Cannes: Toni! Toni! Toni!
We laughed till we cried, the “we” being the diverse, usually combative press corps, which almost unanimously embraced Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann as the first great film of the 2016 festival, in part because it accomplished what few films do in these polarized times: it made us aware of our common humanity.
An unlikely screwball comedy, Toni Erdmann focuses on a father/daughter relationship. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a sixtysomething, divorced, former piano teacher, living alone in a small German town. After his elderly dog dies, nothing keeps him from visiting Ines (Sandra Hüller), his only daughter, a thirtysomething rising executive who works in the Bucharest branch of a global corporation. Winfried is an indefatigable practical joker; Ines is a buttoned-up professional, even more rule-bound than her male colleagues, to whom she must constantly prove herself while also suggesting that she might be sexually available at some point down the line. Coping with her eccentric parent is the last thing she wants to do, especially since his anarchic behavior is intended to undermine her materialistic ambitions. To spare her from having to battle in public with her own father, Winfried reinvents himself as Toni Erdmann, a lifestyle coach, replete with Pythonesque wigs, oversized false teeth, and bad table manners. His implicit method: follow your impulses, the more laughable the better.
Trust in the creative impulse informs every aspect of the film, from Ade’s dazzling script which has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support two hours and 42 minutes of surprises big and small, to her direction, which is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, to the performances (Simonischek and Hüller seem to be as amazed as we are by the things their characters lead them to do). I seldom worry about spoilers, but the last 45 minutes contains four setpieces that take a film that is already great to a higher (say, The Rules of the Game) level, and the less you know about them in advance the better. Let’s just say they involve a karaoke performance, nudity, a very hairy embrace, and finally, a from-the-heart statement about how we could and should live our lives, which in almost any other film would seem like treacle, but here is thoroughly earned and provokes the tears that lay beneath the laughter all along.
Sony Pictures Classics won the bidding war for Toni Erdmann, which will certainly open in the U.S. in time for Oscar season.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and Artforum.