REVIEW: Poppy Field (Glasgow Film Festival 2021)
Levan Akin’s gorgeous Georgian romance And Then We Danced is just one example of a queer film that’s been met with homophobic protests upon its release. In 2019, screenings in Georgia had to be protected by riot police with some individuals sustaining injuries that required treatment in hospital. This sad trend is a result of the rampant homophobia that runs through much of Eastern Europe. Eugen Jebeleanu’s new film Poppy Field depicts a similar style of protest at a screening of a lesbian film and follows Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer), a closeted queer police officer who is part of the response team tasked with deescalating the situation.
Jebeleanu’s film gives us the calm and the storm in Cristi’s life, beginning with him and his long-distance boyfriend Hadi (Radouan Leflahi) enjoying some rare time together at Cristi’s home. Poppy Field really captures that stillness between two people who are content to do nothing other than lie in each other’s arms. These quieter moments also show queerness and religion peacefully co-existing. It’s truly a beautiful start to the film, showing Cristi at his most vulnerable and relaxed. However, as is the nature of oncoming storms, this period of calm doesn’t last for long. A visit from his sister who enquires how long his “gay phase” is going to last, as well as the heteronormative behaviour and conversation that he’s forced to endure from his work colleagues, make it very clear that Cristi’s way of life is not widely accepted in his Romanian culture. This of course reaches boiling point when he arrives at the cinema theatre where the protest is occurring.
The scenes of protest are filmed well, with the camera making its way right into the centre of the crowd and invading the various disputes between the protesters, cinema audience and the police. It’s distressing to watch, even without any context, but seeing Cristi, a closeted queer man stranded in the middle of such a horrific homophobic situation is heartbreaking to say the least. The juxtaposition of his queer happiness only hours earlier, alongside the fear and hurt that he’s clearly experiencing now, is a reflection of a cruel reality for many LGBTQ+ individuals living in largely homophobic countries around the world. Mericoffer brings this reality to life here and his performance as Cristi is excellent. He conveys all of the emotions associated with his complex situation with nuance and sensitivity, evoking sympathy from the audience.
The situation then escalates for Cristi on a personal level, as his own sexuality comes under fire and it is here that we then see what levels he will go to in order to keep his queerness a secret. This is a common narrative in queer films that has featured in many across the genre, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring again. It presents a mirror image of the measures that so many have to go to in order to conceal their true sexual orientation in today’s society. The film progresses well, as we see Cristi wrestle with the truth of his sexuality within this pressure cooker environment. However, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative seems to come to an abrupt halt shortly after.
The film has a minuscule running time as it is, not even reaching ninety minutes, but Poppy Field doesn’t quite manage to sustain its story for this length of time. There is definite feeling that this screenplay needed another draft, as its final act is filled with unrelated content to what has been present up to this point and simply fizzles out, in stark contrast to the aggressive scenes of protest that came before it. Whilst this may well reflect the highs and lows of everyday life for a closeted queer police officer living and working in a country like Romania, it still leaves the film feeling uneven and far from satisfying.
Nonetheless, despite its comparatively weaker final third, Poppy Field certainly delivers enough in its first two acts to provide a compelling watch for audiences. Hopefully the scenes at the theatre will enrage audiences and encourage more people from outside the LGBTQ+ community to support queer freedom in art and expression. It also brings to light the terrifying situations that many queer residents of countries in Eastern Europe and Russia find themselves in at this very moment in history (see documentary Welcome to Chechnya, for example). So, whilst as a fictional drama, it lacks that creative confidence to really tie its narrative together fully, Poppy Field still remains a good film that brings a spotlight to queer issues and reminds us of the devastating damage that homophobic attitudes have.