With no experience in writing screenplays, Nikitas has purchased a How To manual. The book tells them they must find a hero and a plot. It’s more difficult than it seems. Their last effort ended when Demosthenes acquired a dog from his ex. Perhaps that’s the story they should follow.

But where to begin? Should the first scene detail the breakup of Demosthenes with his boyfriend, the creepy Panos? Or should it be at Pride, post-breakup, where Panos, who has previously said that he would never go to Pride, is first spotted with a small dog on a leash? Or should it be when Demosthenes offers to look after the dog for a day while Panos meets his friends for a meal? No matter, as each of these scenes is shown.

Of course, Carmen is a MacGuffin as the film’s focus, despite the title, is on the emptiness of Demosthenes’s life. Regardless of the story he has told Nikitas, it is Panos who split up with him, not the other way. Demosthenes has a boring job in an office and writes down that sex and the gym are his most urgent concerns. He treats sex as if it’s an Olympic sport. But when he ends up with Carmen, his priorities change.

This is not to say that owning a pet makes Demosthenes a better person. To a certain extent, Demosthenes is just as irresponsible as Panos when it comes to looking after Carmen. In fact, it’s his father’s death that is the catalyst for transformation. (Should the film-within-a-film begin here? Nikitas asks) His father’s demise brings him closer to his mother who dotes over Carmen in ways that she never did over her son.

Having a metanarrative is a clever way by writers Zacharias Mavroeidis and Fondas Chalatsis to disguise the fact that the story of the actual summer with Carmen is not that dramatic or original. What makes this film sparkle like the sun on the Aegean Sea is the friendship between the two friends on the rocks. They are dissimilar in that Demosthenes is hairy and bearish – Panos calls him his “little gorilla” – while Nikitas is smooth and camp. And yet, they are the best of friends, aptly represented in the hug between them at the father’s funeral.

Stage actor Yorgos Tsiantoulas gives a wonderful performance as Demosthenes through the smallest of details. His disappointment in his mother and his unresolved yearning for Panos are deftly underplayed. We see less of Andreas Labropoulos’s Nikitas, although the colour of his hair helps alert us to which time period we are in. Even though he is a minor character in the flashbacks – which is the point of the film – occasionally his friendship with his bestie is edged with the faintest traces of desire.

Beautifully shot and endlessly inventive, we can only hope that The Summer with Carmen has life after the festival season. It certainly deserves it.

The Summer with Carmen is screening at BFI Flare 2024 from 13-24 March.

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