Yesterday, many of our hopes were realized at the Cannes Film Festival. German director Maren Ade, whose second film Everyone Else still feels like the secret discovery of 2008, has finally returned with a new film—and it is not only great, it's a also quite a surprise. Devoted with extreme sensitivity and patience to the stilted relationship between a professional young woman, Sandra Hüller's uptight, defensive Ines, and her sad sack, prankster father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), Toni Erdmann spends its considerable runtime observing how these two, by themselves and together, put up emotional shields to navigate unhappy lives.
On paper perhaps something of a cliché, with Ines’ repressed chill keeping her career successful, if just barely, but emotionally unsatisfied working a corporate consultancy job in Bucharest, and a father whose sudden appearance at her work is an awkward embarrassment. Yet this immensely talented director brings to each and every social interaction an observant, unmannered, and utterly spot-on evocation of what each person is thinking and feeling. This masterly ability to observe and reveal without overly directing our attention to what the father and daughter are going through extends just as beautifully to well-detailed secondary roles like that of Ines' arrogant boss, her frightened-eyed assistant, and an American girlfriend also living in the Romanian capital—a deft handling that goes all the way down to passing characters spied once and never again. Maren Ade proves herself a modest master of observation, letting us find on our own, casually and never didactically, how everyone in a scene is responding to each other and the circumstance.
Toni Erdmann’s precision of observation may make it sound like a normal drama done well, but in fact Ade keeps us on our toes throughout its near-3 hours run time. The film rides an at first unnoticeable but gradually increasingly apparent and difficult line of storytelling, courting our expectations of how a father-daughter story like this will go—with her embarrassment over her father’s antics and unprofessionalism coupled with his sweetly clueless, silent pleas for affection—but at every turn upending convention. Except, Ade does nothing radical, nothing unusual as her story moves, it simply moves freely, each development not quite how one would think it could go, yet never extreme enough to move into melodrama or some other extreme that would leave the film’s calm, considerate humaneness behind.
Its attention, through and through, are to the nuances of a deeply unresolved relationship, one which a father’s impromptu sudden visit will hardly instantly fix. But the man is persistent and dogged, playing constantly with fake teeth and sarcastic humor with a barely hidden grin. He kindly tries, without much self-awareness, to ingratiate himself in situations, whether at a corporate party or in the strained, everyday conversations with his daughter, in which he is uncomfortable and doesn't fit in—which are most situations. He leaves, he returns, she sends him away, and he comes back, always with the sheepish, smiling look on his face. The film is, gratefully and painfully, very funny and very sad.
Winfried is trying and we like him for this, but we also don't know the full history of his uncomfortable relationship with his daughter—we simply feel it, deeply, just as we do Ines' depression and self-denial. Midway through, faced again with his daughter’s rejection, Winfried makes one of his goofy gestures of ill-placed humor, hilariously popping up at a bar behind his daughter in a ridiculous wig, the bad teeth, and an unkempt power suit and claims to be “Toni Erdmann,” a life coach visiting Bucharest. Even worse, this character starts showing up at his daughter’s social engagements and work—work, incidentally, that Ade treats with remarkable detail and realism, as we learn just what exactly Ines has to do and what she has to put up with at her awful consultancy job.
In another film, Winfried's almost farcical costume would transform the story into something else, as his daughter learns what lengths he’ll go to be with her. But no—it’s just another, more elaborate joke that’s trying to win a smile on her face, with no greater ambitions. To close her story, Ade admittedly have to bring things to a head, a birthday party the daughter pathetically throws for herself which doesn’t turn out a she plans, yet as always with the film, the way the situation shifts, catches us off guard, ending somewhere far different than where it began. The party, a constantly evolving situation of great humor and insight, does precisely what Maren Ade throughout does best and what makes Toni Erdmann great: never grasping for epiphanies but instead building over time, with warm patience and true perception, an incredibly rich portrait of people and their all-too-delicate relationships.