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A somewhat stuffy non-fiction writer in his early forties is fascinated by an icy blonde at least a decade his junior in the high-minded yet structurally jocular German drama Agnes. Based on the bestseller by Swiss-German author Peter Stamm, this is the kind of relationship drama in which the stunning female lead pushes the male protagonist to write a romance novel about their relationship, allowing him to effectively look past the present and into the past and the future and rewrite or actually invent parts of their courtship. This low-key but rigorously executed drama should please international festival audiences brought up on Charlie Kaufman screenplays while at home it should solidify the reputation of opera and theater director Johannes Schmid, here directing his third feature film, and striking leads Odine Johne and Stephan Kampwirth.
The film opens in media res to suggest something very dramatic will happen down the line before flashing back to the first time Agnes (Johne) runs into Walter (Kampwirth), as the novel’s nameless narrator has been called here. He’s a non-fiction writer researching a vague book idea and she’s a young physicist. Working without much dialogue in the early going, Schmid, who co-wrote the adaptation with Nora Laemmermann, manages to clearly convey that it’s Walter who is immediately attracted to Agnes. Indeed, her ethereal, slightly otherworldly qualities — imagine a young Mia Farrow and you’re halfway there — immediately stand out in the otherwise entirely unremarkable university library in Duesseldorf (changed from Chicago in the novel) where they first meet.
As played by the magnetic Johne (Jack), Agnes is a striking but also somewhat unusual presence. She often looks like she’s living in her own world rather than the physical world shared by everyone else and it is never clear if she’s very absent-minded or perhaps just extremely guarded or standoffish. This only further adds to both her beguiling air of mystery and the sense that she’s a blank canvas that people like Walter can project their own desires on. And this is exactly what happens when she suggests he pen a romance novel about their slowly deepening bond.
At first, the story has fun contrasting the differences between the duo’s real and fictional selves, with Agnes questioning Walter’s decision to highlight or omit certain details from their courtship. When she has to leave to Brussels for a presentation, he can’t join but promises her that in the novel, he will, leading to the introduction of clearly fictional elements into the slowly separating timelines.
Though it has things in common with films such as Gwyneth Paltrow starrer Sliding Doors and some of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays, Schmid is finally not all that interested in simply telling two mutually exclusive, parallel-running stories or trying to lead audiences into a narrative maze. Instead, it wants to suggest nothing less than how fiction and fantasy can reveal our true selves more or better than real life can. Editor Henk Drees’s precision cutting, which keeps toggling between the real and fictional worlds, is key in making sure audiences can always follow the story. Schmid’s firm handle on the material is equally important, even if it gradually slips in the film’s second latter reels, which start to feel a bit repetitive and drawn-out before closing in on the finale, which underlines how life is different from most stories in that life doesn’t have to end unless someone actually dies.
Remarkably at ease with the actors and all the modest but very precise technical contributions, Schmid also indirectly explores the appeal of fiction: “Happiness doesn’t make for a good story,” one of the characters tellingly admits. It is the paradox of good storytelling: What every character is striving for, namely personal happiness, would be the most boring condition to write and hear about and never occurs in a story unless it’s at the very beginning — so it can be destroyed — or at the very end, if the characters are lucky.
Production companies: Lieblingsfilm, Atrack Film, WDR
Cast: Odine Johne, Stephan Kampwirth, Sonja Baum, Walter Hess, Berit Karla Menze, Oliver Buergin
Director: Johannes Schmid
Screenplay: Johannes Schmid, Nora Laemmermann, based on the novel by Peter Stamm
Producers: Philipp Budweg, Thomas Blieninger
Director of photography: Michael Bertl
Costume designer: Nicole Hutmacher
Editor: Henk Drees
Music: Michael Heilrath, Anna Ternheim
Casting: Daniela Tolkien
Sales: Pluto Film
No rating, 102 minutes
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