German director Tom Tykwer's third film to secure a U.S. arthouse release is closer in spirit to 1997's claustrophobic Winter Sleepers
than the hyperactive (and more popular) Run Lola Run
(1999). The latter was pure kineticism, its stunning, riotously colorful visuals (which include spot animation sequences) mirrored by a singularly propulsive techno soundtrack. The beats and the cutting worked hand in hand to create a punkish manifesto on the nature of time and fate, and what happens when both begin to run out. Winter Sleepers,
which didn't see domestic release until last year, was a far more static film, though the snowbound setting and lengthy sequences lacking dialogue frequently made it appear downright moribund (in my review I called it, somewhat uncharitably, “a shrill, tedious exercise in snoozy theatrics”). Tykwer's latest falls somewhere in between those two films, and likely will fail to satisfy fans from either camp. It's just over two hours long but feels like much more; the pace and tone shift from contemplative to adrenalized throughout, and although you're constantly aware that the director is tossing off a raft of fine ideas (love, fate, and random chance again play into the mix), it often seems as though he's trying too hard. Or maybe not hard enough. Tykwer's real-life paramour, Potente, plays Sissi, a shy, introverted nurse at a mental hospital in the director's native town of Wuppertal, Germany. She's so into her job and her patients that she routinely crosses ethical boundaries and provides at least one of her charges with shadowy sexual gratification. That shattered taboo aside, Sissi appears as mousy and distant as a white-smocked ghost. On the streets outside she passes like a phantom, unseen by others and barely substantial. Her life takes a sudden, decisive turn for the more interesting when she is almost killed by a bus while crossing the street. Pinned under the massive machine, her chest is crushed and unable to draw breath when a mysterious stranger named Bodo (Fürmann) appears (as if by magic and as if following the Edelweiss Scouts motto, “Be Prepared!”) he saves her life with a hastily improvised tracheotomy. As shot by Tykwer, the sequence -- all labored breathing and cramped movements -- is a stunner; nothing else in the film holds our attention as well as this jarring bit of curbside surgery. Bodo, it turns out, is an ex-soldier and petty thief on the run from the cops. He sports a three-day-old beard, a tough-guy mug, a violent temper, and a tragic past. Sissi, naturally, falls for this scruffy savior, but he's having none of it. Tykwer's goal seems to be a meditation on the ironies of fate and the tiny, inexact collisions brought on by chance meetings. Sissi and Bodo, a horribly mismatched and star-crossed pair to begin with, find themselves entangled in the random again and again. Whatever course of action they take it seems they can't quite separate their suddenly parallel lives. Tykwer ends the film on a bizarre note that caught me off guard, a too-literal bit of salvation that is more bothersome than revelatory. Potente, though, is winning and winsome throughout. Her near-death experience transforms her from shrinking violet to shrieking violence (internally, at least), and her suddenly Bodo-centric life makes for an interesting if overlong and moody celebration of the arbitrary nature of love.