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BERLINALE 2022 Forum

Review: Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?

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- BERLINALE 2022: In this experimental take on Shakespeare’s sonnet, Mohammad Shawky Hassan lets a group of men recount the pitfalls they have encountered in their love lives

Review: Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?
Nadim Bahsoun, Ahmed El Gendy, Hassan Dib and Ahmed Awadalla in Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?

William Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, in which an unidentified narrator lauds the beauty of a young man, is the loose inspiration for Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?, an experimental theatre-film hybrid by Egypt’s Mohammad Shawky Hassan. Debuting as a world premiere in the Forum section of the Berlinale, the loose narrative tells the story of two men and their doomed attraction to one another.

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Separated by inserts into several sections, only one of which carries the famous opening line of the sonnet, the film is a merry-go-round involving one simple idea. Two men meet in a club or a bar: one of them is Egyptian, the other hails from Latin America. The attraction is instant, and sexual intercourse follows soon after. After their lovemaking in between the late hours of the night and early dawn, as is befitting of a Shakespearean tale, they start talking about their love lives. One of them has led a rather polyamorous life, while the other is still only discovering himself. A future in which both commit to each other, in which they don’t drag their own damaged lives into this bond, seems impossible.

This is as far as the comprehensible part of the plot goes. The rest is an experimental assortment of dialogues, interviews and songs, straying from the main plot or complementing it in abstract fashion. Acted out by an ensemble cast of LGBTQ men, who find themselves in different scenarios involving bare-bones setups with minimal production design and a pitch-black backdrop, one could be led to think that this is the filmed version of an arthouse theatre production. Alternating with this stripped-back setup are animations of painted Egyptian landmarks, underwater worlds or light installations, which break up the monotony of the visuals.

Hassan seems to be after a tale of vantage points, as he keeps repeating the same story over and over again, and every time, the perspective and the narrative switch. The outset presents itself as either a promise of something or an evident red flag. Within the fictional diegesis of the hookup, the roles of the players are clearly assigned, whereas outside of the fictional narrative, the men interview each other about their own experiences. Grindr dates, threesomes and betrayal are captured on camera, tying into the Shakespearean theme of a “fading summer day”.

Juxtaposed with this rather grim outlook on the future is the story’s narrator. Picking up on themes from Arabian Nights, Sharazad (Donia Massoud) first introduces the viewer to the two men. Her narration, however, has a more optimistic and romantic outlook than anything the ensemble expresses in conversations. Even in the final few minutes of the film, she still holds out hope for a happy ending, marriage and children, while the subjects of her tale have long abandoned this path.

Between dialogues and interviews, there are songs about longing, loving and being forsaken. Old romance-movie audio and emotional music enrich the scenes acoustically. It’s a fusion of genres, but a confusing one. Hassan tries to engage us with partly very graphic, over-stylised sequences of the men interacting and expressing intimacy. The occasionally in-your-face sexuality may be provocative to some, but even these scenes soon become redundant. It is hard to grasp the fact that this film is only 66 minutes long, as it does feel much longer.

“I wonder why he keeps telling me stories I already know,” one of the characters muses towards the end. As a viewer, one feels the same way. It is unclear if Hassan just wanted to tell a story of heartbreak or to challenge the viewer, but neither angle really works. The final product is more of an art-for-art’s-sake situation than anything truly thought-provoking.

Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day? is an Egyptian-Lebanese-German production staged by Amerikafilm.

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