BEIRUT: The European film festival commenced Wednesday evening with speeches by EU ambassador to Lebanon Christina Lassen and Lebanese Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury as well as a projection of “Monkey,” the 2016 sophomore feature of Bulgarian writer-director Dimitar Kotzev.
Deployed in both halls of Metropolis-Sofil, the audience was reminded that Bulgaria nowadays holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
Set in urban Bulgaria, “Monkey” is a coming-of-age drama centering on Maya and Iva, adolescent sisters who issued from different mothers while sharing a common father.
The opening montage shows Maya (Alexandra Kostova), the early adolescent sister, putting on the tomboy – wearing a spun-’round baseball cap, standing on the wrong side of the yellow line while waiting for the metro and, with self-satisfied defiance, leaning against the glass doors of the train exactly the way the warning signs tell her to not do.
Maya admires an older boy from school who practices parkour – that running, jumping, vaulting thing that self-consciously urban 20-somethings are frequently filmed performing – but the man at the center of her life is her father Andrey (Julian Vergov), a cool middle-aged fellow married to a younger-looking woman (Ana Papadopulu).
As her eye makeup testifies, Iva (Radina Borshosh) is deeper into adolescence. Her character is a bit emaciated alongside that of her little sister, as Kotzev seems more interested in her eccentric housemates. Mum, Andrey’s ex-wife, is now wed to one of Bulgaria’s masters of the neo-liberal universe and lives in a McMansion with Iva and a pair of (apparently catatonic) pre-adolescent twin boys, attired like refugees from the Cartoon Network.
Though the plot demands that Iva too notice the parkour boy, she’s as attached to Andrey as Maya, and the film’s first act shows the three enjoying father-and-daughters days out.
The film’s title derives from Andrey’s decision to adopt an orphaned monkey, whose care he entrusts to Iva and Maya. It’s unclear why Andrey decides to bring a simian into his daughters’ lives, but it corresponds to his going under the knife for some undefined procedure.
The monkey is one of two figures that (with the parkour boy) come to occupy the sisters’ lives for the balance of the film.
The other is Penev (Leonid Yovchev), a quietly eccentric young man who teaches at their school.
Since Maya’s early adolescent curiosity veers toward voyeurism, she learns that Penev’s been living a secret double life, the sort of thing he’d prefer to keep secret. When the sisters decide to out him, they set in motion a chain of events that – in the way of movies like this – is meant to yank all the disparate strands of narrative into a single satisfying wad.
Though the principal actors of “Monkey” depict their characters’ relationships in a sweet and emotive PG-13 sort of way, it’s clear Kotzev had higher aspirations, and wanted to create a coming-of-age tale with a difference.
At times it seems as though he wanted to capture the incongruities that’ve arisen in Sofia since the world adopted the writings of Charles Dickens as an appropriate model for a just society.
More often he appears to indulge in discord for its own sake, which creates some jarring tonal shifts.
Such shifts can generate interesting cinema. Here, unfortunately, they do not.
Take Iva’s home life. Not only is it inhabited by cardboard caricatures – an autocratic entrepreneur of a stepfather, a mother obsessed with alien invasion, and twin Pee-wee Herman clone siblings – the sequences there are shot like art-house satire, which is pointlessly at odds with the rest of the movie’s cineplex-friendly realism.
The exception to this tendency is Santa Claus, who appears in the background while Maya’s being introduced, and follows her around silently, like an actor in a Strindberg play who hasn’t been informed that his character has been written out of the script.
In the final minutes of “Monkey,” Kotzev and his cast make a valiant effort to reel in all the disparate threads needed to create that satisfying narrative wad.
Maybe next time.
“Monkey” returns Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 10:15 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.