Friday, July 31, 2020

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (aka Relativity)

I've been doing a ton of crosswords over the past couple months or so and yet I did not notice the wordplay going on and I feel a bit ashamed even if it was in German.

I probably should have connected viewing this to Amulet a little more explicitly; give or take 20 hours, they were seen back-to-back and are both women making their feature debuts with stories that use multiple timelines. What's kind of interesting is how they take the opposite approach; Romola Garai is so intent on making a thriller that she holds back to the point where it's hard to be interested in the situation while she's revealing it, while Minoguchi is happily willing to let the audience see the shape of the whole thing right away, even if it means there's not that much suspense even when people are pointing guns at each other. It's not often that such pairings present themselves in quite that sort of contrast.

LIke a lot of the Geothe-Institut films that have played The Coolidge's virtual screening room since the shutdown started, this was originally booked for three days but did well enough to come back for a second weekend, and while my initial thoughts on Sunday were a kind of weak recommendation, it's grown on me over the week, and worth checking out (and incidentally kicking some cash the theater's way) over the next couple of days.

Mein Ende. Dein Anfang. (Relativity)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

One of the first scenes in Relativity has doctoral candidate Aron (Julius Feldmeier) defending his thesis on how time's arrow is bidirectional, the future and the past part of larger patterns that can be extrapolated in either direction, which is somewhat fatalistic if you take it as meaning that the universe is a mechanism that has no room for free will. In a way, it serves more as instructions for watching the movie - though I'm not sure whether it means to treat Relativity as a puzzle to be solved or to not do that. It may just mean to look at the events as a sort of four-dimensional pattern, with only certain facets visible at once.

Aron is part of an exceptionally cute couple - his girlfriend Nora (Saskia Rosendahl) is not just similarly attractive but their areas of confidence and senses of humor line up nicely. His parents are warm and like her a lot; her mother is somewhat more prickly, not able to understand how Nora gave up the ice-skating she had spent so much effort on and now works in a supermarket. A mix-up with Aron's debit card has them in a bank just as it's being robbed, and when they try to call the police, chances of a long and happy life together go out the window. Elsewhere in the city, security guard Natan (Edin Hasanovic) has just received the news that his daughter Ava has an aggressive form of leukemia, the sort that requires an experimental treatment only available with private insurance, only to lose his job over a trivial matter soon after.

Attentive viewers will see how everything snaps together fairly quickly, and arguably too easily: Despite what I just said above about the film should probably not be approached as a puzzle box, writer/director Mariko Minoguchi isn't exactly laying everything out early and she's still structuring the movie around the audience realizing that this flashback involving Nora hooks into that bit with Natan. She pointedly has Aron advance the idea that déja vu is remembering the future early on but it's not something that anybody seems to personally experience. Having spent time moving up and down the chronology at will, bringing the movie to a climax is somewhat awkward, and she ends on a note that can sit wrong, that this is all just fate and intent is never as important as happenstance.

If that is the case, at least Minoguchi does interesting things illustrating it, especially early on, suggesting Irreversible as she starts to work backwards but makes sure that she doesn't limit herself to that early on, while consciously making sure that some bits of how the timelines connect remain a bit murky. It doesn't matter what Natan is doing during Nora's scenes and vice versa; their stories being intertwined is a much looser thing. She also uses that flexibility to show how one can get lost in time when grieving, deliberately stringing scenes together so that a jump backward could initially look like the next thing going forward, even as Nora hears Aron's voice. Looping back around seldom reveals new information - what the audience saw before was true, not just a limited perspective - but instead serves as a reminder, making it easier to piece things together without having to jump back.

Minoguchi is also impressive in how she builds out her characters' worlds without overwhelming or distracting the audience but also making it clear that, even if these moments are going to be turning points in their lives, there are large chunks of their experience which are not directly connected. Nora, Aron, and Natan are all carrying significant baggage, but loose ends are plenty acceptable here, and even the spots where Minoguchi opts to tie things up closely are more interesting coincidences than portentous, right down to using the film's original German title as its final line.

The cast is strong as well, with perhaps the most impressive thing being how well Saskia Rosendahl and Julius Feldmeier establish their pairing as more than just the adorable young lovers seen in the first couple of scenes - Minoguchi gives them the chance to show how they shore each other up and challenge each other, and it's an intriguing contrast for when Rosendahl has to play scenes along or against Edin Hasanovic's Natan; she's got the room to not entirely be one half of a whole. Hasanovic finds a good line to walk as Natan, making him the same guy in both his best and worst moments, not just someone whom circumstances pushed into being someone else.

They're good enough to make Relativity better than it seemed when I first realized that it wasn't going to do that much new with its story and conventionally-unconventional narrative tricks (much more so than the previous night's movie which did some of the same things but not as well). There's a fair amount of pleasure to be found in seeing Minoguchi and Rosendahl get most of the details right, especially once one decides to treat the film as one would a painting, turning your gaze to this part and that and enjoying those pieces even though you can easily step back and see the whole thing, rather than a puzzle where each part only makes sense when you slide the other bits into position.

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