The City Below -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Christoph Hochhausler makes his second appearance in Un Certain Regard with the dispassionate "The City Below," an artsy cross between "Wall Street" and "Fatal Attraction." The filmmaker takes advantage of the current crisis to the use the banking world as shorthand for emotional nefariousness, but his auteur approach renders it almost absurdly simplistic.

Which is fine, because "The City Below" wears its formalism proudly on its sleeve and will be received as an intellectual infidelity tale. As such, it can enjoy a happy run at festivals and arthouse cinemas.

The film opens with images of revolving doors and distorted reflections in the windows of skyscrapers, establishing the murky goings-on that take place in these glass towers. Financial wunderkind Oliver (Mark Waschke) moves to start a new job in Frankfurt with his pretty young wife Sanja (Nicolette Krebitz). From the moment she lays eyes on her husband's steely boss Roland (Robert Hunger-Buhler), sparks fly, so to speak. This is a German take on the irrationality of raw emotion, so proceedings are deliberate, muted and even non sequitur at times.

The next time Svenja and Roland meet they end up in a hotel room together, but she can't go through with it. So Roland conveniently has Oliver "promoted" to Indonesia -- to replace a banker whose business-related murder was hushed up by the bank -- and thus presumably to his death. After that, their affair flourishes.

The very nature of Roland's job implies he is hard-nosed and scheming, but the story's main problem is that Svenja is never particularly likeable. She comes across as even more cunning and manipulative than Roland, not above lying to get what she wants in her personal and professional life. She even worms her way into Roland's home, to glean information about her lover's childhood from his wife (Corinna Kirchhoff).

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Moreover, Svenja seems only nominally troubled about her adultery, which is at odds with a relentless sense of forced angst that the somber soundtrack drives home. Yet Svenja is much more upset to find out that Roland lied about certain details of his past, for reasons that are negligible to the story and certainly less consequential than her own unfaithfulness.

All of this leads to an unfortunately clumsy climax. When Svenja confronts Roland with the truth about her husband's transfer, he answers that now she finally knows how dangerous he is. Yet the menace he musters up is nothing compared to that which Krebitz oozes constantly in her character's ambiguity.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Un Certain Regard
Production: Heimatfilm
Cast: Nicolette Krebitz, Robert Hunger-Buhler, Mark Waschke, Corinna Kirchhoff, Van-Lam Vissay, Wolfgang Bock, Paul Fassnacht, Oliver Broumis
Director: Christoph Hochhausler
Screenwriters: Ulrich Peltzer, Hochhausler
Producer: Bettina Brokemper
Director of photography: Bernhard Keller
Production designer: Tim Pannen
Music: Benedikt Schiefer
Costume designer: Birgitt Kilian
Editor: Stephan Stabenow
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 107 minutes
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