Silence, you who will dismiss Tom Tykwer's lugubrious follow-up to Run Lola Run as a sophomoric step backward, because Winter Sleepers, shot before Lola in 1997, is a step backward, literally. With this in mind, it's easier to assess this heady precursor to Tykwer's later fireworks for its own successes and shortcomings, both of which are many and varied.
Tykwer opens his somber twentysomething puppet show in the remote reaches of the snowy mountains of Germany, as frazzled Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem) treks through the drifts to return to the funky, grand-scale playhouse she inherited from a great-aunt and shares with her friend Rebecca (Floriane Daniel). Laura and Rebecca share a night snuggling platonically, until stud-boy ski instructor Marco (Heino Ferch) shows up the next morning in his sporty new Alfa Romeo. Locked in the throes of passion, Rebecca and Marco fail to notice that a nerdy, vaguely sinister interloper, Réné (Ulrich Matthes), has crept up to the house. After surreptitiously snapping a photo of their coupling (a method he employs in lieu of a functional short-term memory), the creepy fellow discovers the keys in Marco's ignition and takes the next logical step.
En route to nowhere in particular, Réné crosses paths with a middle-aged farmer named Theo (Josepf Bierbichler), who is transporting his sick horse and, unbeknownst to him, his sweet stowaway daughter. At the moment of their passing along the icy road, Theo is distracted by an urgent walkie-talkie call from the other children back at his failing farm, and Réné's joy ride leads to disaster. The horse is toppled, the girl is thrown into a coma, and Theo is knocked unconscious, but not before he spots a strange scar on the back of Réné's head, as the car thief sneaks away from the wreckage he helped to create.
Once these fates are intertwined -- in a setting quite different from co-screenwriter Anne-Françoise Pyszora's source novel Expense of the Spirit, which takes place in the south of France and does not include the farmer -- Tykwer takes his time in revealing to us the complex web they weave. Laura, more or less the den mother to this pack, is a somewhat reticent presence, compensating for the quiet demeanor she displays as a nurse by performing in amateur theater productions, including a howlingly earnest reading of A Streetcar Named Desire. After the play, she meets Réné, who gamely praises her performance and asks if she likes to go to the movies. "Not really," replies the aspiring actress, but she accepts free tickets from the nervous projectionist all the same, and a tiny hint of chemistry is established.
Meanwhile, Rebecca is working as a translator of pulp romance novels, spending some time at the local ski resort where Marco works, when he's not crashed out in front of truly awful television and helping himself to the spoils of Laura's kitchen. Through these two couples, the basis for romantic entanglement is scrutinized, and the archetypes are danced out like marionettes for our perusal.
"I'd like to know if it's love between Marco and me," Rebecca asks Laura as the two young women skate through a winter wonderland, and her doubt is about as cosmetic as the costumer's choice to outfit Rebecca in red and Laura in muted green. Tykwer's point isn't to figure it all out and give us a cuddly Meg Ryan wrap-up. He just wants to create a meditative environment in which we can wonder about the emotional machinations that drive us. With no insult intended, it can be said that the director achieves the feat of being moody without being provocative, reveling in a bleakness not unlike that of director James Gray (Little Odessa and the forthcoming The Yards).
Hovering over Marco and Rebecca in bed, or observing Laura's growing interest in Réné, it becomes apparent that Tykwer is deeply perplexed by the whys and wherefores of romantic love, especially when the confused philanderer Marco ironically complains to Rebecca that all she wants from him is sex, or fumes in jealousy over the arrival of weaselly Réné. Laden with such scenes, Winter Sleepers plays a bit like the sketch pad on which the director doodled before laying out his dark doubts in bold strokes in the two brief bedroom scenes that hold together the moral triptych of Run Lola Run.
In that film, we never really understand why Lola loves Manni in the first place (he's hardly sympathetic, and she's about as deep as a margarine tub), but we're jazzed because she's going to run her course and save him! What if, say, her objective were simply to dash out and satisfy her base desires, as Marco and Réné do in Winter Sleepers? Would we applaud her quest with such vigor? The director aches to show some shameless feminist cred (lingering here on a woman peeing outside, much as Jane Campion did in an early short film), but his young protagonists are still strictly stock.
Similar in tone to Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Tykwer's work here also explores mortality and grief, focused in Bierbichler's understated yet gripping performance as the depressed farmer. Theo's pain gives rise to an obsessive need to find the man with the scar, and the frosty, looming landscapes (courtesy of regular Tykwer director of photography Frank Griebe) reveal much about his state of soul. Combined with sinister whispers on the soundtrack (borrowed from Wim Wenders but quite effective) and a probing intensity rarely observed since Bergman retired from filmmaking, the movie can be utterly captivating, even while it appears to be sitting perfectly still.
Winter Sleepers only stumbles when Tykwer descends into cheap moralizing, dishing out what he deems to be just rewards at the film's climax. Technically, the movie occasionally rises to become awe-inspiring, and while sometimes you can smell the acting (especially from Matthes), the performances are often soulful. What's tedious is Tykwer's lionizing of an evasive liar, criminal, and thief, especially in tandem with the truly hideous (and technically marvelous) punishment he dishes out to a fellow who is merely confused and lusty. It's as if Tykwer has appointed himself executioner while simultaneously pronouncing that The Little Shits Shall Inherit the Earth, and, frankly, it adds a depressing coda to an otherwise stimulating narrative. It feels as if the director has an ax to grind, and the grinding here, while pretty and meditative along the way, is ultimately no pleasure to share.
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