It has been extensively compared to Call Me By Your Name, but Levan Akin’s third directorial feature And Then We Danced is a completely different beast. After previously making a class satire and a horror film, both of which received mixed critical responses in his native Sweden, Akin has instead dug into his past and crafted a coming of age story set in the conservative Georgian community where he grew up. The comparisons with Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 Oscar nominee are obvious, but also don’t hold much weight beyond the surface – familiar coming of age tropes about a sexual awakening and a first love are rejuvenated here, due to being placed within a culture likely unfamiliar to most viewers.
The masterstroke of And Then We Danced is that Akin doesn’t simply make a film about how Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) comes to realise his sexuality while training with a dance troupe that punishes anything less than idealised masculinity in performance. This is as much a film about the performative nature of gender, and the idea of reshaping traditions to fit an identity that doesn’t conform to the desires of a culture stuck in the past. Yes, it’s primarily a moving love story, but Akin (who also wrote the screenplay) has far more on his mind than simply telling a story of first love similar to those we’ve seen before.
Merab is a dancer training with the National Georgian Ensemble, something he’s done since he was a child, with dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili). He’s clearly talented, but often overshadowed by his brother, and has repeatedly come under criticism for not accurately representing the masculinity supposedly inherent in this flamboyant form of dance. One day, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives to join the troupe, and he almost instantly takes a shine to Merab, insisting on rehearsing together, with the pair getting closer as they spend more time together. Irakli doesn’t hide that he has a girlfriend back in his home town, while Merab doesn’t hide that he’s “sort of” dating Mary, but what seems like a fling for Irakli proves to be something far deeper for Merab, who appears to suddenly realise his own sexual identity for the first time.
Admittedly, when the Call Me By Your Name comparisons began getting thrown around, it became harder for Akin’s film to step outside of its shadow. After all, it’s hard to tell a story about a first love with a man who has a girlfriend back in his hometown that doesn’t go in a certain, heartbreaking direction. But that isn’t the final destination of And Then We Danced, which is preoccupied more with how people become shaped by their sexual and gender identities, and uses the awakening of a first love as a means to explore this. Irakli is more of a secondary character for the majority of the film’s second half, as he disappears and allows Merab to make friends in the tiny LGBTQ community, realising that he can only perfect the art form he’s been working on his entire life if he conforms and becomes the thing he very evidently isn’t.
Levan Gelbakhiani is a professional dancer making his acting debut, and his clear talent helps give the film an authenticity. When he’s criticised for “mocking Georgian dance” through his performances, it’s not due to any noticeable missteps, but rather subtle movements that don’t sit easily within what should be a demonstration of traditional masculinity. When the character sustains an injury through performing, Gelbakhiani’s strained movements when performing (in order to still be in contention for an important audition) are perfectly calibrated. Moments of liberation, where he bends the display of masculinity to fit his own identity, are in equal parts triumphant and cringe inducing, with more than just a hint of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in how bloody pain complicates what should be the success that makes the character’s inner pain worth it.
And Then We Danced (which had its UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival) is so much more than a coming of age love story – and is all the better for it. One of the rare festival films to live up to the hype and then some.