AVIVA – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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There’s a memorable moment in Boaz Yakin’s Aviva – one of many – when a central character explains his dislike of musicals, and of how silly it seems to randomly break into song and dance at the drop of the hat. There’s a degree of overt cheekiness here, because on the surface at least, Aviva surely contains at least some of the trimmings of the traditional musical – not as much the singing, perhaps, but it more than makes up for that through the centrality of dance.

Dance in Aviva is not merely a thing that characters ‘do’, but rather it is how they often emote a range of often very complex feelings that in other kinds of films are communicated more literally, and definitely in a less embodied manner. From this perspective, Aviva is less aligned with the more readily familiar musical genre as it finds itself moving more towards the often aggressively experimental realm of dancefilm. Here, the individual artforms of film and dance are hybridized, form and content tightly woven together in the presentation of film bodies that can not only feel new and fresh, but for many of us, are radically exciting.

It’s difficult to discuss Aviva and not flag its intrinsically radical nature, which hits us from a number of fronts. Most immediately, of course, is the fundamental genderplay upon which the entire project is built. What on the surface is a somewhat pedestrian story about a couple falling in love and their subsequent ups and downs is rendered significantly more sophisticated through Yakin’s approach to casting and character construction. Yes, the film follows American man Eden and European woman Aviva through their courtship, marriage and subsequent struggles, but what makes their story so compelling is that each single character is played by two dancer-actors, a man and a woman. Adhering to this model, our title character is played both by Zina Zinchenko and Or Schraiber, while Eden is played by Tyler Phillips and Bobbi Jene Smith.

For those familiar with Elvira Lind’s extraordinary 2017 documentary Bobbi Jene, the latter is a familiar figure whose accomplishments and talents need no introduction. Smith further demonstrated her acting chops in Georgia Parris’s sorely underrated Mari from 2018, where she plays a dancer dealing with a family in crisis after the death of their matriarch. But it is Aviva where Smith’s screen presence excels and is employed most effectively in the context of a feature-length moving image narrative. The film begins with Smith sitting naked and proud on a bed, talking to camera about her own gender, that of Boaz in the capacity as the film’s screenwriter, and that the character that she plays in the film that is to follow is a man.

As the film progresses, a similarly aggressive approach to breaking down the assumed parameters that define diegetic and non-diegetic space only increases, and we find ourselves tracking the relationship of two people played by four performers. There are numerous scenes where all four will be in dialogue with each other, and there is no pretense that Schraiber or Smith are invisible or existing purely in the realm of the imagination or abstract. They are very much a part of the story, and their embodiment of certain aspects of Aviva and Eden – with all their contradictions and frustrations and passions – are just as valid and as meaningful as those revealed by Zinchenko and Phillips. Indeed, perhaps even more so; that Schraiber and Smith are a married couple in real life seems almost a given, because in a film with no lack of electricity between its core performers, it is the encounters between these two in particular that radiate the most heat.

While the casting concept that drives Aviva makes it a fascinating exercise in experimentation, Yakin clearly is as fascinated with questions about gender, identity and screen representation as he is the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. But, through the centrality of dance in Aviva, these factors are always framed through the body itself; how it feels and how it moves – whether dancing or fucking or walking down the street – are often one and the same. While the director/writer might be most immediately known for his work on films with much bigger stars than we see here – 1998’s A Price Above Rubies with Renée Zellweger, 2000’s Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington, and 2012’s Safe with Jason Statham, for starters – Aviva is Yakin’s magnum opus if ever there was one. It reveals there is much, much more going on with this filmmaker than we might have ever previously given him credit for.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).