15 – 165mins – 2016
As endlessly quotable and perfectly formed as I find it, my mother has always had an issue with Napoleon Dynamite; she cannot laugh at the escapades of Jon Heder’s socially awkward moonboot-wearing amateur doodler because she finds his backward nature and ostracisation too sad. If anything, German director Maren Ade’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee, Toni Erdmann, walks the delicate between comedy and tragedy even more than Jared Hess’ 2004 cult breakout.
Weighing in at an elephantine two-and-three-quarter hours, Toni Erdmann was assembled from 150 hours of footage, with a story inspired by the director’s own prank-loving father. You see, title character “Toni” is not a real person but the wig-adorned, fake teeth-wearing alter ego of divorced piano teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), who turns up unannounced in Bucharest in an attempt to reconnect with his emotionally distant, work obsessed daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller).
After a spontaneous visit as himself leads to awkwardness and tension, Wilifried hits on the crazy idea of not returning back to Germany but to secretly stay on in Romania and try to integrate himself into oil company business consultant Ines’ work and social life – all the while in a laughably pathetic disguise which is fooling no-one.
Hard-nosed, stubborn and drowning in stress, Ines is a difficult character to warm to, even after three hours in her eventful company, but “Toni” is determined to hang around, attending work functions, parties and business meetings as part of his long-haul ruse. Theirs is not a traditional father-daughter relationship (“Toni” witnesses his daughter snort coke without breaking character, while an unspoken resentment boils under the surface, largely unspoken), but eventually the bond is re-established.
Alienation, unrequited affection and the polite façade of (mortifying) social interactions are strong themes, with the film hitting some uncomfortable lows (masturbating over a French fancy). The farce, however, reaches a crescendo during Ines’ birthday party. Struggling to unzip her dress, she ends up answering the door naked, and rather than dashing to re-clothe herself, she spontaneously decides this will be a naked team-bonding experience, and chucks out good close for refusing to de-frock! And this is before a mute “Toni” arrives in a full-body Bulgarian kukeri costume (think Cousin It with a giraffe’s neck), refusing to reveal his identity!
Many have proclaimed Toni Erdmann a hoot, with packed cinemas in hysterics and awards recognition picking up steam, however my experience amongst just half a dozen attendees at a one-off Cineworld screening last night was somewhat less effusive. A group of three at the back found even the most minor smirk-worthy scenarios laugh out loud hilarious, while the rest of us sat stony-faced as the humiliation unfurled.
This is not to say that I was disappointed, however I do agree with the director to be somewhat bemused by the marketing of the film as a “comedy.” It is bold, brave and often bonkers, but outlandish characters can also be distancing and I found myself cringing at the misaligned tenderness as frequently as my lips curled upward in approval.
For all its garnered plaudits, Toni Erdmann will polarize viewers, particularly of a mainstream sensibility (a near-three hour ‘comedy’ set in Romania and spoken in German?!), but if you let yourself go with the farce, emotion does, eventually, emanate from behind the farcical façade. I didn’t love it, but I do confess it was an engaging and intriguing experience which I don’t regret investing an evening in.
CR@B’s Claw Score: