'Liebmann': Film Review

Liebmann still 1 - Godehard Giese -H 2016
Courtesy of Sebastian Egert
An oddball effort carried by a sense of mystery.

Jules Herrmann's jocular debut feature is a predominantly French-language affair with German theater actor Godehard Giese in the title role.

A bone-weary teacher from Germany takes an extended break in jolie rural France to refuel in Liebmann, the semi-experimental debut feature from distaff writer-director Jules Herrmann. Though the title character is occasionally prone to facile shortcuts — he explains to his sort-of French boyfriend that Liebmann means “amour” and “homme” — the film itself, which is almost exclusively in French, isn’t all that easy to pin down, with Herrmann experimenting with different visual, genre and narrative elements as ways to suggest something of the character’s psychology. Finally more the kind of work that makes one curious about the director’s next effort rather than a successful film in its own right, this should nonetheless tickle the interest of festivals geared toward independent cinema and less conventional storytelling.

Fortyish Antek Liebmann (theater actor Godehard Giese) barely speaks any French when he arrives — he can’t even say “a little” correctly when asked if he speaks the language — but that is perhaps part of the appeal. There’s no sense at all of who this man is or what he’s doing in France when the film starts, although it quickly becomes clear that this apparently Average Joe wants nothing more than to forget about his old life in Germany. It’s not clear whether he ever wants to return home, but Antek certainly doesn’t seem to have arrived in this bucolic French nowheresville — shot in Saint-Erme-Outre-et-Ramecourt, in Picardy — just for a holiday break, since he quickly takes up a job at a second-hand store. The small commune also has an artists colony that has taken over and transformed some pretty neat and frequently bare-bones spaces that you just know will figure in the film’s denouement, the better to contrast with the piles of used furniture and appliances at Antek’s work place (the production design is by Nicola Minssen).

In the first reels there’s some interaction, initially in halting French, between Antek and his red-haired, single-mother neighbor, Genevieve (Adeline Moreau) — who is a lodger, with her cute daughter (Morgane Delamote), in the home of the friendly elderly couple (Alain Denizart, Denise Lecocq) that live next door. Herrmann initially plays the awkward encounters between Genevieve and the lead, who comes with a pair of love handles, for their romantic potential, and there’s a slight erotic frisson. But she upends expectations when Antek helps a scruffy-but-cute store client, Sebastien (Fabien Ara), move a piece of furniture he bought up a flight of stairs and the two fall into bed, panting, and proceed to make out. But though his sexual orientation might become clear, what Antek might be escaping from remains a mystery until his sister, Ines (Bettna Grahs), shows up unannounced about an hour into the proceedings.

Herrmann is credited for the film’s screenplay as well, though most of the sequences were improvised around scene ideas with the small cast. Sometimes this works very well, especially when Herrmann and Giese come up with visual ideas (rather than dialogue) to express or explore pieces of Antek’s antsy identity. The nearby woods, for example, seem to be teeming with danger, including hunters who might accidentally shoot someone and an actual serial killer who’s on the loose. Using camerawork and especially musical cues, it becomes clear that Antek is attracted to the danger of the woods somehow and that what we’re seeing might partly be his overly active imagination and/or subconscious.

Though there are less successful attempts at playing around with genre conventions and narrative tools as well, such as strange chapter headings and interludes — including a fairy tale about a magic cake, shot as a cooking show, and a historical epic that unfolds, rather strangely, only in longshot — overall, Liebmann manages to create a fascinating suggestion of mystery around the title character.

However, this almost immediately dissipates when Ines arrives. The two talk in the shorthand of siblings, referring to past events and character traits in quick half-references because they know each other well enough to understand what the other means. But scenes such as these, when they’re not properly scripted, can quickly grow confusing for an audience because vital connective tissue might be missing or glossed over. This means that the set-up for the film’s wordless finale, which is rather effective (if decidedly more conceptual than the rest of the film), feels muddled and more of an intrusion than a helpful lead-in to that great final scene.

Giese is at least a solid anchor around which the film is constructed and Ara and Moreau are decent in roles that are more outlines than actual characters (they don’t seem to have anything to hide, which is what makes Antek fascinating despite an otherwise weak characterization). Denizart and Lecocq are newcomers who feel more like intruding amateurs than actors, though little Delamotte is a natural, especially in a key scene early on in which she silently hula hoops in the garden as a way to telegraph to the new foreign neighbor that she thinks he’s OK.

Production company: Ester Reglin Film
Cast: Godehard Giese, Fabien Ara, Adeline Moreau, Bettna Grahs, Alain Denizart, Denise Lecocq, Morgane Delamotte
Writer-director-editor: Jules Herrmann
Producer: Jules Herrmann
Co-producers: Roswitha Ester, Torsten Reglin
Director of photography: Sebastian Egert
Production designer: Nicola Minssen
Music: Christian Halten
Sales: Patra Spanou Film Marketing & Consulting

No MPAA rating, 82 minutes