Thursday, 6 October 2016

Toni Erdmann (EIFF 7)

Given that film festivals like the EIFF choose films based on critical acclaim, it’s not unusual for me to think that the odd EIFF film is significantly overrated. I’ve seen three overrated films so far this year (out of thirteen films) and will be writing my next three reviews on these three films.

By far the most overrated film I have seen in a very long time is a German film called Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade. It is currently the favourite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is getting absolutely rave reviews from the critics. Personally, I thought Toni Erdmann was a very good film, and I have a particular fondness for German films, but my review is going to sound quite negative because I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good as the critics say it is. 

Toni Erdmann is the story of a father and daughter (Winfried and Ines Conradi, played by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller). Winfried is a divorced music teacher heading toward retirement; Ines (in her mid-thirties) is a very busy consultant who’s spent much of the past year working out of Bucharest. Winfried doesn’t get to see much of his daughter, and when, on one of Ines’s rare visits to Germany, he catches Ines pretending to talk on her cellphone, he is convinced she is unhappy in her work and her life. So, after his dog (his only regular companion) dies, the lonely and depressed Winfried decides to fly to Bucharest to see how Ines is doing. Ines is shocked and not at all impressed by her father’s surprise visit, especially when he questions her life and work and asks repeatedly whether she is happy. But things get much worse when Winfried puts on a long black wig, puts false teeth in his mouth, calls himself Toni Erdmann and begins showing up at Ines’s meetings and parties, often acting like a buffoon.

To be fair to Winfried, Ines does not seem particularly happy with her life and work (the film does a great job of exposing the innate sexism in the business world, not to mention the thankless and depressing work of being the scapegoat for decisions to lay off hundreds or thousands of workers). But Winfried’s incredibly silly behaviour, aimed at connecting to his daughter in some way, is beyond the pale and I found it very difficult to maintain any kind of sympathy for him. It is also impossible to explain how he always seems to know where she will be (a major plot hole). 

Toni Erdmann’s biggest flaw, shared by American Honey (next review), is that it is much too long (162 minutes) for what it offers. This story could have been told, and told well, in two hours. A number of scenes struck me as either too long or not necessary at all. Another flaw is related to the question of whether Toni Erdmann is a comedy or a tragedy. Some critics have described it as the quintessential German comedy. For me, Toni Erdmann was neither quintessentially German nor a comedy. I smiled a lot but never laughed, and when the audience laughed I was often cringing (a bad thing). I found nothing at all funny about Winfried’s ludicrous behaviour or about Ines’s lack of self-awareness and couldn’t engage enough with either of the protagnists. To close out my negative comments, I also didn't find the cinematography and music very inspiring, though they were probably appropriate for the subject matter.

But Toni Erdmann has many positive attributes as well. Some scenes were marvellous, either deliciously original or painfully poignant. The acting by Simonischek and Hüller was extraordinary. And best of all was the very accurate and sad presentation of life, work and relationships in the 21st century (especially in northern Europe), worthy of much fruitful discussion. So while I think Toni Erdmann was far from the masterpiece critics are claiming it to be, I will let is slide over the line to ***+. My mug is up, but keep your expectations in check and note that this is another very adult film (and not because of violence or language). 

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