It’s probably fair to say that most of us are disappointed by the paucity of female filmmakers in this year’s Competition at Festival de Cannes. Moreover, those who’ve read Sophie Mayer’s superb Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema won’t find Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux’s contention, that women simply aren’t making enough films to feature in large numbers, entirely convincing.
Does this scarcity explain the bizarre amount of critical over-praise that two of the female-directed films in this year’s festival are getting? It’s beginning to feel that critics are so eager to see a female filmmaker scoop this year’s Palme that they’re over-acclaiming work by women, regardless of its quality.
Andrea Arnold’s flawed and problematic American Honey had most commentators immediately straining for superlatives, and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann has been even more warmly received, with Barbara Scharres’s rave at RogerEbert.com (“a hilarious, knee-slapping, crowd-pleasing comedy”) but one example.
I find the acclaim for Ade’s film even more baffling than that for Arnold’s. American Honey at least has some liveliness and a few memorable scenes to recommend it, but Toni Erdmann is a painfully drawn out and rather limp piece of work that dribbles on shapelessly until Ade finally stops the show by having the male protagonist bluntly sum up the movie’s message at the end.
The premise is that of a father attempting to loosen up the life of his daughter. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) pays an impromptu visit to Ines (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest, where she’s working in the corporate world. The visit goes poorly, with Winfried soon relegated to the margins of Ines’s busy life. Rather than be put off, though, Winfried turns up again, this time in the guise of “Toni Erdmann”, a so-called “business consultant” who starts ingratiating himself with Ines’s colleagues and friends. Both embarrassed and intrigued by her father’s eccentric actions, Ines goes along with the ruse, and the relationship between father and daughter starts to shift.
This isn’t in itself a bad premise for a comedy, suggesting a subversion of all those screwball romps in which an eccentric woman disrupts the existence of an uptight man, but Ade’s approach is off from the start. Wasting way too much time on boring scenes of Ines’s work life, the movie’s slack pacing (there are many dead spots in its two-hour 45-minute running time) and episodic tendencies are counter-productive; the film never establishes a confident comic rhythm. An example: Winfried, in a prank, handcuffs himself to Ines and loses the key. They get in a car together, are driven around for a while, and then get out and have some men unlock them. That’s Ade’s idea of a comic pay-off.
It doesn’t help that Simonischek’s disappointing performance never conveys the charm, spontaneity or lightness of spirit of a joker. Dressed up as “Toni”, with a bad wig, rumpled suit and protruding teeth, he suggests Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson so much that a direct homage must be intended. But he’s Sir Les without the dirty humour, the rude charm, or the subversive perceptions. He’s just not crazy enough.
Peek beneath the surface and there’s a whole lot of iffy gender stuff going on in the movie too, from Ines’s willingness to be passed off as her father’s secretary to a horrible sex scene in which it’s revealed that her idea of fulfilment is to consume the petit four that her lover has just masturbated over. The film humiliates Ines over and over, and its perspective is retrogressive. After all, according to Ade, the movie is all about Ines getting to a point where “for a brief moment … she can be the little girl she once was.”
One scene perks up the picture: Ines’s impromptu performance of “The Greatest Love of All” at a party, with her father accompanying her on keyboard. But this single sequence wasn’t enough for me to view Toni Erdmann as anything other than a major disappointment. If you want to see a new film that’s truly perceptive and witty about father/daughter relationships, then check out Kinga Dębska’s terrific These Daughters of Mine, instead.