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Cannes 2016: German film redeemed

Germany is suffering from a drought of quality cinema, or at the very least from recognition at festivals. Along comes "Toni Erdmann" winning big praise (but no prize). Our film editor Zhuo-Ning Su has the story and some choice highlights.

Image for Cannes 2016: German film redeemed
Toni Erdmann

A week after the end of the big French film fête, this critic is buzzing with even more post-Cannes adrenaline than usual, and for good reason: the big film of the festival was German, and by a Berliner no less! Germany’s very own Maren Ade (Everyone Else) took Cannes by storm with her third feature Toni Erdmann. A nearly three-hour long German comedy might not sound like an instant winner, but Erdmann exceeded all expectations by becoming the first German film to make Cannes competition in seven years and scoring a historic 3.7 average (out of maximum 4 stars) at the Screen Daily international jury grid. The reason? Well, it’s pretty damn fantastic.

Revolving around a retired man who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter who’s now a successful businesswoman working in Bucharest, the movie hails from someplace completely different than what we worriedly referred to as the “Fack-ju school of cinema” in the February film issue. Firmly based in reality, it derives its humour from personalities and situations we all recognise, staged in marvelously unexpected ways. Instead of the quick, mechanic blurbs and physical gags from your standard Til Schweiger comedies, Ade took the time to invest in her characters and build on a relationship fraught with memory and pain. You immediately relate to everything that’s wrong about this father-daughter duo, performed with impeccable chemistry by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller. Then there are these simply inexplicable strokes of genius in the film involving a karaoke number and an unconventional birthday party that prove so insanely odd that the famously critical and cynical Cannes press broke into spontaneous applause during the screening – twice.

Needless to say, our German colleagues were buoyed by the universal praise for Toni Erdmann – justifiably so. Even this journalist, who’s not a German national, felt some vicarious pride upon hearing colleagues from Turkey to the UK agree “the German one” is best in show. It came as that much more a devastating blow when the festival jury chaired by George “Mad Max” Miller roundly dismissed the picture for awards consideration. In perhaps the strangest twist of the whole festival, the jury bestowed its highest honour – the Palme d’Or – on veteran British director Ken Loach’s well-meaning but narratively and artistically unspectacular social drama I, Daniel Blake instead, and – in an even more shocking turn of events – awarded 27-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan the runner-up prize for his widely, fiercely disliked melodrama It’s Only the End of the World.                    

As unsatisfying as the results may be, Cannes is all about the experience. Running between screenings like a crazy person on no fuel or sleep, being stunned or – better yet – surprised by masterpieces day and night, cheering or commiserating with fellow cinephiles about movies that got or did not get what they deserve. You can literally feel how the buzz on each film (or absence thereof) trickles through the media machinery to eventually shape the arthouse calendar for the rest of the year, and it’s just very exciting. With that in mind, here are the other movies that people will and should be talking about in the coming months:

Jim Jarmusch delivered probably his most charming work to date with Paterson. Starring Adam Driver (aka Kylo Ren) as a New Jersey bus driver who moonlights as a poet, the wryly comedic, unexpectedly poignant drama tackles the many follies and futilities of life with disarming delicacy. Fans of quirkily, affectionately literate cinema: be prepared to fall hard for this one.

Berlinale champ Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) returns with another hard-hitting marital drama The Salesman. Set in present-day Teheran with its latent unrest and chauvinistic prejudices, the gripping cautionary tale ends up winning two awards for its screenplay and lead actor. While a bit overwrought for our taste, the movie revisits the dynamics of marriage and conscience with great suspense. Expect a popular festival run throughout the year, maybe even Oscar glory.

The ever-robust Romanian New Wave gives us not one, but two tremendous moral dramas by its leading figures Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu. The former wows with the three-hour epic Sieranevada, set during a family gathering commemorating the recent death of a patriarch. People talk, argue, pick at old wounds and spill new secrets like any dysfunctional family would. But it’s when you realise all the kerfuffle might be metaphors for something else that the film lands its indelible impact. The latter reminds us what a skilled storyteller he is with Graduation, in which a father resorts to under-the-table deals to ensure a better future for his daughter. Like a screw that keeps tightening, the intricate script takes you down a bleak path of human nature, confronting you with beautifully difficult questions every step of the way.              

There’s also plenty of sex and controversy thanks to the Korean period drama The Handmaiden from Oldboy himself Park Chan-wook and the awfully but gloriously inappropriate “rape comedy” Elle from Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven. Ever wondered how a Tarantino-directed Blue Is the Warmest Color would look like? The Handmaiden would probably be the closest guess. Told in chapters with dazzling visuals, diabolic intrigue and graphic lesbian sex, it’s a perverse and wildly entertaining ride that should satisfy hardcore genre fans with arthouse sensibilities. Elle, meanwhile, is classy trash of the highest order. Devilishly satiric featuring a divine Isabelle Huppert who navigates some darkest niches of the feminine psyche AND hits all the comedic marks without missing a beat, it will unsettle many but delight probably even more.