The Cannes Festival is long behind us. Audiences have gone home, replaced on the French Riviera by vacationers and a number of controversies, nothing to do with the silver screen. Still, some may remember that the jury, headed by “Mad Max” director George Miller, had dutifully doled out its awards to Cannes stalwarts—Ken Loach, Xavier Dolan, Cristian Mungiu, Olivier Assayas, no surprises there. It was all as expected, with one twist—a tremendous film seemingly out of nowhere that became a great favorite the minute it was screened, Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann.” But, juries being what they are, they ignored it. Ah well, it is now up to audiences to give this profoundly original, moving and idiosyncratic film the attention it deserves.
Inès Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a thirty-something German businesswoman, professional, manager, whatever you call this new breed of sleek, impersonal, robot-like people that fill glass and aluminum buildings the business world over, juggling with graphs and spreadsheets, wheeling small black suitcases through air-controlled airports while talking on their ubiquitous cell phones, strategizing, organizing, flattering supervisors, competing for that office corner, for a good evaluation, a promotion, telling themselves they have a wide network and a bright future while withering inside and not even realizing it. A world traveler as these people tend to be, she has moved from Shanghai to Bucharest (though one would be hard put to tell the difference between the two.)
Then there’s her father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) who, when his beloved dog dies on him, leaves his small town in Germany to visit his daughter without even bothering to let her know he’s coming. That’s Winfried, ready to party, to surprise, to have fun, to play vulgar pranks, as impulsive as an out-of-control eight-year old. He jumps into Inès’s well-organized life and neatly laid-out plans with all the subtlety of a bowling ball hitting a strike. While exasperated, she knows there is no malice in her father and simply wishes him gone so she can get ahead in the barren life she has chosen for herself. Winfried does leave, only to reappear in a grotesque version of himself, unkempt wig and protruding fake teeth and ill manners and all, introducing himself as Toni Erdmann, an ersatz German ambassador, or not, and his daughter as Miss Schnuck, his secretary. Inès, shocked, appalled, losing her bearings, more or less allows herself to be reeled in, grasping a few truths along the way. Although this lovely film bears no message and doesn’t drive home « Rain Man » or « Forest Gump » like principles— cloying life lessons shown, to great public appreciation, in a hundred bad movies—we sense, as Inès does, that Winfried/Toni lives in his messy world while she barely floats through her unreal one. Somewhere, the two will mesh, with no pathos. As different as they are and as far apart as they have grown, father and daughter do connect, with no guarantee as to the future and the possibility of lasting change.
“Toni Erdmann” is in theaters now in France. It is slated for a December release here in the U.S.