'Panama': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An interesting setup that doesn't really go anywhere

The first feature from Serbian filmmaker and Cinefondation alumnus Pavle Vuckovic stars Slaven Doslo and Jovana Stojiljkovic.

A handsome Belgrade architecture student who beds more women a week than he has perfect, sparkly white teeth in his mouth, has an odd way of dealing with the sensation he might be falling in love in the contemporary drama Panama. This first feature by Pavle Vuckovic, a Cinefondation winner with his 2003 short Run Rabbit Run, screens as an Out of Competition title in Cannes. Despite solid acting from its leads, the film struggles — especially in its latter acts — to meaningfully connect all the dots. Nonetheless, Panama should be something of a festival player for sales company Wide, with some theatrical potential in the Balkans.

Jovan (Slaven Doslo, who looks like the Slavic cousin of Colton Haynes) has returned to university to continue his studies after a long absence. Though he’s clearly decided he needs to finally take his studies and future seriously, that hasn’t stopped him from hanging out in clubs every night and sleeping around. This behavior can at least partly be attributed to the ongoing competition with his buddy, Milan (Milos Pjevac), with whom he compares the number of sex acts in minute detail at the end of each month to see who got the best score. The fact that they’re basically still kids in grown men’s bodies and with grown men's libidos, is underlined by the fact that Milan still lives at home with his rather inquisitive mother (a situation that Vuckovic never quite exploits in terms of comic potential).

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The dark-haired Maja (Jovana Stojiljkovic) is initially a conquest of Jovan’s like any other. Thinking it’ll scare her away, he says he’s only into open relationships, but she’s totally down with the idea, confessing she just came out of a long-term relationship and needs some space herself. Vuckovic, who co-wrote the film with Jelena Vuksanovic, takes this basic premise and initially puts a fascinating spin on it, as the ladies man finds himself falling in love with the girl almost in spite of himself.

Privileging a point of view close to Jovan, Maja remains something of a mystery throughout. It’s clear the sex — discerningly rather than exploitatively photographed (Maja Milos’s Clip this is not) — is great. But there’s something else that keeps Jovan coming back for more. To underline just how enigmatic Maja is, the writer-director has Jovan follow her on social media and then tracing her footsteps through Belgrade, looking for something she might (or might not) be hiding from him.

But this somewhat stalkerish behavior never quite develops into a full-fledged obsession or yields any psychological insight beyond the suggestion that this serial philander has fallen in love hard and might have some jealousy issues. Milan Sv. Djurdjevic’s electronic score is atmospheric but also somewhat non-committal, and the narrative and Bojan Kosovic’s workmanlike editing fails to develops any tension — a mysterious black luxury car that keeps popping up notwithstanding — and so Panama finally ends up in a sort of genre no man’s land. It’s neither a cutting psychological relationship drama, nor a mystery or a thriller. And without a clear narrative function, all the social media stuff simply feels like a bid to seem contemporary and relevant.

As the story grows (just somewhat) darker, Vuckovic replaces the rather exaggerated aesthetics of the southern European summer — there are moments the film looks like a commercial for a tropical drink — with a bleaker palette that signals the arrival of winter. Jovan’s preppy and costly getups, designed by Magdalena Klasnja, also evolve in step with the seasons, though this rather basic visual idea ends up feeling about as schematic as the relationship between Maja and Jovan. 

Production company: Collapse FilmsCast: Slaven Doslo, Jovana Stojiljkovic, Milos Pjevac, Nebojsa Milovanovic, Tamara Dragicevi
Director: Pavle Vuckovic
Screenplay: Pavle Vuckovic, Jelena Vuksanovic
Producer: Tatjana Zezelj Gojkovic
Director of photography: Djordje Arambasic
Production designer: Livija Mikic, Bojana Nikolic
Costume designer: Magdalena Klasnja
Editor: Bojan Kosovic
Music: Milan Sv. Djurdjevic
Casting: Vladimir Tagic
Sales: Wide
No rating, 104 minutes

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