Saturday, 11 February 2017

Film Review: The delightfully offbeat Toni Erdmann is a heartbreaking joy from beginning to end

Where do you even begin when discussing a near three hour, borderline surrealist German comedy film? Well, I guess you start at the start. Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann begins with its lead character Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischeck) acting out a practical joke on an unsuspecting mail delivery man - he says his brother, who recently broke out of jail after being arrested for mail bombs, must've ordered something. Winfried disappears for a second, we loiter out the front with the confused mailman, and then he returns with sunglasses on his eyes, false teeth protruding from his lips, and a pair of handcuffs still shackled to one of his wrists. He pays the mailman for letting him carry out this joke, takes the parcel, and goes back inside.

It's a brilliant introduction into Winfried as a character. In one short scene alone we learn that he has a passion for practical jokes, is willing to pay others just to carry these scenarios out, is easily amused enough to enjoy this sort of thing, and is generally a likeable guy. But, at the same time, it poses questions. Is Winfried doing this to fill a dissatisfaction in his life? Is he doing it for his own reasons or to bring the gift of laughter to someone else for a fleeting moment? Toni Erdmann eventually tackles these questions, and the manner it does so in is extraordinary. Ade's film is fantastically subtle in its details one moment and then achingly hilarious in the next. It's a film defined by its tonal leaps, and a rare example of how to accomplish this successfully.

After the death of his dog, Winfried attempts to reconnect with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) however we learn that she is far too caught up in her consulting business to properly spend time with her father. They share a few drinks together and she makes some effort to keep things going, but they struggle to really connect. Rather than tackle this rationally, Winfried instead dons one his costumes - a messy black wig and his trademark false teeth - and gatecrashes a social event Ines is attending. His name, when asked by one of Ines' friends, is Toni Erdmann, and he's a lifestyle coach working with the same companies as Ines' business.

And so begins Toni Erdmann. While she could very easily play it safe and tick every box predictable box on the "father-daughter relationship story" list, Ade instead goes deeper into her characters and the world, creating something entirely unique out of a premise that could have felt uninspired. Winfried is never just a well meaning father trying to embarrass his daughter, he wants her to see and fall in love with the same parts of life he has. He wants to share this with her. Through the pair's performances - which are both terrific - we sense that Ines once had a great fondness for her father's ways, but is too busy and consumed by her work to appreciate this any more. Winfried thus never falls into a cliched trap of wanting to change his daughter, he just wants a piece of their history back again purely so he can make a new host of memories with her.

Likewise, Ines never succumbs to stereotype either. She doesn't coldly dismiss her father or offend him when he first gets in touch with her, in fact neither of them ever intend to bring upset or pain to the other at any point in the film. She tries to reconnect with her father, but neither seem capable of it. Ines' growth across the film is remarkable too. She soon sees that she can have some fun with Toni Erdmann, and gets on board with it all. By the time she's belting out a loud karaoke performance of a Whitney Houston song in a stranger's house - the development of her confidence and new found informality seamlessly exposed in one simultaneously funny and thoughtful sequence - it could feel as if we're watching a whole new person, but Hüller keeps Ines' mannerisms in tact. She doesn't feel like a new person, just a re-calibrated one.

With any justice, Hüller would be a solid contender for the Oscar for her performance here. The way she toys with Ines' emotional range is astounding: in one scene, she watches a lower class family from her office window knowing that her project could harm people beneath her on the social ladder, and in another she's able to make her lover perform hilariously bizarre sexual acts just for her amusement. By the time we reach the film's climactic set piece - a relentlessly funny scene of Ines' birthday brunch turning into a farcical Naked Party disaster - Hüller even nails the limp confidence that Ines now possesses as she casually strolls around her flat naked and surrounded by her peers. It's a scene I've never seen anything like before, an elongated sequence featuring visible emotional breakdowns, birthday presents, non-sexualised nudity, champagne, and a giant fluffy costume.

And that's what makes Toni Erdmann remain so watchable across its near three hour run time. It soars through moods and tones and never feels as if it can't find something to look at in any of them. There's a sequence near the end of this film that doesn't even need to use words, it consists purely of a hug between father and daughter and the level of feeling it carries is breathtaking. Ade is tackling a lot with her film. She is looking at the relationships between people and how we develop these relationships in context with our surroundings and our environments and our opposing personalities. This is a film about two fundamentally different people who still find things within each other to love and admire, and its endless tonal shifts work to carry us through this bizarre and confusing emotional journey. Toni Erdmann ranges from profoundly moving to flat out, showstoppingly hilarious. It could be shorter, yes. but will you want it to be? Absolutely not.

In A Sentence

Funny, endearing and refreshingly unique, Toni Erdmann is both a thoughtful look at an important aspect of life and a superb demonstration of the talents of writer/director Maren Ade.

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