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With her messy love life and sticky fingers, the central character in Softness of Bodies has a timeless troubled-dame quality, but she’s not your typical femme fatale. A poet, barista and possible sociopath, she’s played by an insinuatingly wry Dasha Nekrasova with a bored slouch, and she wields her hand-rolled cigarettes with the ferocious ennui of a wannabe Dietrich. Jordan Blady’s refreshingly concise first feature stands out from the pack with its strong performances and its incisive slant on millennial navel-gazing. It flirts with something darker every zigzagging step of the way, slipping seamlessly into noir territory with an expert jolt.
A transplanted American living the boho life, Charlotte “Charlie” Parks (Nekrasova) glides through Berlin’s streets on her bike, clad in stylish items she steals from mall boutiques. Her larcenous method — using a magnet to desensitize security tags — works until it inevitably doesn’t. Faced with the possibility of jail time (her “I’m a victim of late capitalism” defense doesn’t fly with the German court), she needs to come up with the euros for a hefty fine. At the same time, she’s being considered for a prestigious poetry grant, the prospect of which is more scary than thrilling for her: “I’ll be like a real adult.”
Sylvie (Nadine Dubois), also a finalist for the grant, is Charlie’s archrival on the circuit of twentysomething cafe poets. The very notion of poetic rivalry is emblematic of Blady’s sly humor, and the enmity between Charlie and Sylvie is played with a taut High Noon momentousness. Sylvia inspires Charlie to new levels of the snideness that’s her default setting. But with her supportive and ultra-patient gay roomie, Remo (Johannes Frick, bringing something new to a borderline-stock character), Charlie lets her insecurity show.
While Remo looks for Mr. Right, Charlie becomes the eye of a triangular storm. On one side is her noncommittal German boyfriend, Franz (Moritz Vierboom), who happens to be living with somebody else. On the other is her ex from Los Angeles, photographer Oliver (Morgan Krantz, terrific), who shows up unexpectedly — still interested, to Charlie’s professed disgust, and quasi-apologetic over his past infidelities.
There’s a slick-vs.-scruffy, commerce-vs.-art dynamic between the two men that’s nicely understated. Franz is an aspiring actor who makes Charlie watch his beer commercial, eager to know what she thinks of his performance, while Oliver turns his camera lens on women as a form of sexual seduction. Writer-director Blady doesn’t play into cliched notions of venality or artistic purity, cunningly shifting audience sympathies with each plot turn. On the margins, meanwhile, a nervous and smitten poet, Nathan (Matthias Renger), makes clumsy passes at Charlie. And eventually she’s confronted by someone who might be as crazy-angry as she is, Franz’s wealthy and imperious girlfriend, Marianne (Lena Reinhold).
Blady’s sharp, in-the-moment screenplay distills the barest minimum of backstory into action; one particularly oblique but cutting shard of dialogue suggests whole worlds of trouble whose details we’ll never know. His direction is as assured as his writing, and he and his co-editor, Julia Elger, eliminate anything extraneous while allowing telling details to surface.
The Berlin settings have a potent vitality in cinematographer Christian Huck’s composed frames and desaturated palette, with aptly unshowy contributions from designers Kim Scharnitzky and Marina Melentieva. Charlie’s movement through the cityscape’s geometry and more intimate spaces is well matched by the pulsing electro-textures of the excellent score by Aaron Short, which becomes a connective tissue for the story’s characters.
Nekrasova (the child of Belarusian acrobats, raised in the States), who also wrote Charlie’s poetry, inhabits the role effortlessly. Charlie is blasé, self-obsessed, hostile, childish and utterly magnetic. She delivers a brief speed-fueled rant that’s comically sublime in its searching, its bitterness and its literary references. Blady upends expectations with this wily narrative and its possibly heartless heart: someone intent on desensitizing much more than clothing-store security tags.
Production companies: One Can Pictures in association with Zak Films and Studio Saboteur
Cast: Dasha Nekrasova, Morgan Krantz, Moritz Vierboom, Nadine Dubois, Lena Reinhold, Johannes Frick, Matthias Renger
Director: Jordan Blady
Screenwriter: Jordan Blady
Producer: Catherine Morawitz
Executive producers: Jelena Goldbach, Jordan Blady
Director of photography: Christian Huck
Production designer: Kim Scharnitzky
Costume designer: Marina Melentieva
Editors: Julia Elger, Jordan Blady
Composer: Aaron Short
Casting director: Konstantin Shklyar
Venue: L.A. Film Festival (U.S. Fiction Competition)
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