We see the best and worst of ourselves in our partners – our potential in their beauty, our love in their love, our deceit in their insecurity, our fears in their fears, our movement in theirs. We are far from mirror images of our partners, but our identities reflect one another for better or worse. Aviva rides caboose in the long line of films that have explored that theme with clarity and profundity, but it’s on the front lines of novel expression on the topic.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin, the drama couldn’t be more atypical for the Israeli-American filmmaker, who has built a Hollywood career on standard, oft-beloved family films like Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls, and Max. Sheer dick count in Aviva alone will drive any sensible person to triple-check those credits, as will the long, lovely, and explicit puberty montage that sneaks up on viewers unannounced much like the Genesis sequence in The Tree of Life. Yakin telegraphs early on the many ways in which Aviva stiff arms prescriptive morality and conventional studio filmmaking by creating a movie in which the narrative is expressed primarily through gender-bending and body movement.
Aviva opens with a shattering of the fourth wall. The crew is getting ready to film (almost as if Taste of Cherry’s most controversial moment opened instead of closed) and a woman named Eden (dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who choreographed the mimetic dance between Natalie Portman and Sonoya Mizuno in Annihilation) looks at the camera and talks to viewers about how this production was cast (with dancers, not actors) and how roles will morph seamlessly.
Eden is a man, and Eden will be played by a man (Tyler Phillips) at times. But Eden is also a woman, and Eden will be played by a woman (Smith) at other times. The same goes for Eden’s partner, Aviva (woman: Zina Zinchenko; man: Or Schraiber). The emphasis isn’t placed on the masculine or feminine aspects of the gender-inversed characters but the shared humanity in them, the equality, and the interchangeability.
Aviva and Eden are lovers who meet over the internet and eventually decide to take a plunge into real-world dating. Aviva uproots her life in Paris to live with Eden in New York City. At first, they are heteronormative, Eden the man, and Aviva the woman. But as their lives change, so do their representations on screen. They are never permanent role reversals, they come at a varied pace, and they’re always executed to remind us that the character hasn’t changed; rather we’re just seeing them in a different light.
Aviva might switch between Zinchenko and Schraiber five times in ten minutes or have a ten-minute sequence just as Schraiber. But they’re often noteworthy reversals. One of the louder, more powerful examples is when Yakin switches roles in the middle of sex, making a point to display the passion, beauty, and normalcy in sex between gay men and lesbian women as its regularly displayed on-screen between hetero folks.
From the outset, the physical takes its course and builds the narrative more evocatively than any dialogue could. Sensual montages or conversations transition into striking dance numbers – sometimes involving large groups, other times performed solo – that propel the narrative and leave viewers magnetized to the screen. These aren’t giant, flashy operations like Busby Berkeley dance numbers. They are more like intimate, modern black box performances in which everyone is doing something strange, smooth, and different. It’s interpretive dance, and Yakin clearly wants us to be interpreting as we watch.
The camera is incredibly dynamic, circling dancers, lingering on them, or cutting quickly between them, capturing with awe the liquid command each one has over their body. The sharp editing keeps us in a whirlwind of emotion elicited by the dance that makes it seem as if the performers are invisibly tethered to one another.
Mid-coitus, in public, in private, in dance: bodies are never obscene in Aviva. On the contrary, the corporeal is praised. Bodies are the ultimate beauty in all their clashing and smacking and smooth contact. And by allowing bodily expression to flourish in an ever-alternating narrative, Aviva allows our minds to flow rhythmically with the experimental changes, even when they are technically impossible. For example, the use of interchangeable representations allows for the four to eventually end up on the screen in a relationship together.
They are still only two people in name, but four in body, speaking as if they are in an equitable polyamorous relationship. It’s unclear as to whether viewers should read it as polyamory or different sides of the same people having conversations with themselves and each other. But does it matter? The point of Yakin’s approach doesn’t seem to be that we fully understand what we’re seeing, but that we’re thinking outside the box of what we typically see on screen – that we might understand through body what we cannot through words.
That originality is what makes this particular expression of how we see ourselves in our partners more imaginative and riper for interpretation than other films that explore the same topic. Multiple bodies moving and expressing various iterations of the same person allows us to see the conflicting aspects of ourselves, those of a partner, and the ways in which only certain aspects of our romantic relationships are in tension while others merely suffer as result. It’s simultaneously understandable and mysterious, as humanity is.
Aviva has its issues: non-actors delivering ham-fisted dialogue (e.g., someone passionately screaming, “Fuck consistency and tone!” after already establishing the rejection of consistency and tone) and an out of the blue kids’ musical number ripped straight from a Target back-to-school sale ad, to name a couple. But those criticisms are for another article. At its worst, Yakin’s film feels like an overwrought commercial, albeit one of the good, well-shot ones. But that doesn’t take away from Aviva at its best — a dance of gender and sex which uses the transcendent beauty of the body to showcase what physical communication we miss out on when actors don’t know how to use their bodies effectively or filmmakers shoot movement inanimately. Most importantly, it reaffirms the essential truth that the rest of the world is slowly coming around to: love is love.