It’s far easier to criticise than to eulogise. That’s a rule of thumb. To observe flaws is harder than it is to deliver praise. Flaws stand out, like marks on a dirty wall. They ask to be addressed. The flawless work is blank. How should one approach this? Are there hidden flaws which haven’t been spotted? How do you get in there, find the opening to dissect? Is it even necessary?
There is of course, no such thing as a flawless film, and I am sure that if there were, Toni Erdmann wouldn’t want to be that film. It’s a film, if anything, that glories in faults. Glories in the uncomfortable zones where people do stupid things. Because, and even if this is what is called in Spanish, un obviedad, that’s how people learn.
The film is the story of a father and a daughter who have drifted apart. The father, on the tail-end of middle age, wants to reconnect. He will go to any lengths to do so. He’s prepared to embarrass his daughter, jeopardise her career, provoke her wrath. She’s a career woman and he’s trying to teach her there’s more to life than that. This is the ostensible premise. Which then gets flipped, as, in an unexpected twist, she decides to accept his proposal and sets about teaching him a few lessons of his own.
This is the stuff of comedy, but, although there are some spectacularly funny scenes, Toni Erdmann isn’t a standard comedy. Perhaps it has more in common with the screwball comedies of Hawks. But it’s also a serious, engaged and entertaining examination of the way in which our society operates. Our society being the neoliberal model, within which the world has chosen to function. Ines works for a consultancy that is looking for a contract to restructure the oil business in Romania. This will imply redundancies and social upheaval. The film also shows the other side of the tracks: the poor Romanians who live across the road from the five star hotels; will neoliberalism help those trapped in poverty to escape or will it just make things worse? Ines drags her father into this complex ideological terrain. In desperation he resorts, in a symbolic way, to pre-christian beliefs, hoping to find some way to cut through this cruel modern world and reach out to her. He sort-of achieves this. Even though we learn at the film’s conclusion that far from having given up her business career, Ines is going to Singapore, where she’s going to work for McKinsey. The very apex of the neoliberal world.
In many ways, this is a film about how difficult it is to learn to accept ourselves in all our faulty glory in the world we have created. As one would hope from a film as near-faultless as this, there’s no suggestion of solutions. Ines’ father learns a lesson and then doesn’t learn from it after all. Ines will continue to plough her lonely furrow. All we can do is keep going and try to find a way to be a little more human with one another.
On a side-note, it’s worth mentioning use of camera and cinematic techniques. Toni Erdmann is a long film, but it remains engrossing throughout. It reminds us of the pleasure of sitting in a cinema and letting a narrative whose outcome we cannot predict unfold. With the courage of its convictions to do so without resorting to elaborate set-pieces or fancy tricks. The camera never does anything extravagant; its role is to follow the characters and be true to their journey. There are no magic shots, no elaboration. The film reminds us that, more than anything else, cinema is an adjunct of the art of storytelling, and reminds us that, all too often, the other stuff can get in the way.