Toni Erdmann (2017)

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A pretty uncomplicated story: Planes Trains, here cast as a melancholy clown-type dad impersonating a life-coach in an attempt to reform / upstage / keep an eye on his daughter who is working in Bucharest on a boring consultancy project. There’s a Eurozone context which is undeveloped, except to feed into the critique of the emptiness of modern frequent-flier lifestyles. Pretentions to something bigger, as well as some interrogation of the merits of its own arguments, but still a kind of constant magnetised reversion to this simplistic binary.

Winfried, or Toni (when incognito) has a bit of Falstaff, a bit of Wallander, a bit of Boris Johnson, and a bit of Partridge in him. He’s the focus of the early scenes, where his jesting lands him in some warm water, and he suffers a few poignant setbacks like the distancing and deterioration of his mother and the death of his old dog. He decides to reconnect with his daughter Ines, who is presented initially as cold and uptight. However, the picture of her corporate world is a very grim one – with rampant casual sexism piled on top of the grey bureaucratic malaise – and her status as an antagonistic figure is complicated by real victimhood (“happiness is a strong word,” she says). Nevertheless she remains utterly unlikeable for almost the entire film, often enthusiastically fronting the kind of aggressive mentalities of which she is a victim, while her father remains amusing in a childish way but ultimately pathetic and inane, with his personal travails suffused into a patronising and soft humanitarian ease.

A lot of this is very uncomfortable, and not just in a Partridge / Gervais way. There is a particular discussion at a bar which is excruciating, with Ines’ efforts to ingratiate herself into a hierarchy rebuffed by snide male colleagues and superiors in favour of jocular engagement with the uninterested W. At one point during a desolate day at a mall, W asks her “are you even human”; later, a colleague backhandedly shuts down her rebellious business presentation and warily tells her “you’re an animal”. It doesn’t feel like she’s being given much of a choice.

Maren Ade has questioned attempts to label TE a comedy; the first half isn’t at all funny, once the interruption of false teeth into discussion about consultancy has become established as a repeated scene-structure. Once the jig is up, Toni has a few, more interesting naturalistic encounters with local Romanians, where his improvisations begin to appeal to Ines, but which still tend towards a very simplistic ‘don’t worry be happy’ moral (there is one pretty cheap laugh with a silly song, and one burst of insanity with a naked party) In the end this is painted as insufficient, with W a resolutely pathetic figure and Ines unconvinced (despite his message having induced her to quit her job). 160 minutes later we’re back to where we started.

A depressing trudge, with one flash of surreal beauty and a general faint dusting of improvised unease. Very happy The Salesman took the Academy Award over this one.

4

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