Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CHALLENGING DARK COMEDIES ARE ANYTHING BUT FOREIGN TO THIS YEAR’S OSCARS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in TONI ERDMANN
In the recent Sight & Sound magazine polling of international film critics, do you know what film was named the best of the year? It wasn’t LA LA LAND. And it wasn’t MOONLIGHT, though that came in second. It was a German/Austrian film named TONI ERDMANN. The dark comedy is up for Best Foreign Language Film this weekend at the Oscars and is considered the favorite to take the gold. It finally opened in Chicago a few weeks back and it’s one of those films that truly stays in your head after seeing it. I find myself not only rapturously recalling the unpredictable marvel that this film is, but my own gob-smacked response to it along the way while viewing it.  

I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years, easily 100 a year in the theater since my teens, let alone all the rentals, Netflix, etc. on top of them, and I am hard-pressed to think of one film among them that was as unpredictable as TONI ERDMANN. As I sat there watching it I couldn't believe how impossible it was to predict where the film was going from one scene to the next, let alone within a specific scene. German filmmaker Maren Ade really created something utterly surprising in her writing of the film. And her direction of those enacting her words is equally amazing as the whole thing seems to be improvised, though none of it was.

This is the third major movie Ade has written and directed, but none have broken through worldwide like TONI ERDMANN. It's taken dozens upon dozens of awards all over the globe. The film spoke particularly well to critics as it defies their 'seen it all before' eyes. In fact, the film truly rebels against filmmaking conformity, just as the theme of the story within the film is about thwarting conformity too. 

The story concerns a late 60's father and his mid-30's daughter who are anything but close. Winfried Conradi (the hulking, veteran Austrian actor Peter Simonischek) is a lackadaisical music teacher with few students. He's long been divorced, and is the type of senior citizen who still loves childish pranks that go against societal propriety. He especially loves to assume other personas as he dresses up in cheap wigs and false teeth. Unfortunately, he's more amused by it then others are. When his old dog dies, he has no one left, so he decides to take another run at forging a relationship with his no-nonsense daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She's given up on having a mature relationship with him a long time ago, but that doesn't deter him from deciding to drop in on her during her extended business trip to Bucharest. Things don't go well, as she is preoccupied with landing a big deal and has no time for his shenanigans. She sends him away but he decides to linger around and that is where the story really gets going.

Winifried is a non-conformist whose loosy-goosey attitude and silliness comes from a bygone era, part 50's teen, part 60's hippie. Ides, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of her father with a calculating ambition that borders on ruthlessness and a wardrobe that is crisply perfunctory in its style. Still, this is not a typical comedy about an odd couple, or a romp in the style of so many comedies that come down the pike. Rather, this one is darker, stranger, even meaner. Sure, Winifried is going to keep coming at Ides trying to wear her down, but there is little of the earnestness or schmaltz that invades far too many Hollywood productions. 

As Winifried trails after Ines, the film continually finds way to thwart normal plotting and story beats. For starters, the movie edges close to three hours. That's unheard of in comedies that in America are hard-pressed to push past 90 minutes most of the time. In every way, this film truly zigs where so many of its competitors zag. 

It's exceedingly unconventional as well to have such little dialogue between the two main characters too. In fact, Winifried barely says a peep in most scenes. When he's dressed up in his wig and cheap novelty story teeth, pretending to be the businessmen Toni Erdmann to chat up Ides' colleagues, he talks then. But mostly, he's a quiet observer. In fact, both he and Ides are as their roles are mostly reactive to all that's going on around them. And indeed, they're reactive to each other as their time onscreen together is mostly spent watching the other interact with others in a setting.  

Such silence between them works on two fascinating levels. Not only does the  lack of discourse between them suggest the chasm of non-communication that's existed for decades, but being so quiet around each other forces them to truly listen to how they are with others. Thereby, they come to learn about each other and discover a person they barely know. 

Another way the film zags is in its approach to the comedy. There are few clear comedic set-ups or few set-pieces for that matter. The humor in the story seems wholly organic, coming out of scenes that aren't the types that would typically be ripe for chaos and laughs. But ripe they are, and what transpires within a scene, with little foreshadowing, is outrageous. The laughs may take your breath away as you have no sense of preparation for most of them.  

Ade also works wonders with her cast because none of them seem like they're giving a comedic performance. Just as some have said that George C. Scott was one of the greatest comedic actors because he always played the comedy as if it was drama, the same goes here with how Ade instructs her performers to approach each scene. No one ever delivers a line or gives a knowing look like they know this is funny. It also was shrewd to cast her leads when their resumes reflect mostly serious roles. Who knew these two could be so utterly amusing. George C. Scott would've been proud. 

And yet, the comedic scenes in this film could rival anything done by Blake Edwards or Judd Apatow. Two of the biggest doozies come in the final act, and both appear completely out of left field. Curiously, both scenes take place at parties, but you never see the craziness coming in either setting. I'll leave it there and let you be gobsmacked yourself by these scenes if you've not yet seen TONI ERDMANN, but suffice it to say, once you see them, they will forever live in your cherished cinematic memories. 

Throughout TONI ERDMANN, every time you think you have Winifried or Ides pegged, they do something that surprises you, even shocks you. Especially with Ides, and kudos to Huller for giving such a brave, nakedly vulnerable performance. One scene, where she socializes with a co-worker who's more than a colleague takes place in a hotel room, and what happens there is so shocking, bizarre and yet darkly hilarious, your jaw will drop. Such challenging scenes as this may be why Huller herself doesn't regard the film as a comedy. She's to cognizant of all the pain that Ides has in her existence. Indeed, there is a lot of pain onscreen, but this isn't MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. True, both films have estranged characters who are lost souls searching for some sort of meaningful connection, but I didn't howl during that Kenneth Lonergan masterpiece. I did during TONI ERDMANN. And you will too. 

BTW…TONI ERDMANN is already slated to be remade in America with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson supposedly signed on to play the lead roles. We'll see how they render these rich and strange characters, but I’ll wager that if the trailer shows Nicholson as Winifried take off the head of his costume to hug Wiig as Ides in the most pivotal scene of the film, the remake will be an utter failure. In the original version, the father's face remains hidden, as it should be. Foreign films don’t feel the need to spoon-feed audiences the way Hollywood so often does. Let's hope that remake zigs instead of zags as much as the German original. 

Isabelle Huppert in ELLE.
Another well-awarded foreign language film, one that has won a slew of awards across the season as well, is the French film ELLE. It was ranked at #3 on that Sight & Sound list, and it just missed the final five of this year Best Foreign Language film Oscar nominees. Perhaps it’s unsavory subject of rape turned off too many Academy members, especially since its tone is more akin to that of a dark comedy than a Lifetime movie of the week. Still, lead actress Isabelle Huppert was not overlooked, and she stands as the one spoiler who could ruin Emma Stone's night this Sunday.  

ELLE, written by David Birke and directed by veteran filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, tells the story of Michèle Leblanc, as strong a woman character as has been put on the screen in many a moon. She’s not only the successful head of a video game company in Paris, but she has high-powered friends, a lush lifestyle, and a confidence in everything she does, from micro-managing her game designers at the office to casually bullying her ne’er-do-well adult son. This woman may be petite, but she's large and in charge in everything she does. In fact, the more we see of her as the film progresses, she seems utterly indestructible. Yet, the utter irony of the film is that it starts off with her being violently raped by a masked intruder in her own home.

It’s just one of the major and daring shocks in a movie that holds dozens upon dozens of them. It, like TONI ERDMANN, never quite goes where you expect it to go either, constantly confounding narrative expectation and even character definition. Yes, Michèle is shrewd and icy, managing her reactions to her rape as dispassionately and constructively as she manages everything else in her world, but where her story goes, and how she goes with it, is a constant surprise. No matter what she encounters, from a blasphemous email at the office to a party gone awry by her crazed mother, she will not let anyone get the best of her. She's unflappable, almost to the point of seeming inhuman, as she knows that the world will trample all over women at any turn. If anything, Elle is more feline than human. She is always staring and assessing what's in front of her, just like her shrewd dark-hued cat. Another black comedy symbol? You bet.

Huppert has been a French treasure for decades and her performance here is simply stunning. Virtually onscreen the entire movie, often alone or with that equally steely cat, her performance, like those of the two leads in TONI ERDMANN, is mostly reactive. Huppert always manages to find an expressive way to curl up one corner of her mouth, or arch her eyebrow slightly to change her character’s reaction to someone. Her eyelids alone could teach an acting class, as they say so many different things depending on how much she lowers them. She casts a mighty figure onscreen here, and it's all the more impressive because most of her cast mates tower over Huppert. 

Huppert gives one of the most incredibly poised, strong and calculated performance ever onscreen, and it echoes what Michèle must do every day. She cannot wallow in self-pity after her rape as there is too much work to be done, a new video game to get out, a family and social events clogging her calendar. This is a woman who's handles being abused on a daily basis, from condescending male coworkers, from selfish family and friends, what's one more thing like rape. Her take on it isn't glib, but rather, self-protecting. No one is going to take care of her, and she's overcome all kinds of hell ever since her childhood when her father was arrested for a neighborhood spree killing and the press hounded her as a pre-teen that they assumed was his accomplice.

Michèle is ultimately the personification of a feminist, perhaps even a radical one, as she accepts the challenge to play the man's game and bests them with her unerring strength and acumen. Not for nothing is the world of video games the backdrop of this story. Michèle is playing a game of chess if you will the entire time, negotiating all obstacles, comers, and enemies. She's game. And she intends to win.

In fact, one of the reasons the film is so successful and yet, may have been too polarizing to some voters, is that the tone of it is akin to the almost amusing calculation one makes when they pick up a video game controller and get in the mindset of gleefully starting to  mow down targets in a first-person shooter. Like such, our heroine signs up every day for such battles. And she too will mow 'em down any villains, be they male Millennials questioning her worth as CEO, or lovers expecting her to be at their beck and call, or even a rapist who returns for more. Michèle knows that sex is mostly about power, and she'll use their lowered expectations of "the opposite sex" to confound their expectations.   

If Huppert wins the Oscar, she will do so without a big, crying jag or a rage-filled tirade that would usually win an actress an Oscar. Instead, what she will win for is building a shrewd and nuanced performance layer upon layer. There's a slyness to her work her, a relish, not dissimilar to what her CEO experiences as she oversees the slaying of a beast in an action scene that her video game company is bringing to life, and slays all the other monsters that come at her in her life outside the office. Michèle is one tiny dynamo and may be the most incredible superhero put on the screen this past year. Take that, Deadpool and Doctor Strange! Indeed, WONDER WOMAN is going to have a whole helluva lot to live up to when her film premieres in June.

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