'Aloys': Film Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Ambitious and gorgeous ... and then there's the second half.

Swiss writer-director Tobias Noelle's debut feature stars atypical Austrian leading man Georg Friedrich as the title character.

A private detective’s world falls apart after the death of his father, also a dick, in Aloys, the eccentric feature debut from Swiss-born writer-director Tobias Noelle. Starring atypical Austrian leading man Georg Friedrich (Stereo, Breathing) as the title character, this is part psychological drama, part oddball phenomenon, with Aloys’ already shadowy and now black-ribboned existence slowly regaining some of its color thanks to the voice of a mysterious woman — who might have stolen his surveillance tapes, no less — on his phone.

Winner of a Fipresci award for the Panorama sidebar at this year's Berlinale, this has some potential as a calling card for especially Noelle’s visual prowess — the film’s gorgeously composed, framed and color-coordinated — and his never-ending stream of strange ideas, though there’s a definite sense throughout that a tell-it-like-it-is producer or a stern script editor could have turned this feature into something much more than the currently somewhat muddled sum of its parts.

After the death of his father (Karl Friedrich), Aloys Adorn has continued to run the family business as if nothing has changed, down to using “we” when talking to clients (“We’ll be in touch”). But what has always been a pretty lonely occupation, consisting mostly of following suspects around and filming them from a safe distance on a small camcorder, has turned into a crushingly solitary job after Adorn senior’s demise. To underline the character’s loneliness, Noelle places Aloys either in his dark, coffee-stain brown office environment or in the cold, damp and unwelcoming outside, with the protagonist not speaking to anyone unless that person either works at the Chinese takeout place down the road or is on the other end of a landline.

How do you reach a loner that isolated from everyone around him and indeed reality? Via phone, of course, which is exactly what starts ringing after a bag with all his tapes is stolen on a night bus. The woman seems to know him quite well and orally introduces the “Japanese concept of phone walking,” which basically consists of Aloys having to use his imagination to find himself in the places and situations described to him by the female caller.

Up to this point, the story setup — and, to an extent, also the immaculate production and costume design — feels a bit like a Bratwurst-und-Bier variation on a gothic-cute Jean-Pierre Jeunet story (The City of Lost Children, Amelie). However, there have been some hints that Noelle might make a left turn into more troubled and psychologically fertile territory, especially in some early moments in which Aloys, with his old-fashioned equipment, loner attitude and obsessive edges, recalls Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in Coppola’s masterpiece, The Conversation.

But unfortunately, Noelle never manages to synthesize these two rather different styles and stories. The introduction of the beautiful Vera (newcomer Tilde von Overbeck), whether in real life or conjured up by Aloys in his mind’s eye, turns the film into a more predictable weirdo-boy-meets-pretty-girl narrative, where the twists and obstacles between the two increasingly seem to exist as madcap or mannered twists to keep this from being a very stylish short film. If the opening seemed to suggest there was an ambition to construct something that would be psychologically illuminating and say something about the power of the imagination to transport people and heal themselves, this has largely dissipated by the time the various characters are having a loud, cliché-affirming party in Aloys’ apartment in one of the final reels.

Georg Friedrich is an atypical leading man and that’s what this kind of project requires, though there’s a strong sense he’s better and more intelligent than the material as the film segues into its disappointing second half. The charismatic Von Overbeck, whose face is just as unusual and fascinating as Friedrich’s, has the thankless job of basically trying to out-Deschanel Zooey Deschanel in Manic Pixie Dream Girl-mode, but in Swiss-German.

Noelle’s command of all the technical departments and requirements is highly impressive. Now if he could only find a script editor.

Production companies: Hugofilm Productions, Petit Film
Cast: Georg Friedrich, Tilde von Overbeck, Kamil Krejci, Yufei Lee, Koi Lee, Sebastian Krahenbuhl, Karl Friedrich, Agnes Lampkin, Haroldo Simao
Writer-director: Tobias Noelle
Producers: Christof Neracher, Christian Davi, Thomas Thuemena
Executive producer: Jean des Forets, Urs Fitze, Eric Morfaux, Sven Waelti
Director of photography: Somon Guy Faessler
Production designer: Su Erdt
Costume designer: Leonie Zykan
Editor: Tobias Noelle, Myriam Flury
Music: Tom Huber, Beat Jegen
Casting: Lisa Olah
Sales: New Europe Film

Not rated, 91 minutes

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