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In 'Head-On,' love and pain collide beautifully

In Fatih Akin's ''Head-On," two suicidal Turkish-Germans get married then fall in love, and it's downhill from there -- then, more or less, up. For more than an hour, the film is a great blast of cinematic punk rock: raw, bold, loud, oversexed, disrespectful, and uncouth but ferociously, unapologetically alive. In the later going, it achieves what punk never lived to see: sobriety.

Akin, a German-Turk himself, previously made several shorts and a couple likable dramedies, especially 2000's ''In July," but ''Head-On" is a major artistic breakthrough. He could have called the picture ''The Ballad of Cahit and Sibel," in honor of its lovers, but its English title seems apt, since its writer-director is such an electrifying aggressor and his movie is so beautifully addicted to collisions.

Indeed, within minutes of meeting Cahit (Birol Unel), an alcoholic, drug-abusing, chain-smoking wastrel, we see him running over parked bikes, kicking a car, cursing a woman, almost bludgeoning a fellow Hamburg barfly, and crashing his car into a brick wall. Calling him confrontational seems polite.

He's checked into a psychiatric facility, where a fellow patient, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), gets wind that he's Turkish, accosts him, and, in one of the bluntest girl-meets-boy introductions in the history of movies, asks him to marry her. He objects. But she's persistent. Marrying a fellow Turk will get Sibel out of her family's traditional household and closer to the heart of Hamburg, where she'll be free to get into all kinds of trouble. Their first date, which Cahit hilariously escapes from the psych ward to attend, ends when she breaks a beer bottle and uses the jagged edge to slash her arms. Not much later they're man and wife.

The reception is a spree of vulgarities. Cahit curses their wedding dance and caps the nuptials with an offer of cocaine, which the bride accepts. After the ceremony, back at his place, she makes the mistake of asking about his dead wife, whose passing landed him in this self-destructive funk. He goes crazy and kicks her out; she plops herself down at the local watering hole, dress and all, and consummates her wedding night with the barkeep. As she tells her independent Istanbul cousin Selma (Meltem Cumbul), she's ''too young to marry seriously." While Sibel is out exercising her promiscuity, you get the sense that Cahit is getting tired of his. His new bride has turned his pigsty into a place anyone with an appreciation for good hygiene would like. She cooks him Turkish dinners. We know he's falling in love with her because now he wants to stay in.

Just as it seems these two will fall into each other's arms and have great sex forever, Akin eclipses their bliss. They're in the same bed -- or on the same page, as it were -- only once before a dark cloud blots out their sun. Wendy Rene's mournful Stax classic ''After Laughter (Comes Tears)" marks the first act's figurative curtain fall.

The movie's power up to this point resides in its propulsive cocktail of sound and image. Akin used to be a DJ, and his soundtrack plays like an iPod on fire. The despair in Depeche Mode's ''I Feel You" sounds wounded and anthemic both times it shows up here, like a cry for help and a scream from the heart. Sisters of Mercy's hellish ''Temple of Love" plays at the nightclub Sibel dances in, and it's never been put to sexier use. And a Turkish-Greek chorus played by Selim Sesler and his five-man, one-woman orchestra punctuates the story line in seaside cutaways.

Truth be told, the first hour and 15 minutes of ''Head-On" is a romantic comedy that looks more deadly serious than it feels. You don't realize how good Cahit and Sibel have it until the second act, in which they don't have it good at all.

Akin doesn't offer Sibel as a puppet of baleful social commentary. She's unique to these portraits of misery: Slitting her wrists or getting her navel pierced is insurance against numbness. What matters to her is the sensational confirmation of being alive. She's a masochistic embodiment of the generation gap between Turkish-Germans and their immigrant parents.

Kekilli is a former German adult-film actress whose humiliated Turkish parents found out about it in the papers; her bad-girl life bizarrely mirrors this character's. Her seductive body language in ''Head-On" certainly feels natural for someone with a past in porn. But one could hardly anticipate her feral outburst, emotional volatility, and, later, shunning of vanity.

Unel does some intense mirroring, too, having quit drinking during the shoot. His performance is more blisteringly accomplished than his costar's, presumably because, at 40-something, he seems to have waited longer to save himself from himself. His face is achingly handsome, but its scars, burns, and bruises tell an ugly story.

More than one annoyed German-Turk has observed that Akin is selling German audiences a less-than-positive view of Turks. But every culture has Cahits and Sibels, and whatever disconnection they feel from their roots is heartrendingly upended come the closing credits.

''Head-On" is not about crashing into walls or crashing into other people. It's about crashing into yourself and living to tell the tale. In the psych ward, a doctor tells Cahit: ''Go to Africa. Help some people." In that moment, it sounds like a joke. But by the end of this film, maybe he will.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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