Toni Edrmann - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review

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Maren Ade is a relatively unknown German writer-director. Yet, she has also been remarkably successful on the festival circuit. Her first feature, The Forest for the Trees, was her graduation piece for film school. It also won the Special Jury Award at Sundance in 2005 and a nomination for Best Film in Germany’s National Awards. Her second film Everyone Else won two Silver Bears at the Berlin Film Festival.

Now she is in contention for the Cannes Palme D’Or with the comedy Toni Erdmann. And she might just win it. Toni Erdmann is utterly hilarious, utterly wacky, and utterly excellent.

The story follows Winifried (Peter Simonischek), a father and music teacher who loves cheesy pranks. Yet when he realises that his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a management consultant, has lost her sense of humour, he panics a little - and decides to go visit her in Bucarest, where she works.

It doesn’t go well. Ines has become cold and detached, more concerned about networking in hotel bars and formal receptions to secure clients, than paying attention to her parent. Worse, she isn’t receptive to Winifred’s attempts to defuse the tension between them. Hüller’s performance is right on point. Her strict professional demeanour towards her father would be terrifying - if we weren’t so accustomed to seeing it in a business context. Occasionally, when alone, she lets out just hints of emotion - signs that perhaps, not all is okay.

Enter Toni Erdmann - Winifried’s brash, ridiculous alter ego, who goes around cracking jokes and introducing himself as a 'businessman-coach-consultant'. Toni works himself into Ines’s social circle and her workplace, forcing her to at last react.

Simonischek is nothing short of astounding in this film. His Toni Erdmann is hilarious - and yet subtle enough to allow the audience to see the desperate father acting underneath. It’s a real challenge to play a character acting badly (if that makes sense) and Simonischek does it beautifully and with sensitivity. As Winifried he is equally riotous and simultaneously tragic: he is alone, growing old, and watching his daughter drift away. His perfectly timed and executed humour expresses an immeasurable sadness.

The film is not only an astute examination of the parent-child relationship. It also makes pointed observations on the world of modern business. There is much hilarity to be found there as well, because taken out of context, much of business' language and codes of behaviour are nonsensical. For instance, when a character organises a naked brunch event purportedly in order to facilitate team bonding, we as the audience laugh - but the management consultants take it at face value, and strip down.

The humour in Ines’ business life also hides something - a darker, crueller dimension. There’s uninterrupted casual sexism in her workplace, which she attempts to avoid by acting as ‘one of the guys’ - though she’ll never be seen as such. There are distant discussions about outsourcing and job loss; abiding to a client’s every ridiculous demand; being forced to stay working abroad.

Ade’s direction is hyper-realistic. Nothing, except a handful of night scenes, looks glossy. The framing is purposefully awkward, the camera always with a slight tremor. When it captures Romania’s lush countryside, its aesthetic beauty feels genuine.

Unfortunately, Toni Erdmann is not quite perfect. It's a little too long, for a start. It’s not so much the running time of 2h42mins that is the problem, but that it lags a tad in its second half. It would have benefitted from a sharper cut. The ending itself is disappointing - it’s a pity that such a magisterial film closes on something so underwhelming.

This aside, Toni Erdmann is brilliant and very mad(there's Bulgarian masks; fake teeth; cheese graters; karaoke; and sexually charged petit fours). It is really a remarkable achievement.

Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.

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Overall

9

out of 10

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