Clown prince of Austrian cinema Daniel Hoesl wields satire like a crystal blade — more ornamental than lethal — in his second feature WINWIN, a playfully confrontational take on 21st century corporate capitalism that will leave no spectator indifferent. A leap ahead of his oddball 2013 debut Soldate Jeannette, which won a Tiger award at Rotterdam and generated ripples at Sundance, it sees the media-savvy Hoesl emerge even further from the shadow of his former mentor Ulrich Seidl. Bowing in a non-competitive Rotterdam sidebar may not be the most auspicious of beginnings for this exquisitely stylized bauble — and even at home in Austria it has only bijou box-office potential — but programmers of festivals and platforms favoring edgy fare should certainly check it out.
Every aspect of WINWIN is precisely calibrated and calculated to fit in with a rigidly imposed overall aesthetic, including that eye?catchingly all-caps title — which is where any similarity with Tom McCarthy’s warm-hearted, wrestling-themed dramedy Win Win (2011) begins and ends. This WINWIN is all sharp angles and rigorous formalism, with every line of dialog and camera-position emphasizing the artificiality of the enterprise: most conversations are presented by having the characters addressing the spectator directly, in the distancingly declamatory and manneredly measured fashion long perfected by Eugene Green.
As with Green, there’s humor aplenty here despite the immaculate, po-faced surfaces, with proceedings shading agreeably into deadpan absurdity in the second half of a brisk 84-minute running-time. Hoesl and his collaborators — on what the picture proclaims as a “European Film Conspiracy Endeavor” — don’t bother with conventional ideas of exposition and narrative/character development. The plot, such as it is, concerns a venerable, nationally famous Austrian company taken over by a swaggeringly confident quartet of smooth-talking international businesspeople, venture-capitalists of persuasively fraudulent stripe.
Frontman is the model-handsome, pan-European Nicolas Lachman (Christoph Dostal); his colleagues are an eerily ethereal red-haired Canadian, Sandberg (Stephanie Cumming from Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley); a robotically unblinking middle-aged American, Efferant (Jeff Ricketts); and a silent but firecracker-energetic Japanese beauty (Nahoko Fort-Nishigami). The latter’s identity is revealed only in the closing credits — a ravishing cascade of blocky fonts whose yellow-and-black color-scheme echoes/mocks Star Wars: The Force Awakens — as the eponymous WINWIN, and she may very well be the mastermind behind the whole operation.
What exactly said operation actually is, however, remains deliberately and teasingly opaque, Hoesl simultaneously critiquing and mimicking the hollow banalities of megabucks globalization. It involves shady deals with various political and economic players from the higher reaches of Austrian society — including an aristocratic, eminently bribable Minister played by Hoesl’s leading lady from Soldate Jeannette, the refined but physically commanding veteran Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg.
All these arch shenanigans are presented in pin-sharp digital via cinematographer Gerard Kerkletz’s boxy, Academy-ratio cinematography, his camera rigidly tripod-fixed for interior sequences but enjoying a little more room for maneuver during open-air excursions. This is the kind of enterprise where three separate “food designers” are credited (but not a single scriptwriter), where a private jet’s exterior is decorated like a Mondrian painting, where an operatic interlude pops up out of the blue and where we’re repeatedly bombarded with profound-sounding references to “European cultural pessimism” and the like.
Hoesl isn’t in the business of actually unpacking the mechanisms underlying the current financial mega-malaise — even if from certain angles his picture resembles The Big Short as refracted through a kaleidoscopic prism of sleeve-worn Jean Luc Godard influences. He’s a self-willed, puckish prankster and a dandyish dilettante, deploying his opulently elegant box of cinematic tricks with casual, cynical aplomb: sincerity is, after all, just so last century! Not to all tastes, needless to say, but European cinema would be a much duller place without him.
Production company: European Film Conspiracy
Cast: Christoph Dostal, Stephanie Cumming, Jeff Ricketts, Nahoko Fort-Nishigami, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg
Director: Daniel Hoesl
Screenwriter: none credited
Producers: Daniel Hoesl, Georg Aschauer, Katharina Posch, Gerald Kerkletz, Julia Niemann
Cinematographer: Gerald Kerkletz
Production designer: Laura Weiss
Costume designers: Alexander Goll, Anais Horn
Editor: Natalie Schwager
Music: Op:l Bastards, Hanns Eisler, Moderat, Bad Kingdom
Casting: Julia Niemann, Daniel Hoesl
Food design: Sasa Asanovic, Britta Asanovic-Berchtold, Peter Zinter
Sales: European Film Conspiracy, Vienna
No Rating, 84 minutes