Mea Culpa II: Re-evaluations of Things to Come and Toni Erdmann

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

One dirty secret of film criticism is that a critic’s evaluation of a movie often depends on things that have nothing to do with the movie itself. Sometimes, these things are maddeningly trivial – if you just pulled an all-nighter, you’re probably not going to appreciate a film as much as people who didn’t. Other times, however, the factors affecting one’s perception of a film are more insidious. For instance, if a film is marketed as a Kill Bill-esque story about vengeance (cough cough, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), you’ll be disappointed when it actually turns out to be a somber meditation on anger and the ineradicability of injustice. 

Over a year ago, I wrote dismissive reviews of Things to Come and Toni Erdmann, two non-American films that had otherwise met with near-universal acclaim. As with Three Billboards, my impressions of both movies were heavily, negatively shaped by the expectations I had going into them. The former was marketed as a “warm” and “funny” film about a woman gaining independence, even though it’s really an ambiguous, vaguely existentialist story about the perils of total freedom. Similarly, Toni was advertised as an “utterly hilarious” comedy about family love, but it’s actually a dark movie about mortality, globalization, and the difficulty of living a truly “meaningful” life.

When it comes to revising past judgments, film critics can be a stubborn bunch. Roger Ebert once claimed that he “hardly ever” changed his mind about movies, and Pauline Kael was notorious for never seeing a film more than once. No matter how much it hurts critics’ egos to admit it, however, the potential for revised evaluations is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of film criticism. Belated appreciation leaves you with a feeling that’s probably best described as a cross between wonder, enlightenment, and joy. In that spirit, then, here are (long overdue) reappraisals of Things to Come and Toni Erdmann:

Image courtesy of Les films du losange.

Things to Come

I originally gave Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come a mixed review. While praising Isabelle Huppert’s performance and Hansen-Løve’s ability to “bring out the awkward tensions between what we say and what we really feel,” I nevertheless found the film needlessly opaque. “For all the scenes…that show Nathalie [the film’s protagonist] having an abrupt emotional breakdown,” I claimed, “there are even more in which you’re only left to deal with Nathalie’s cool…façade – and wonder in vain about what’s going on inside her head.” I also criticized Hansen-Løve’s reliance on “inside jokes about mythology and philosophy” to help us understand the film’s “esoteric [emotional] nuances.”

When I complained that Things was “opaque” and “esoteric,” what I really meant was that it’s a film where nothing seems to happen. Narratively speaking, after all, it largely consists of scenes in which Nathalie goes about mundane tasks with a determined, “I’ve got everything under control” air. Additionally, these scenes invariably feature smooth camera movements, warm lighting, and the sound of crickets in the background – a stylistic combination that naturally engenders an atmosphere of monotony.

The whole point of Things, however, is that Nathalie’s calm, apparently boring existence is actually anything but. Although she claims that she’s unaffected by the events in her life – namely, her husband’s affair, her mother’s death, and the loss of lucrative publishing contracts – we’re intermittently presented with scenes in which she’s shown crying in private. As indicated by these moments, the composed demeanor she typically exhibits is a veneer, a mere façade that belies the disorientation and distress that she secretly feels. In this context, the film’s bland style and ubiquitous everyday-life scenes aren’t signs of Hansen-Løve’s superficiality. Rather, they’re tools that carry psychological insight, offering a direct, cinematic illustration of the way Nathalie represses her emotions.

With this in mind, the notion that Things depends on “inside jokes about mythology and philosophy” also looks ridiculous. It’d certainly be problematic if philosophical quotations were Hansen-Løve’s only means of conveying Nathalie’s emotions. But as indicated above, this conveying function is more than satisfactorily performed by the film’s deceptively monotonous style. Moreover, I’d go so far as to argue that said quotations are actually meant to be ironic. Nathalie often says, after all, that she only needs the “life of the mind” to survive. Yet as we see, she’s actually just as human as the rest of us, a being who’s easily impacted by decidedly earthly matters like marital infidelity. Viewed in this light, the film’s philosophy quotes are almost mocking, offering a testament to just how un-fulfilling Nathalie’s intellectual pursuits end up being.

Original Rating: ** ½

New Rating: *** ½

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Toni Erdmann

When it was first released, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann received major critical acclaim, and several prestigious film magazines (Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Cahiers du Cinema) deemed it the best movie of 2016. I begged to differ. The film’s female protagonist, Ines, was “difficult to connect with.” Her father’s antics were annoying, to the point that “you find yourself…growing tired of watching a perverted 60-year old constantly act like an overlarge infant.” And in terms of ideas, the movie supposedly oscillated between shallow reaffirmations of “YOLO” and “a basic, general retread of…‘corporate life is…shallow’ clichés.”

These claims are all baseless. To begin with, Ines may not be “likeable,” but that’s kind of the point. As a business consultant, she has next to no free time, and she has to devote all her energy to doing dirty work (firing people, outsourcing) that thankless clients force upon her. While doing this work, moreover, she also has to constantly deal with sexist slights. During a conversation with her, for instance, one of Ines’ colleagues laughingly dismisses gender quotas and sexual harassment training programs as “business nail polish,” while a client praises the fact that she has “enough charm” to manage projects by herself. In this sense, Ines’ supposed coldness is simply her way of coping with her hostile, dehumanizing work environment.

It’d also be a mistake to view Ines’ father, Winfried, as just a “perverted…overlarge infant.” Right from the get-go, after all, Ade shows us that he’s a loner. He’s divorced, his dog is dead, and whenever he tries to see Ines, Ines insists that they “fix a time,” as though he were a patient seeing a doctor. Viewed in this context, Winfried’s incessant pranks aren’t the immature antics of a wannabe Mike Myers. Rather, they’re his desperate attempts to attract some kind of affection – and deflect our, his, and Ines’ attention from the fact that he’s old, unwanted, and dying. As evidenced by the unenthusiastic manner in which he often carries out his pranks, even he realizes that said attempts are bound to be futile.

In a larger sense, moreover, you’d be missing the point of Toni if you fixated on the strangeness of Winfried’s behavior. Winfried is eccentric, no doubt, and his “Toni Erdmann, life coach” disguise is obviously fake. But Ines is hardly an exemplar of authenticity by comparison. While at work, she constantly has to adopt a servile, “Yes, everything you say is completely right” attitude. Furthermore, this phonily deferential behavior contrasts with the more genuine impudence that she starts displaying after her dad begins dressing up as Toni Erdmann. Winfried’s Toni Erdmann act, in short, may strike you as blatantly false. But one message of Toni is that “serious” businesspeople like Ines are just as false, even though their artificiality isn’t usually as obvious as Winfried’s.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In the end, the biggest error in my original review was my claim that Toni is just a prolonged, pretentious restatement of clichés like “Corporate life sucks” and “YOLO.” To start, while the film certainly does critique the corporate world, it does so in a very particular context. Ines is a bilingual German working in Romania, a country that’s become the European Union’s favorite source of cheap labor. In her job, she helps people outsource work, and her definition of socializing entails meaningless small talk with other multilingual businesspeople at fancy cocktail parties. The overall portrait these details paint is that of an EU where a handful of globalized elites make decisions that inevitably leave ordinary people worse off. Seen in light of Brexit, the film thus stands as a prescient, Magic Mountain-esque depiction of the inequalities and creeping soullessness that now define the Western world.

From here, the idea that Toni merely promotes a “YOLO”-esque message – or, more specifically, a message about the importance of human relationships vis-à-vis soul-sucking work – also proves simplistic. At its heart, to be sure, Toni is about a father who wants to reconnect with his workaholic daughter, a premise that’s reminiscent of feel-good, “Relationships matter” movies like Up in the Air (2009) and The Intouchables (2011). Yet what distinguishes Toni from these predecessors is that it refuses to embrace cheap uplift. Even though Ines eventually learns to value her father, her newfound appreciation doesn’t lead her to make any major changes in her lifestyle. At the film’s end, she’s still a full-time business consultant – and as indicated by the final shot, her improved relationship with Winfried hasn’t left her feeling any less lost, frustrated, or unhappy than she was at the start of the story.

Far from endorsing a version of YOLO or “carpe diem,” Toni is actually an illustration of just how hard it is to apply those maxims in practice. Towards the end of the film, Winfried gives a brief speech that neatly encapsulates this idea :

“But how are we supposed to hang on to moments [in life]? Now I sometimes sit there and remember how you [Ines] learned to ride your bike or how I once found you at a bus stop. But you only realize that afterwards. In the moment itself, it’s not possible.”

Winfried’s confusion speaks to a fundamental problem regarding the philosophy of carpe diem. If you consciously try to tell yourself to “enjoy this moment,” you inevitably end up sucking away the moment’s spontaneity. Yet if you don’t consciously think about “enjoying this moment,” the moment slips by, and you eventually find yourself regretting that you didn’t try to consciously appreciate it. Enjoying life, in short, is easier said than done – and through Winfried and Ines, Toni offers a look at two different ways people go about grappling with that reality.

Original Rating: *

New Rating: ****