Because of its concern with real-life political events that gained worldwide visibility via YouTube videos and its mapping of the state of the exile who relies on social media to feel a little less isolated, David Dusa’s Flowers of Evil is less critical and more ambivalent about the role of new media in its characters’ lives than other recent films (Catfish, 0s & 1s) that paint cyberlife in distinctively dystopian terms. To be sure, Dusa is no less interested than other contemporary filmmakers in creating disjunctive formal strategies to show how social utilities colonize people’s headspace, but by grounding this colonization in specific world-historical circumstances (the failed uprising in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections), he understands tools like Facebook and YouTube as being as potentially expansive as they can be reductive to our lived experience.
In fact, the push-pull between her life as an exile in Paris (which she experiences firsthand) and her existence back in her hometown of Tehran (which she can only keep up with via the internet) forms the central tension experienced by Anahita (Alice Belaïdi), a young Iranian student whose parents have sent her abroad to avoid the repressive fallout from the uprisings in her home country. Caught between an understandable compulsion to constantly check online for videos of the protests and for updates on the safety of her activist friends, and a desire to experience a new life in Paris, made possible by her meeting of a young bellhop who shows her the sights of the city and becomes her lover, Anahita’s displacement provides an ideal framework for considering the larger roles of social media.
If that young woman’s state closely follows the standard pattern of political exile and her backstory is made clear from the start, then the situation of her youthful guide to the city is quite different. An exile at home, Rachid (Rachid Youcef) lives in an isolated apartment overlooking the highway, makes YouTube videos of his parkour/breakdancing routines when he’s not working at the hotel, and relishes his repeatedly cited “freedom,” which apparently consists of having no ties to the world, whether familial or political. His past left intentionally vague, Rachid encourages Anahita, who he meets on the job, to set aside her obsessive concern with Iran and live like him in an eternal present, even as he begins researching (online, of course) the events convulsing his lover’s home country.
With Flowers of Evil, Dusa has crafted a complex, yet strikingly intimate drama that charts a growing romantic attachment with impressive sensitivity while grounding the relationship in a vividly evoked political context. And yet, in a desire to make his larger points about social media, the director calls on a series of questionable formal strategies that threaten to overwhelm the central story and end up feeling more like a gimmick than a means of enhancing our understanding of the film’s characters. Dusa’s most consistent move is to aggressively cut back and forth between a scene involving Rachid and Anahita and YouTube footage of Iranian police brutally beating protestors. These cutaways are always triggered by and representative of Anahita’s concerns; Rachid, for all his Internet use, doesn’t seem to have his psyche invaded by social media. While this technique clearly solidifies our understanding of the young woman’s concerns and while it’s nice to see a filmmaker attempting to communicate inner states through visual means, these cutaways really don’t add anything to our understanding of Anahita’s mindset, since we already know she’s constantly thinking of Iran. As such, their superfluousness calls into question the propriety of employing real life footage of brutal crackdowns as mere punctuation for a fictional story.
But these cutaways are just the most visible of Dusa’s visual attempts to approximate the hyperkinetic, plugged-in way these people live. Whether reproducing the texts of the characters’ tweets as titles on the screen for our benefit, creating mini music videos out of Rachid’s parkour routines or constantly directing the viewer’s attention to details of contemporary technology (when the pair slow dances, Dusa makes sure we see that the music is coming from an iPhone held in Rachid’s hand), the director’s assaultive approach doesn’t so much illuminate the uses of new media as bombard us with his own formal innovation. Similarly, he employs his admittedly vibrant HD camerawork for too many scenes of momentary flash, but little lasting substance, as in a supermarket shopping spree where he transforms the grocery aisles into a wonderland of popping colors. All of which is a shame, because when Dusa temporarily sets aside his bolder visual ideas and focuses on his characters, he shows a unique understanding of young lives in exile, whether that exile is experienced as a politically motivated flight from one’s country or the understanding that one never had a homeland to begin with.