Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2016 2:12 am 
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SANDRA MÜLLER AND PETER SIMONISCHEK IN TONI ERDMANN

Maren Ade's festive comedy

In Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann, which is more special and original than it may seem, a goofy, slightly over-the-hill father teaches his ultra-serious corporate daughter some lessons about life. In two words, he teaches her to lighten up. The film is rambling, and may seem overlong. It may indeed contain some unnecessary longeurs. But it needs to be this way. It's teaching viewers about the kind of patience and alertness in life's most boring times, leading to transcendence, that David Foster Wallace talks about in his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address titled "This is Water." And the film builds and builds, slowly. There needs to be a moment when you think it's just tedious and pointless. Because Ade avoids making her "points" (except that it's a simplification to denote them so) in any obvious way.

Reports of this film came from Cannes, where it was the European critics' favorite and thought a contender for the top Competition prize, but it didn't get that. It's not a movie everyone will like. Mike D'Angelo, whose Cannes reports I've been following since his arresting "Open Letter to Lars von Trier" from the festival in 2009, loved Tony Erdmann and reported it had gotten unusual spontaneous applause (as had Holy Motors and a few others in his Cannes years) because it has a number of "glorious moments" that are "designed to blindside you," and are "in keeping with the first character we meet, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)." Simonischek is a big, shambling man with a shaggy-dog mop of grey hair, which is important)." He's the father, a devotee of practical jokes (think Lord of Misrule). When his beloved dog Willy dies, he takes a long vacation from his job as a schoolteacher. We've seen him there leading a celebratory song where he and all the students are wearing fright mask makeup, with ugly fake teeth.

Winfried doesn't take off the makeup for a while. He decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, wiry, tough, and fearless), in Bucharest, where she's currently working. At first he really annoys Ines. His jokes are invasive and out of place, though there's something touching and sweet about him, and them. Gradually his behavior gets through to Ines, in a good way. Ines has a key position - she lives in a large, glamorous apartment and is her boss's most important staff member, but she must also always struggle against male chauvinism in the business world, working twice as hard. A key aspect of Ade's film is that she, like Winfried, is viewed with kindness and understanding. She is heroic and tireless, going from dealings with staff to a big presentation, juggling shifts from English to German, supply always seeming to agree with criticisms to maintain the upper hand.

Ines' heroism shows particularly in how she handles her father, especially when she tells him he must go (not just a woman executive's reaction: anyone would be upset by a father like this) and he says goodbye - then reappears in a fright wing with the fake teeth calling himself "Toni Erdmann," and saying he's a "life coach." Indeed Ines has one, whom she consults with via Skype, but Toni Erdmann's sense of the title is broader than how to win at business; it's really how to live. So anyway Ines remains patient with him. His imposture is too outrageous to expose to associates and colleagues; it would be too embarrassing; but she also shows remarkable forbearance and discipline in managing to fit him in. And as she does this, gradually his touching excesses of humor (and they are excesses: he has little control over them) show her how much she's been destroyed by an excess of the seriousness and self-discipline she's marshaled to perform her demanding job; that it's not worth it. That she's become cold and unkind, soulless.

None of this is spelled out, though. It's embodied in a long succession of bizarre incidents interwoven with the fractured details of Ines' high-pressure, accomplished, unfun life, incidents in which her father shows her how good will and human kindness, the willingness to do good spontaneously, to act outside a plan, are missing from her life.

Partly the film is the story of the story of two dysfunctional personalities who bring out each other's rehabilitation by expressing the love they feel for each other. In fact, for a while as sometimes Ines out-crazies her father, D'Angelo notes father and daughter's "relationship grows ever more dysfunctional, even as it seems likely that 'Toni' is the only thing keeping Ines from throwing herself out the window of her high-rise apartment." We get a full view of Ines' life as it now is, but also a full view of its life-affirming disruption. The lesson the meandering, enlightening action teaches is like the rediscovery of the natural and the wild spirits in man embodied in ancient ritual and revived in what C.L. Barber desceribed as "Shakespeare's Festive Comedy." It's not a "magical cure" for all Winfried's "daughter's unhappiness," as D''Angelo notes. But it's a statement, through very particular events, off a general set of valences in the world, and how the spirit of play and ability to laugh are essential to us. It recognizes that the clowns are not the real lunatics.

The strength of Toni Erdmann lies in how it uses humble material, crude humor, and an almost real-time progression of incidents, to deliver something that could be corny in a subtle, natural way. This is even like an Adam Sandler movie, specifically his That's My Boy, D'Angelo notes "a few wags" saying. And yet it's nothing like. It's perhaps like a bizarre home video. The combination didn't win the big prizes at Cannes, but did win the FIPRESCI Prize there, and other awards elsewhere.

Tony Erdmann, in German and English, 162 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition (FIPRESCI Prize); over two dozen other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York, London, and Mill Valley. Screened 20 Oct. 2016 at the Saint-André-des-Arts II cinema 12 rue Git le Coeur, Paris. It opened 17 Aug. in France; still showing at 8 cinemas in Paris. French critical response ecstatic (AlloCiné press rating 4.3 based on 32 reviews); the Anglophone critics' response this time is similar: Metacritic score 94%.

US theatrical release begins 25 Dec. 2016.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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