“I’m not interested in fantasy,” says Demir (Gem Deger) at the beginning of Playdurizm, a new un-categorizable film playing April 8-18th at the Wicked Queer Film Festival. “I’m interested in reality. Reality is what exists.”
Demir may claim to not be interested in fantasy, but Gem Deger sure is. Aside from starring in Playdurizm as its lead character, Deger also directed and co-wrote the film, which is a philosophical, funny, erotic, strange, and alienating rumination on the role of fantasy in trauma and art. Part drama, part sci-fi, and part horror, Playdurizm is hard to talk about and at times difficult to watch, but ultimately, it’s a moving endeavor.
Content Warning: The review below contains details of a sequence depicting sexual assault.
Amnesia… or something else?
As Playdurizm begins, Demir wakes to find himself in a strange space he doesn’t recognize. The bedroom is full of silver balloons, neon lighting, and a pet pig, and in the kitchen he finds Andrew (Austin Chunn) and Drew (Issy Stewart) having breakfast. The handsome Andrew, it seems, is Demir’s roommate; Drew is Andrew’s jealous girlfriend, angry about the way she sees Demir is looking at her boyfriend. Demir remembers none of this. Andrew and Drew seem to think it’s simple amnesia, but the film gives us clues that something else is going on. Namely: Demir’s roommates have a tendency to glitch in and out of existence, ever-so-briefly, as though they are coming to him through television distortion.
The world Demir has found himself in doesn’t operate according to normal rules of reality, and neither does Playdurizm itself. Scenes flow into one another without much causal connection; everything is lit in stunning shades of pink, blue, and green; topics like murder and sex are discussed and conflated casually and cavalierly; characters take drugs that make them vomit a glowing neon-green soup. There’s a murder plot, an antique auction, and drugs to spare.
Eventually, as Demir begins to flicker back to the real world, it becomes a bit more clear what’s going on: for reasons as yet unknown, Demir is living partially inside the world of a film he likes, starring an actor on whom he has a deep, all-consuming crush.
Violence, Lust, and Fear in Playdurizm
“Without God, humans experience the same urges as any other animal: violence, lust, fear,” says Demir in voiceover, quoting from the ethos of Francis Bacon (the painter, not the philosopher). Indeed, some of the more grotesque, fantastical images in the film seem like they could have been lifted right out of Bacon’s paintings, depicting bodies as “potential carcasses.” Those three “urges” drive most of the film. Andrew is a violent killer; Demir lusts after him anyway; and in the end, he must face his fear that what he is experiencing is not reality.
The final act of the film, as all the pieces, click into place and the reason for Demir’s break from reality is revealed, is incredibly hard to watch. To provide a content warning for the film without spoiling exact details, there is a brutal, traumatic sexual assault sequence involved. At first, it feels out of place tonally with the film’s preceding whimsy, and Playdurizm teeters on the edge of being offensive instead of simply provocative. However, as we witness the reverberations of the revelation, as we realize just how his trauma affected the fantasy world he’s living in, Playdurizm sticks the landing.
An Original Queer Fantasy… with Ancestors
Playdurizm‘s strong points are its fantastic production design and its performances that toe the line perfectly between self-aware camp and genuine heart. In that way, it’s reminiscent of the early films of Gregg Araki, sort of like if the Araki who made Now Apocalypse went back and tried to redo Nowhere or The Doom Generation, on an even smaller budget. The sets are drenched in neon and covered with graffiti in a way that feels very 90s, and like much of Araki, there’s an aimless sort of nihilism here that feels distinctly Queer in the way it slips between the cracks of genre. (“I believe in nothing,” says Demir, while Andrew tells us, “I had to do things to feel alive… terrible things.”)
Queer spectators are used to finding hints of our own narratives in the fragments of other people’s media, and Playdurizm feels like a movie engineered to give us material to work with, content to then step back and let us do our own meaning-making. This is Gem Deger’s first film, and it isn’t a perfect movie. It has more on its mind than it’s able to execute; the philosophy-heavy voiceover at the beginning feels sort of lazy, like the film is saying “Here’s what you need to keep in mind as you watch!” instead of letting us find that out for ourselves. There’s a sequence that consists of two characters sitting down and watching Videodrome, discussing it in ways that are, shock!, relevant to Demir’s own experience… which is my least favorite storytelling device. In addition, some of its provocations feel edgy for shock value’s sake instead of for any particular artistic meaning; I’m thinking of a bit involving menstrual blood that feels unnecessary, and a minor plot point involving Nazi memorabilia that’s definitely unnecessary.
Still, I’m happy to make my own meaning from the pieces of Playdurizm that I admire, including and especially the stunning final image that closes the film. Given everything he’s gone through, everything that’s been done to him, watching Demir’s attempts to reclaim and merge fantasy into reality is stunning. This is a difficult film to follow that tackles difficult subjects, and it won’t be for everyone, but for those willing and able to stick it out, Playdurizm has rewards to offer.
How To Watch Playdurizm
Boston’s 37th Annual Wicked Queer Film Festival is virtual this year, accessible around the United States. The feature films available during their #GAYPRIL event are streaming from April 8-18th; tickets are available here.