Drei – Tom Tykwer (2011)

Before this, I had kind of given up on Tom Tykwer as a director. A former favorite of mine, the guy who directed Run, Lola, Run, The Princess and the Warrior and the sublime Heaven, had, it seemed gone Hollywood, making the thoroughly mediocre efforts Perfume and The International. Then he’d signed up to do the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with the dreaded Wachowskis. What happened to the psycho-brilliant craftsman and artist I’d grown to love?

Nothing, really. It’s on me for forcing the man into a box and expecting him not to change. After all, who would say no to Dustin Hoffman or Naomi Watts?

But it was still with some trepidation that I went into Drei, Tykwer’s first German film in over a decade. It’s the kind of subtle, naughty black comedy that seems sincere at first, before you suddenly go, “oh!” and slap yourself on the forehead.

The film is about Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), a modern Berlin couple in their mid-30s. They are well off, but never married, have no kids, and have no real plans to do either. They are the kind of couple, Simon argues, where both parties would fight against having custody of the child should they find themselves getting divorced. As a couple, they seem to be at a crossroads brought on by age and complacency, and both throw themselves into their work to skirt around the subject.

Simon’s life changes within the space of an afternoon when he is told he hast testicular cancer and must go under the knife right away. Simon tries, but is unable to get hold of Hanna on her cell to tell her because she has met another man, Adam (Devid Striesow), and gone off with him.

During his rehabilitation, Simon will meet the same man and do the same.

It’s a somewhat preposterous conceit, that two people could fall in love with the same man without any of them realizing, but Tykwer forces the suspension of disbelief down on the audience through force, filling the screen with every flex of modern fairytale muscle he can summon. In another director’s hands this would probably be a straight screwball comedy, but with Tykwer at the helm the humor is very wry and only glanced upon in passing. You have to find the humor on your own because the film isn’t going to help you find it.

Even with the bit of hard work it asks of the audience, the film does work in stretches. Sophie Rois is great as the manic Hanna and Sebastian Schipper actually does appear to morph right there on screen. But the film too often teeters over the edge with Tykwer just playing with his characters instead of storytelling, like a cat that’s got a mouse by its tail. Hanna, Simon and Adam are tortured for our delight and from time to time it’s a devilishly enjoyable sight, but there isn’t enough behind it to enjoy without reservation. There is enough here to like for Tywker loyalists, but it amounts to little more than a dose of filmic methadone to keep us going. It’s all right, but it’s not exactly the hit that we wanted.

Leftovers:
Not one to let a in-joke get away, the number three continually pops up throughout the film. Yes, there are three of them in the relationship, but also there are three children fathered by Adam. Hanna and Adam start their affair during their third meeting. Officially, it’s also the third visit to the pool boat where Adam and Simon become a thing. And, to be blunt, after Simon’s surgery, there are three testicles left in the three-way relationship.

Hana & Alice – Shunji Iwai (2004)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/09/underrated-hana-and-alice-shunji-iwai-2004/

In the normal run of things, there are very few love triangle films you would ever find me enjoying on the sly, let alone openly praising and defending, but Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice is one of them.

A beautiful, deceptively complex film, one that is as touching as it is funny, and one that works just fine on its surface but that gets better and better as you peel back the layers, Hana & Aliceconcerns the lives of two teenage girls living in the suburbs of Tokyo as they are about the graduate junior high and move on to high school.

Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have been joined at the hip for years, best friends that are so similar and used to each other that they move in unison, something helped along by their ballet classes. When we first meet them, Alice has fallen deeply in love with a boy she sees on the train platform every day, a Japanese-American mix who Hana isn’t interested in. As an aside, mostly joking, Alice says she can have his little brother, Miya (Tomohiro Kaku). Hana’s nose immediately crinkles at the idea, but its posturing to hide the embarrassment from Alice. Her eyes tell the real story: something in her brain makes her want him.

What exactly that is is hard to say. Thinking back on some of my high school crushes, I can’t explain the attraction either. It was just a fact. Like the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders.

I’m somewhat hesitant to provide a synopsis because the film defies explanation, really. It is the sort of silly-serious material that needs the right hands to works, and in Iwai, it does have the right hands. Iwai is a master filmmaker, and material that would be weak and frivolous in anothers hands are spun into lace by his. We are meant to laugh a little at the girls, at the lengths they go to for such a fleeting end, but we are meant to empathize with them as well, to see the silliness through their eyes, to see that it’s not silly at all, it’s just one of those things that slowly gathers an unstoppable momentum.

The film actually began life as a series of internet shorts commissioned by Kit Kat Japan for their 50th anniversary. Its popularity quickly sent it into a feature production, but the film still has a vignette feeling to it, weaving together several concurrent stories rather than relying on a heavy plot. At it’s core, the film is essentially a gentle stalker comedy, but it is so intensely self-aware of what its comedy is, where it is and how to mine it, that it somehow manages to escape creepiness. Any hint of creepiness is immediately defused by subtle absurdities, well timed self-deprecating jokes and ultimately by the lively charm of characters themselves, even though the spin out of control into a jealous rage over Miya by the end.

Love triangles are one of the worst inventions of life, never mind the movies. Guys fight over girls, girls fight over guys. It’s usually for shallow, petty reasons, where the girl or guy in question has been stripped of their flesh and humanity, transformed into a golden statute, a trophy to win. Positive traits are hyper-focused on and the openly visible negative traits are handily ignored. In the end, they are hardly ever worth all of the anguish and bickering they cause. Most love triangles, though, are a natural outcropping of competitive relationships, where you want to possess the things your friend wants or already has because of our stupid lizard brain remnants. It comes in quite a different flavor in Hana & Alice. There is no machismo or cattiness to contend with here. In fact Alice is only spending time with Miya as a favor to Hana to deepen the “truth” of the game she is playing with him. In Alice’s desire to please her friend, she builds an even more elaborate game with Miya, one that they both have trouble easily dismissing.

Whenever I show this film to someone, or make them watch it against their will, they always turn it into a contest of which girl they like better. The answer is always – always – Alice. Even the girls pick Alice. It’s not hard to see why people would immediately pick her. She is adorable, sweet, intelligent and quick witted. Her ballet makes her graceful, and we see all of that right out in front.

I’ve never personally made a decision between the two. I like Hana as much as I like Alice, though for conversation’s sake I usually side with Hana because no one else does. You have to work for her, take time to consider what makes her tick. On the surface she appears to be the more mature one, more eager to be an adult and quickly grow up than Alice. But inside she still retains the romantic notions and emotions of childhood, though they manifest in decidedly mature ways. Whatever her deceits, they are very adult in nature, even if the intent behind them is juvenile. Much of the material added to make it feature length focused on Alice’s family, so Hana lacks a certain depth of story development, but there is enough visible to make small leaps of faith about her character and background. In that way, she is a little bit more rewarding a character to spend time with.

There is a hazy quality to the cinematography, something like a shadowy, overcast day that follows the film around, even in the bright sunshine of the spring scenes. It works like magic to the film, making it feel more like the fairy tale, and even though I know in my head that it’s just a problem inherent in old digital cameras (Iwai has shot much of his work on video instead of film), and I know how much I hated digital cinema until very recently, I can’t help but give it a pass in this film for the magic airy feeling it inspires in the film. I say airy, but really it’s more about a heft. These problems in these years of a persons life are heavy stuff. There is a reason why everyone can identify with Charlie Brown and the rain cloud above his head, and that’s exactly the feeling that is evoked here.

The film was shot by Noboru Shinoda, and was one of the last films he worked on before his sadly premature death in 2004. Shinoda, who appears in a cameo role as a commercial director, and Iwai had a working relationship that went back to 1994 when they made the short film Undotogether.

Over 10 years they worked together often, building a truly unique visual style together. He was the cinematographer for  every feature length film Iwai had made up until his recent film,Vampire, Iwai’s first feature length English film, which failed to secure North American distribution after mixed reviews at Sundance. Between 2004 and 2009, Iwai only has a documentary on Kon Ichikawa to his credit, and I don’t believe it an accident, I believe it to be a period of mourning for his friend, who was such an important part of his films, and who might have gone on to direct his own as Iwai moved into more of a mogul role, giving directing opportunities to others he’s worked with over the years on films like Rainbow SongHalfway and Bandage.