dir: Maren Ade, Germany, 2016
“And if, by chance, that special place / That you’ve been dreaming of / Leads you to a lonely place / Find your strength in love”
— The Greatest Love of All
There is an unforgettable scene towards the end of Leo McCarey’s screwball-comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth where the female lead, Lucy (Irene Dunn), is attempting to sabotage the relationship between Jerry (Cary Grant), her recent ex-husband, and Barbara (Molly Lamont), his new fiance. Lucy embarrasses Jerry deeply by showing up at Barbara’s house and pretending to be “Lola,” his drunken floozy of a sister (who does not exist in reality). In front of Barbara and her stuffy parents, Jerry has no choice but to go along with this ruse. Only the longer Lucy sticks around “in character,” the more obvious it becomes that Jerry actually appreciates the cleverness of her act. His exasperation slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into admiration. As Lucy/Lola sings “My Dreams are Gone with the Wind,” to demonstrate her risque-circa-1937 nightclub routine, Jerry starts to smile in spite of himself, an indication that maybe these two nutcases really do belong together after all. Toni Erdmann, the third feature from the young German filmmaker Maren Ade (Everyone Else), is like this one great scene stretched to an epic running time of two hours and forty two minutes — and I mean that as a huge compliment. The film may be leisurely paced, especially for a comedy, but when the climactic, instant-classic “nude party scene” arrives, you know that Ade needed every one of those minutes in order to reach her sublime destination.
Toni Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local theaters proper until this Friday). The genius of Ade’s shaggy-dog story, which is written, directed and acted to perfection, is that it takes the dynamics of the screwball-comedy romance and perversely applies them to a father-daughter relationship (perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema): Ines (Sandra Huller) is a straight-laced and uptight German businesswoman (think Cary Grant in another screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby) whose world is turned upside down after repeated and unwelcome intrusions into her life by her opposite number — her goofball, music-teacher father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek, in the Katharine Hepburn role), from whom she has long been estranged. “Toni Erdmann” is Winfried’s even goofier alter-ego, a character with a bad wig and outrageous false teeth, a prankster persona through whom he tries to forge a new bond with Ines and help her break out of her self-constructed shell of alienation in the process. In many ways, the film is about Winfried/Toni teaching Ines to “learn to love herself,” to quote a certain classic Whitney Houston jam that is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and it is possible to enjoy the film purely on this level — as an emotionally rich character study: I would argue that the poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).
But I think Toni Erdmann can also be seen as working on another level — one that makes it much more specific to our own era. The action plays out mainly in Bucharest where Ines has been sent on business by her international consulting-firm employer (her assignment is to recommend to the President of a Romanian corporation how many of his employees he should fire). It is implied that Ines’ high-pressure job is the reason why she has lost the simple ability to enjoy life and, in this respect, the film functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism. The most bizarre scene, and one that may initially puzzle some viewers, involves a sexual encounter between Ines and one of her clients in a hotel room, a tryst that she engineers because she senses it will be advantageous for her career. Disgusted with herself, Ines instructs the client, a shallow douchebag, to ejaculate on a petit four, which she then promptly and shockingly eats. Ines’ attempt to “control the narrative” of this empty sexual experience is her futile way of trying to make herself feel better about the fact that she is essentially prostituting herself. This is her lowest point, after which she will genuinely start to feel better once she reconciles with her father. But while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company. She puts Toni Erdmann’s false buckteeth into her own mouth but then takes them out again. Ines’ future, like that of our modern world, is uncertain. Did I mention this movie is hilarious?
Toni Erdmann opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 27.