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Sexy and self-indulgent, Aviva is a film about love that has something to say, but getting to the payoff of its final scenes will be test some viewers’ patience. Writer/director Boaz Yakin and choreographer/dancer/actor Bobbi Jene Smith, who also stars, have tossed sex, gender, dance, and music into a cinematic blender, pouring out a high-concept film available to stream via the presenting Annenberg Center through November 19.
Full of visual and storytelling innovations, Aviva can be hard to follow. If you can tolerate ambiguity and experimentation, it offers food for thought through creative use of movement and casting.
Naked and obscure
In the opening scene, Smith breaks the fourth wall to explain the film’s concept: Eden and Aviva, the two main characters, will be played by four different actors. Aviva, a woman from Paris, is performed by a woman, Zina Zinchenko, and also a man, Or Schraiber. Meanwhile, Eden, a man from New York, is played by a man, Tyler Phillips, and also a woman, Smith herself.
When introduced, each character briefly appears fully nude. This device repeats throughout the film—even minor characters are given the full-frontal treatment—and while it is interesting, we never learn why. The same goes for having four actors of different genders portray Eden and Aviva, sometimes simultaneously. According to film writer Tomris Laffly, Yakin split the two characters into their masculine and feminine halves, drawing inspiration from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), directed by iconoclastic filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
The Buñuel reference, along with the depiction of a couple as a quartet, suggests other intertextual connections. These include Middlesex (2002), Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel whose intersex protagonist refers to their teen crush as “the Obscure Object,” as well as Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories set on the fictional planet O, where marriage is polyamorous and bisexual, consisting of four individuals. The careful and attentive viewer may find that Aviva adds to the conversation. But those seeking less challenging entertainment will find the film frustrating.
Timely and surreal
Nevertheless, it feels timely. Both the relationship at the heart of Aviva and its storytelling are decidedly of the 21st century, with an epistolary digital romance unfolding between strangers in different countries. Voiceovers chronicle Aviva and Eden’s correspondence as viewers watch visual timelines of their lives prior to meeting, from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and maturity. During these scenes, the characters are played by actors appearing to match their gender. But once Aviva moves to New York, the female version of Eden (Smith) appears.
“I need some time out with the guys,” Eden says, and Aviva responds with jealousy, accusing Eden of being in love with his best friend. The scene takes on new meaning with Eden portrayed by a woman, as our heteronormative culture registers this a bigger threat to a straight, monogamous couple than two friends of the same gender. Similarly, Smith’s presence as Eden dials up the subsequent barroom scene, highlighting homosocial and homoerotic undertones as the men clasp each others’ necks, lock eyes, and spin. When Eden returns home, the male actor playing him reappears, but now Aviva is played by a man (Schraiber). This lends the sex scene between them a surreal quality: Aviva and Eden are a cis, hetero couple, but the actors on screen are both male.
Love, intimacy, ourselves, and others
Confused yet? Aviva asks many questions—some of them good ones, like “must we give up who we are to experience love?”—and answers few. But its unique concept and inventive use of dance yield several memorable scenes. A particular highlight is Smith and Schraiber’s dancing duet as the female Eden and the male Aviva. They crawl prone across an empty warehouse space with their foreheads touching, then waltz together while kissing. Smith, formerly of the boundary-pushing Batsheva Dance Company, created wonderful movement sequences throughout the film. They are commandingly danced by Smith and the cast, all of whom are dancers because, as she puts it, it’s easier for dancers to act than for actors to dance. This is correct, for dancers frequently act onstage, and Smith and Zinchenko effectively use their voices, faces, and gestures to capture their characters’ thoughts and feelings. However, Schraiber and Phillips are stronger dancers than actors.
Yet Phillips’s character, Eden, is a strikingly underdeveloped protagonist. Until Aviva’s final act, flashback scenes with child actors provided the most insight into Eden. Ultimately, we learn that he is at war not only with intimacy, but also himself. Eden fears love and Aviva as much as he wants them, and his sex life is frustrating and dissatisfying. “I can’t do this by myself!” Eden (Phillips) complains during a sex scene with Nicole (Annie Rigney), enlisting his female side (Smith) to take over. Eden’s inability to be fully present with Aviva and himself compromises their relationship. Yakin’s film suggests that love is possible for people like Aviva, who can accept themselves and the vulnerability of being fully present with another. This is not true for Eden, who tends to check out during moments of emotional and physical intimacy, and who hates the feminine part of himself that allows him to experience those things.
Unsurprisingly, Aviva and Eden face difficulties as a couple. The film portrays these realistically, despite its other flights of fancy, enough so that they will resonate with anyone who has ever loved. This helps Aviva transcend its offbeat concept and unusual storytelling. For in the end, Aviva is simply a fresh spin on the adage about needing to learn to love yourself before you can love another.
Image description: A still from the film Aviva. It shows a young adult man (actor Or Schraiber) and woman (actor Bobbi Jene Smith) in a dark room. The woman leans backwards seductively and the man leans over her, their faces almost touching. They are both wearing black.
Image description: A still from the film Aviva. It shows a young adult man (actor Tyler Phillips) and a woman (actor Zina Zinchencko) outdoors, poised as if for a ballroom dance. The man wears a white tee shirt. The woman has wavy red hair and wears a floral pink top.
What, When, Where
Aviva. Directed by Boaz Yakin, with choreography by Bobbi Jene Smith. Tickets available to purchase through November 18, and streaming online through November 19, 2020. Presented by the Annenberg Center. Annenbergcenter.org/event/aviva.
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