'Wild': Sundance Review

Wild still 1 - h 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A transgressive beauty and the beast for a dark modern age.

The third feature directed by German actress Nicolette Krebitz centers around a young woman who is drawn to nature in an extremely visceral way.

A walk on the wild side in the most literal sense, Wild is a wayward, confrontational, anarchic, sexually outre modern fairy tale that balances on a razor-sharp edge between the genuinely provocative and the totally out-there. The third feature directed by German actress Nicolette Krebitz exhibits real nerve and rigorous control in equal measure as she tells a visceral tale of a young urban woman drawn to nature in a way that will shock mere tree-huggers. This will be beyond the pale for more sedate art house regulars but should develop a following among adventurous viewers hungry for the latest transgressions, especially in the realm of sexual politics.

A young lady who, as one acquaintance points out, could look pretty great if she put any work into it, Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is nonetheless as drab as her surroundings and lifestyle. Occupying a cramped high-rise apartment on the outskirts of an impersonal unnamed city and employed in a small high-tech office where little interesting is required of her, this mostly inexpressive, unassertive woman shows two provocative sides to herself early on, first when her sister deliberately leaves on her Skype when she starts having sex with her boyfriend and Ania pointedly closes her computer screen instead of watching, and when she takes target practice at a shooting range.

Walking home from work through a woodsy area at the end of another day, she is startled by the sight of a full-grown wolf. Her purchase of a steak to hang on a branch there the next day is merely the first modest gesture in her attempt to establish a rapport and, later, a relationship with this wild, famously untamable animal that goes well beyond that of master and pet.

Writer-director Krebitz delivers modest jolts through the first half without yet really tipping her hand about where she intends to take her story, which ultimately is (as ESPN’s Chris Berman says it best) all ... the ... way. In the meantime, she exercises formidable command of her material as she threads in subsidiary, but ultimately connected, subplots involving her terminally hospitalized grandfather, a mysterious little quasi-art project with two Asian girls and her prickly relationship with her young, vaguely attractive yet vaguely creepy boss (Georg Friedrich).

Without letting on too much, it can be disclosed that, after further encounters with the wolf, Ania boldy, even rashly dares to approach it, leash it and take it to a cleared-out apartment where, for a while, it becomes her pet and/or prisoner. The physical proximity Ania (and, more to the point, Stangenberg) achieves with the wolf (played by two credited animals) is extraordinarily close, which raises some real-life physical issues that are eventually surpassed by others that embrace identity, desire, typical hereditary connections, the reshuffling of life orientations and, without question, sexuality.

Krebitz goes so far down the track in exploring and physicalizing Ania’s quest and the film’s themes that many viewers will be tempted to jump off the train at one point or another; the apparent real-life endangerment of the actress will be beyond the pale for some, while the accelerating accumulation of physical and moral improprieties will surely offend some as it transfixes others. The one safe thing to say about the film is that there never has been anything quite like it.

Stangenberg has that exceptional quality that a few actresses exhibit from time to time, of seeming quite ordinary at first while promising and/or showing increasing flashes of the extraordinary. She has this and more, specifically great guts and daring, and not becoming self-conscious or histrionic while laying everything on the line physically. Hollywood actors who imagine they’re bold when they step out of their comfort zones would be humbled and chastened by what they see here.

Rigor is the artistic byword here, and Krebitz has made sure it applies from top to bottom, especially in the dark, smooth cinematography by Reinhold Vorschneider, Bettina Bohler’s deft editing and a score dominated by, but not limited to, the contributions of Terranova. And major kudos to the animal trainers, Zoltan Horkai and Peter Ivanyi, without whom CGI might have had to rudely intrude (if it’s present, it’s invisible).

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production: Heimatfilm
Cast: Lilith Stangenberg, Georg Friedrich

Director-screenwriter: Nicolette Krebitz
Producer: Bettina Brokemper
Director of photography: Reinhold Vorschneider
Production designer: Sylvester Koziolek
Editor: Bettina Bohler
Music: Terranova
Animal trainers: Zoltan Horkai, Peter Ivanyi
International sales: The Match Factory

Not rated, 97 minutes