Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan begins in such grim, static, deadpan fashion that you might be forgiven for assuming you’ve traveled back in time to an international film festival circa 2002. All sharp angles and stony faces and oblique interactions, the movie opens with glum, portly, middle-aged doctor Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou) arriving to the tiny island of Antiparos to be the local physician. It’s a desolate place: empty streets, dim buildings, sour people. Watching these early scenes, I found myself settling in for a wry, dry wallow in minimalist miserabilism.
And then summer starts. It’s first announced with the arrival of Anna (Elli Tringou), a beautiful young woman who has suffered a nasty leg wound from a moped accident. As Kostis tries to treat it, her chums — long-haired, scantily clad and quite possibly high — wreak havoc in his clinic. Shy but also eager to act cool, the doctor tolerates them, even playing along a bit. He should be annoyed, but that grin suggests something else.
Before we know it, the gray, strained milieu has transformed into one of heaving bodies and hedonism. The camera loosens up, moving more and pressing closer to faces and limbs. A hat over his balding head and sunscreen smothered over his pale face, dumpy Kostis hesitates as he walks onto the island’s crowded nude beach, with its half-thongs and waving dongs. But Anna welcomes him and even seems to like him — though we can’t tell at first if she sees him as a friend or a pet. He reminds her to cover up the wound on her leg; that’s about the only thing she bothers to.
Structurally, there’s little that’s new in Suntan. The tale of a middle-aged man delusionally pursuing youth and beauty reaches back to Thomas Mann and beyond. But Papadimitropoulos has a feel for the physicality of this world, for contrasting postures and gestures. Anna and her friends are whirligigs of abandon and pleasure, jumping and dancing and somersaulting their way through seas and beaches and clubs. Kostis, tight and tense, struggles to keep up — he can’t seem to do anything right, try as he might. But he persists, because there’s something magical about these kids and their otherworldly freedom. When Kostis hangs out with fellow townspeople his age, the partying is more depressing, more transactional — they prowl bars and dance floors in search of one-night stands, dreaming of the “loads of pussy” that summer drops on their otherwise sad little shore.
This can’t end well, and the movie traverses some truly scary places. Your heart may go out to Kostis initially, but that’s part of Papadimitropoulos’ long game. It’s reminiscent, oddly enough, of how Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader set up the viewer to identify with Travis Bickle’s alienation early on in Taxi Driver before revealing the full extent of his madness. In similar fashion, Suntan pulls you into this strange man’s world before slyly and slowly turning the tables. You won’t like the darkness you find there.