Cannes 2023 review: Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry (Elene Naveriani)

“Chavleishvili throws herself into the role and shows no insecurity whatsoever about her body. It is a performance stripped (pardon the pun) of all shame, and it is all the stronger for it.

Feminism can manifest itself in many ways. In a country like Georgia, where women are brought up staying quiet and in the background, simply staying single and independent is an act of female rebellion. Non-binary Georgian director Elene Naveriani takes this idea, adapted from Tamta Melashvili’s novel of the same name, to challenge the hetero-normative standards of a strictly patriarchal society like Georgia in their third feature film Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry. They also shake up the cinema norms of body politics by exploring the sensuality of an older woman whose body doesn’t conform to traditional beauty ideals. Despite its positive messaging and a fearless central performance, Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry isn’t wholly convincing because of its detached style that reminds one of the work of Aki Kaurismäki, but without the light-heartedness.

After a near-death experience, Etero (Eka Chavleishvili) allows the bastion of her female independence to crumble. A 48-year-old virgin, she starts a passionate affair with Murman (Temiko Chichinadze), the delivery man who supplies her household articles store in a Georgian backwater town, where she sells products only women will buy to effectively shut out men from her world. Murman is married, and their illicit relationship would certainly get the town gossips into a frenzy, but this feels new and exciting to Etero, as she learns a lot about her own sexuality through her encounters with Murman. She is respected by most in her small town, even if the other women of her generation make fun of her unmarried status; she gets along better with the younger generation, they themselves shedding traditional values and rules about how to behave. But when Murman gets an offer to work abroad, Etero faces a choice: following the love of her life or keeping the fierce independence of her self-created world.

Naveriani paints the juxtaposition between Etero and the female friends who mock her very broadly, only giving the local doctor a splash of nuance and a sense of genuine caring for her friend. Why Etero would associate with the others is completely unclear. Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry is more successful when it has these women comment on other individuals in the village, showing the peer pressure of sticking to the norms. Etero does anything but stick to them, a result of a life under the yoke of a dominant father and brother. Freed of that yoke after their deaths, she has chosen to never submit to a man again and created a paradise of her own in her general supply store, saving up money to retire early and live exactly the life she wants. Murman spells trouble in her paradise, and paradoxically by making him a married man and with Etero showing no hesitance over that fact, the film enforces the idea that men can get away with anything.

The film’s strongest suit is the way it depicts female sexuality, particularly because the protagonist is an older women who isn’t very good-looking and packs a few extra pounds. We are used to love scenes in cinema being between pretty young people, so the body positive sex scenes between Etero and Murman, himself no Adonis, and the way the film shows Etero exploring her own sensuality and discovering her body are quite eye-opening. Yes, people who look average or worse have sex too, so why not face that? Chavleishvili throws herself into the role, and in particular this aspect of it, with abandon, and shows no insecurity whatsoever about her body. It is a performance stripped (pardon the pun) of all shame, and it is all the stronger for it. The main issue is that Naveriani directs their actors in a way that deliberately sucks out all drama, making the characters feel mechanical. This impersonal approach saddles Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry with an inaccessibility that it can never quite overcome, and it makes the film a mixed bag with regard to what an audience can get out of it.