More Scenic Routes
- A quiet scene from The Matrix demonstrates how to make exposition compelling
- Shelley Duvall does the talking, but Sissy Spacek may be the real protagonist of Altman’s 3 Women
- The big numbers are the lowlight of Dancer In The Dark
- The cats, not the cast, draw viewers’ eyes in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante
- What Quiz Show proves about film directing and Argo’s Best Director snub
My favorite movie of 2010 didn’t involve Facebook, schizoid ballerinas, defunct toys, lesbian parents, or dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams. It was a tiny German relationship drama that almost nobody saw, mostly because it was barely released in the U.S. Critics swooned over Maren Ade’s emotionally lacerating Everyone Else—A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias included it on his top 10 list, and it placed a remarkable fifth in the annual poll conducted by the Village Voice, ahead of all but one of the pictures referenced above—but its inaccessibility for most people meant that it never became part of the general conversation. Even the DVD, quietly released last fall by the invaluable Cinema Guild, failed to turn up on many sites’ weekly list of new titles; I stumbled onto its existence wholly by chance.
Which is a shame, because movies this fearsomely complicated and bracingly honest about the pleasures and pitfalls of romantic love don’t come around often. (Blue Valentine took a mighty stab, but I found it rather blunt and schematic by comparison.) The film’s central couple, architect Chris (Lars Eidinger) and publicist Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr, who won the Best Actress prize at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival), are staying at Chris’ parents’ vacation home in Sardinia, where the perpetual sunshine seems to be wreaking havoc on their carefully cultivated sense of anti-bourgeois eccentricity. In this early scene, Chris has just bailed on taking Gitti to a disco, and the two find themselves instead in Chris’ mom’s upstairs kitsch parlor, where a CD left in the player leads to a bizarre impromptu performance.
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The clip ends abruptly because Ade cuts from their lolling embrace on the floor straight to a NSFW sex scene, as the music briefly continues. But Chris and Gitti’s entire relationship, at both its most sublime and its most destructive, is encapsulated in this three-minute goof-fest. For one thing, it’s significant that Chris does a ridiculous dance for Gitti, rather than the other way around, as the fabled “male gaze” would usually demand. He’s previously asked her whether she finds him masculine enough (which gets an incredulous snort in reply: “No, I’m laughing at the question”), but only someone who feels fairly secure in his manhood—and, more crucially, who feels safe within the cocoon of genuine shared intimacy—could let himself go to this degree. We never find out exactly how long Chris and Gitti have been together, but it has to have been some time. Try something like this on a third date and the next “scene” in your own personal life will be so depressingly safe for work it could be projected on the Times Square Jumbotron.
At the same time, though, you can see here the seeds of their eventual... well, to Ade’s credit, it’s not clear at the end of the movie whether or not they’re breaking up. But to the extent that the relationship doesn’t work, it founders precisely because of their toxic aversion to kitsch. This becomes even clearer in another scene later in the movie, set in this same room, as a more conventional couple—charter members of the “everyone else” that romantic iconoclasts define themselves in opposition to—snuggle and coo to a different sappy love song (by popular German singer/actor Herbert Grönemeyer) while Chris and Gitti stand awkwardly apart, looking vaguely appalled. But it’s plenty clear here, too, in Chris’ almost violent mockery of everything that a pop ballad represents, and in Gitti’s amused approval of his antics. One of the many discomfiting truths Everyone Else affirms is that lovers need a certain amount of sincere mush to cushion all the blunt honesty. “Take Off Your Cool,” Outkast wisely said. This scene shows Chris trying to achieve stealth cool by pushing uncoolness to the breaking point.
Granted, Ade stacks the deck a little by presenting her characters with what may be the single most blandly saccharine love song ever recorded. For those too young to remember, that’s Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias, performing one of the stunt duets that were common back in the ’80s, long before 90 percent of the songs on the Billboard charts included the word “featuring” after the artist’s name. It’s an odd choice, partly because I would never have guessed “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” hit big in Germany (though according to its Wikipedia page it reached No. 3 in Holland and No. 4 in Austria, so close enough), but mostly because it’s almost completely devoid of any real passion—both Nelson and Iglesias sound like they’re toasting cars they once owned, or maybe favorite restaurants around the world. Something sung with more conviction, like Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” might have worked better, although the lyrics to that one would amount to clumsy foreshadowing. In any case, I feel as if I empathize with Chris more than I’m meant to, simply because JESUS TURN THAT CRAP OFF!
In the end, though, what makes the scene work is the gorgeously conflicted expression on Gitti’s face as she watches the travesty she ordered. We’ve all seen the dead smile before, in which the eyes blatantly contradict what the mouth suggests. That’s not what Minichmayr does. She somehow bisects her face horizontally, with the top half looking concerned and the bottom half looking amused, in a way that truly conveys that she’s experiencing both emotions simultaneously. I’m reluctant to use one movie as a cudgel against another, but part of what made Blue Valentine ring hollow for me was the gimmicky way that it juxtaposes its couple’s idyllic beginning with their miserable end (while, true, finding elements of the latter in the former). What most movies ignore is the lengthy and truly thorny period in between, when the idyllic and the miserable are inextricably commingled. That Everyone Else inhabits that phase of a long-term relationship exclusively sets it apart; that it does so with unstinting honesty and clear-eyed compassion makes it a near-masterpiece.