‘Dora or the Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents’ (‘Dora order die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern’): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Lars Eindinger and Victoria Schulz in 'Dora or the Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents’
Although not without merit, this offers an exploration of a tricky issue that’s simultaneously too vague and too on-the-nose

Newcomer Victoria Schultz stars at an intellectually challenged young woman discovering her sexuality in director Stina Werenfels’ Swiss drama

The awakening sexuality of a young, mentally disabled woman has intense repercussions for her family in provocative Swiss drama Dora or the Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, a feature film debut for director Stina Werenfels. Although there are things to admire about this audacious, taboo-challenging effort - like Victoria Schulz’s breakout lead performance and Lukas Strebel’s nervy cinematography - Werenfels and Boris Treyer’s script, adapted from a play by Lukas Baerfuss, is alternately too elliptical and too on-the-nose to get to the heart of this tricky subject. Further festivals are likely to pay polite interest, but theatrical prospects beyond Switzerland are limited.

The 18-year-old only kid of university professor Felix (Urs Jucker) and caterer Kristin (Jenny Schily), Dora (Schulz) has a child’s mind but a young woman’s body. Hoping to give her daughter more independence and a fuller life, Kristin decides to take Dora off the medications that have been making her sluggish and drowsy, and Dora consequently blossoms into a vivacious young thing. She’s able to hold down a job helping Maria (Thelma Buabeng) run a fresh produce stall in the local street market, and maintains friendships with peers like Max and Sara (Sebastian Urbanski andNele Winkler, respectively), a seemingly sexually active couple who both have Down’s Syndrome.

Jealous of Max and Sara’s intimacy, and to an extent that between Felix and Kristin, and eager to experience love herself, Dora follows Peter, a man (rising German actor Lars Eindinger, from Clouds of Sils Maria, Everyone Else) she sees in a pharmacy all the way down to a subway toilet where he rather shockingly decides to rape her.

Or is it rape, given Dora is so eager for the experience? In fact, she’s quite keen to have sex again with Peter, much to the horror of her parents. They report the incident to the police, and Dora is given a morning-after pill and an HIV-test, but since she’s legally independent there’s no way Felix and Kristin can stop her from hooking up with Peter again short of locking her up at home. Before long, she’s pregnant with his child, which is particularly devastating for peri-menopausal Kristin who’s unsuccessfully tried to conceive another child herself with Felix via IVF.

Stories about sexually-active people with intellectual challenges aren’t entirely without precedent in cinema (see, for example, the documentary Monica & David or drama I Am Sam), but Dora arguably pushes the boundary further than anything before with very explicit sex scenes that show the lead character reveling in her new-found sensuality. Werenfels and Co make it clear that Peter is exploiting her guilelessness to his own selfish advantage mostly, but at the same time it seems we’re meant to question who is to decide what’s good or appropriate for Dora – Peter, her parents, social workers and state authorities, or Dora herself?

It’s a very thorny, emotionally charged subject which is still under debate in countries round the world. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring the issues in any detail, which may make this highly problematic even for viewers in favor of empowering people with disabilities as much as possible. Less broad-minded audiences may be left feeling merely angry with, above all, Dora’s parents for failing to protect their child.

The filmmakers’ aim may indeed be to open up the debate and let folks decide for themselves, but the lack of specifics about legalities, degrees of volition and motivations ends up feeling merely sketchy and lazy rather than ambiguous and thought-provoking. Also, the film is possibly stacking its deck in some way by casting non-disabled Schulz to play the lead role, her comely “normal” looks marking a notable physical contrast with actors Urbanski and Winker, who really do have Down Syndrome.

Meanwhile, ironies are piled on with a heavy hand, starting with the way the lead character’s moniker namechecks one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous cases to the way the film counterpoints Dora’s innocence with imagery showing how normalized sex is in western culture, from the burlesque show Kristin caters for to a sex club where she seems to have some kind of woolly arthouse epiphany at the end.

Still, those significant caveats aside, there are interesting elements at play here, particularly in the way the film gropes its way around the relationship between mothers and daughters and what fertility and parenting might mean. The cast is strong, especially the luminous Schultz while Eindinger impresses as well in a vaguely written role as Dora’s lover/abuser. Strebel’s use of short focal lengths adds a woozy intimacy, and underscores the subjective point of view throughout.

Production companies: A Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion presentation of a  Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, Niko Film,  Aleppo Films, Deutscher Filmfoerderfonds, Magmafilm production
Cast: Victoria Schulz, Jenny Schily, Lars Eindinger, Urs Jucker, Inga Busch, Thelma Buabeng, Sebastian Urbanski, Nele Winkler, Renato Schuch
Director: Stina Werenfels
Screenwriters: Stina Werenfels, Boris Treyer, based on a play by Lukas Baerfuss
Producers: Samir, Karin Koch
Executive producer: Dorissa Berninger
Director of photography: Lukas Strebel
Production designer: Beatrice Schultz
Costume designer: Gitti Fuchs
Editor: Jann Anderegg
Music: Peter Scherer
Sales: Wide
Casting: Britt Beyer, Tanja Schuh, Susan Mueller, Nina Haun

No rating, 90 minutes