Review: And Then We Danced

Poster for And Then We Danced, featuring Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab, dancing in traditional Georgian dress against a yellow background.

*****

Considering the controversy it caused in its home country of Georgia, one would think Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced would be something crude, hurtful, or provocative, not a moving coming-of-age romance. But sadly, even now there are those who find nothing more offensive than the existence of romantic love between men. Thankfully, the film itself has a warmth and optimism to outshine the bigotry with which it has been met.

A co-production between Georgia and Sweden directed by Swedish-Georgian director Akin, And Then We Danced is a tender romantic drama set in the world of traditional Georgian dance. Young Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has been training with his dance partner (and girlfriend) Mary (Ana Javakishvili) since the two were children, but he still can’t reach the high standards of their dance tutor. When talented new student Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) joins their school, he threatens to become Merab’s biggest rival… and his secret desire.

Making his on-screen debut as sweet and shy Merab, Gelbakhiani is stunning. His subtle and endearing performance brims with humanity, beautifully capturing the highs and lows of first love. From the moment Irakli appears, we can see in Merab’s looks that feelings are beginning to develop. The romantic and sexual tension that soon begins to simmer between the two men is enhanced by the intoxicating sensuality of the dance scenes, whether it be the traditional duet they are asked to perform together at school (traditionally masculine and heterosexual, turned on its head by Merab’s obvious interest in his partner), or the touchingly intimate dance Merab performs for Irakli on a friends’ getaway. The sensuality and intimacy of the performances is nurtured by Akin’s delicate direction. The way the camerawork makes the film feel both intimate and unobtrusive brings to mind the work of American director Barry Jenkins, who has a similar knack for creating sex scenes that feel intimate without being voyeuristic.

So now it’s time to address the Chalamet in the room: yes, in many ways And Then We Danced is reminiscent of Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. In fact, the two films share broadly the same plot points from start to finish. That is in no way an accusation of plagiarism (stories of forbidden love were by no means invented by James Ivory in 2017, or indeed by author André Aciman in 2007), but due in no small part to the dearth of popular films focusing on gay relationships, as well as the relative recentness of CMBYN’s release, the comparison is going to be made. To the credit of all involved, And Then We Danced emerges from such a comparison shining. Around twenty minutes shorter, Akin’s feels the more focused of the films, and the incorporation of Georgian dance adds a further dimension of culture and tradition that gives the narrative more thematic depth.

The film makes clear that dance is political – the male dancer in traditional Georgian dance is to be unquestionably masculine, displaying the ‘correct’ gender role and presentation as prescribed by religion and society. Merab’s inability to live up to his tutor’s expectations mirrors his inability to fit what his society believes a man should be. When he defiantly performs his own sensual, androgynous interpretation at the end of the movie, it is symbolic not only of his own self-acceptance, but of the union of tradition and progress.

Stunning in its beauty and humanity, And Then We Danced is a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. The bigotry it has faced is shameful, but the film itself refutes that hate in its profoundly hopeful, if not triumphant, message.

And Then We Danced opens in UK cinemas on 13th March 2020.