Toni Erdmann: An Appreciation

A note off the top: this is an appreciation, not a review, so it will have spoilers. However, I have divided my comments into a short and a long version. In the 'Short Version', I briefly summarize what I admire about the film. This version is SPOILER-FREE. The ‘Long Version’ that follows, however, contains spoilers, discusses the film in detail, and interprets the ending. So, if you haven’t seen ‘Toni Erdmann’ and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read beyond the end of the ‘Short Version’. But do enjoy!

THE SHORT VERSION (SPOILER-FREE)

The premise of ‘Toni Erdmann’ is as simple as it is delightful – a father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his busy professional daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), by insinuating himself into her professional life. When his first attempt fails, he returns in the wild alter ego, Toni Erdmann, a self-styled life coach, and all manner of both chaos and pathos ensue.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

That’s really it. The film is uncomplicated in plot and focus, however, it is deeply complex in the conflicts and competing emotions at work beneath the surface, touching on issues of gender, social and economic power, the challenges of parent-child relationships, and of course life and death. In short, it does what all great works must: it offers a simultaneously profound, surprising, entertaining, persuasive and moving glimpse of a few specific lives that illuminate the larger mysteries and meaning of life itself.

There were so many things I liked about this film, so here’s the short list:

  • It’s rare to see a film about a strong female protagonist that centers so much on her workplace relationships and the power dynamics at play there; in that sense, it is a very strong feminist film, and gives us the classic line, from Ines to her boss: “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.”
  • The film contains a subtle critique of (economic) power relationships in the world at large, showing us the bubble of luxury and privilege that foreign executives float around in while everyday Romanians struggle to survive around them. But, as Sydney Pollack is supposed to have said, “A good film is two sides of a good argument,” and while we can guess the filmmaker’s sympathies are more with the Left-most side of the argument, the film does not definitively come down on one side or the other.
  • The common wisdom is that comedies should run about 90 minutes, but ‘Toni Erdmann’ stretches to 160 minutes! And yet, none of it feels superfluous, and you’re not really aware of its unusual length while watching it. It is at times hysterically funny, but it’s a comedy with serious themes, and thus, earns its length and weight. I suspect the screenplay is not unusually long because so much of the film’s power comes from the silences between the characters, and there are many moments when we are simply watching the father and daughter watch each other, with great pathos.
  • You could almost see the film as an ironic essay on the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humour. They do, but it is wickedly dry, brutal even – though, at the film’s core, Winfried/Toni strikes me as a very joyful, warm, humane character who is trying to help his daughter reconnect with those same qualities in herself.
  • The film has moments of the truly bizarre (and gross), and playful in an almost ritualistic way – evoking the spirit of Carnival – and yet, none of them are implausible or stain credibility to the breaking point. It is those touches of the bizarre that break the characters out of their everyday, rational, utilitarian roles. The film is a glorious reminder of the ways art and imagination can transform everyday life and bring us back into contact with core values, relationships and emotions.

Another classic formula says that a good film must have no bad scenes and a few great ones. ‘Toni Erdmann’ absolutely fits this description – nothings struck me as a false note or misstep, and it has some scenes that simply have to be seen to be believed. (One of the many rave reviews says something like: “Contains the funniest nude scene ever committed to film!”) And even though it is long, it is very tightly constructed. It’s not a big, baggy mess of a movie – everything is to a precise purpose. The payoff is brilliantly set up so it doesn’t feel forced or come out of nowhere.

So if that hasn’t gotten you interested in seeing this film, nothing else I can say here will!

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

THE LONG VERSION (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

The film is basically about the difficulty – and the necessity – of really connecting with each other. And the mechanism for trying to make that connection is this wild, playful character that the father creates, which brings the world of clown and carnival into the real world and transforms it.

As I said in my introductory piece about film criticism, the reasons specific films resonate with us are often highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal. In the case of ‘Toni Erdmann’, part of what made it so enjoyable for me was that the father reminds me so much of my own (late) father: his rumpled physicality, his madcap sense of humour, the blood pressure monitor that he wears constantly and that goes off at random (my dad wore one too), the false teeth he carries in his shirt pocket (my dad kept his dentures there too). It was eerie how much this evoked my memories of my dad. But I realize that’s not going to be true for everyone. Nonetheless, the film is worth seeing for Peter Simonischek’s hilariously moving performance all on its own.

But there is so much more to it than that. Both Winfried/Toni and his daughter Ines feel absolutely authentic and are totally persuasive to me. One of the reasons I like seeing foreign films is that while the acting is often superb, you’re not distracted by the performers as ‘stars’. They just look like regular people. I completely bought the relationship, the difficult familial bond between them, and just loved watching them interact in these increasingly painful, awkward, and ultimately touching situations.

(Incidentally, the film is going to be remade with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig in the lead roles. It might still be very well done, but I doubt it will have the original’s power.)

But let’s try to go through the film a bit more systematically. It divides into roughly three acts, corresponding with the shifts in the father-daughter relationship.

Act I takes place (briefly) in Germany, where we meet Winfried (an elementary school music teacher), get our first glimpse of the alternate ‘Toni’ persona (as he receives a package from a courier and makes a distressing joke about it perhaps being a letter bomb!), and we begin to see the tensions between him and his daughter, who is home on a short break from work. Then it shifts to Bucharest, Romania, where Ines works as a consultant for a major oil company and is charged with making recommendations that may cost hundreds of locals their jobs.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest for an unannounced visit, and proceeds to drive his daughter crazy, make a bit of an ass of himself in public, and jeopardize her career. He tells his daughter’s high-powered client, Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), that he has hired another girl to act as a substitute daughter, since his real daughter is never home. Henneberg, not really understanding what’s going on, cheerfully plays along, inviting Winfried out for drinks with them, and drawing him deeper into Ines’s professional world. She snaps after several days of this and demands that her father leave. The complex play of emotions on her face as she waves goodbye from her balcony is just a hint of the power this film has in store.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Act II begins with Ines trying to get back on track after her father’s visit, going out to meet some female ex-pats to network and talk about their jobs (what Ines’s boyfriend dismissively calls “business nail polish”), when Toni Erdmann (her father in ghoulish false teeth and a just slightly purple tinged wig) makes his first appearance. To save face, Ines is forced to play along, and before long Toni is hobnobbing with Ines’s friends, coaching Henneberg, introducing himself as the German Ambassador to eligible older women, and making Ines’s life even more difficult than before.

In Act III, Ines gives up fighting her father off and makes a kind of unspoken agreement with him: “If you are going to force your way into my life, I am going to take you right up into the muck of it.” He gets to see her ‘partying’ (joylessly) with her vulgar boyfriend, who serves champagne like he’s masturbating, and sees her sniffing cocaine with him. She’s rubbing her father’s nose in her unhappiness, and it is painful – for him (and us) to watch. And yet this is when the film begins to reach its true depth.

If you listen carefully to the music in this section, it sounds like relatively generic, meaningless dance music (no offence to fans of the genre!), but the lyrics are actually painfully appropriate:

“I could lift you up
 I could show you what you want to see
 And take you where you want to be

 You could be my luck
 Even if the sky is falling down
 I know that we'll be safe and sound”

Music and lyrics © 2011 by Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian

That’s what Winfried/Toni is trying to do: lift his daughter up, connect with her, make her ‘happy’ (or help her relearn how to be happy, how to know if she is happy or not), to keep her safe. But there’s a chasm between them. The looks between them in the dance club are so painful, because there is so much unspoken love and a longing to connect there. She looks like she’s on the edge of tears the whole time. She loves her father, she wants to connect with him too, but she has a life to live, a career, and has to live in a world he doesn’t understand, and (possibly) does not approve of.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Another film I quite liked this year, Mike Mills' ‘20th Century Women,’ touches on some similar themes. In it, Annette Bening has a nice line where she says to her son’s girlfriend, “You get to see him in a way I never can. You get to see who he is out in the world, when I’m not around.” We never get to see our children that way but in this film, Winfried/Toni does, and it is harrowing.

Ines, can be a very tough, cold, harsh character. She has to be to survive in this high-stakes business world. But it didn’t fully register until my second viewing how tough and cold a character she can be. The film has some incredibly harsh lines: “If I’m going to throw myself out the window, you and the cheese grater [her father’s silly birthday gift to her] aren’t going to be enough to stop me.” Imagine saying that to your parent: “I’m unhappy, I might kill myself, and your goodwill mission is not going to change anything substantial in my life.” (And, remember, this is a comedy!)

That’s why it is so poignant when she’s on the balcony, waving goodbye to him – it’s a place from which she might throw herself if she does want to end it all. Fortunately, that’s not where the movie is going, but we feel the danger of it going there – or of any of our lives going there.

THE DESCENT INTO HELL

‘Toni Erdmann’, more so than other films I admire, made me realize that a great work of art has to approach heaven and have a little touch of hell in it. To me, hell is this nightclub scene, and the rather gross ‘sex’ scene with the petit fours that precedes it (I won’t say what Ines and her boyfriend do with them, but it’s pretty icky). There is also a broken toenail scene, right before an important business meeting, that is pretty cringe-worthy too, but it shows us what a tough cookie Ines is. The show must go on.

All three of these scenes put me in mind of Jonathan Franzen’s habit of including a gross-out scene (or two) in each of his novels: the abortion in ‘Strong Motion’, Alfred’s psychotic incontinence scene on the cruise ship and Gary cutting his hand open in ‘The Corrections’, the rape in ‘Freedom’. But they serve a similar purpose to the scenes in ‘Toni Erdmann’, I think, which is to remind us of the precise contours of our usually comfortable lives by skirting the edge of hell.

The ‘sex’ scene is harsh, and yet, so revealing of Ines’s character. A subtlety I didn’t pick up on the first time I saw the film is that her boyfriend (a co-worker) says that their boss told him not to ‘f$%@’ her so much that she looses her ‘bite’ (i.e. her edge, her killer instinct). It is extraordinarily sexist, and gross, that her boyfriend and her boss talk about her like this. So, to ‘punish’ him, she refuses to have sex, and quotes the line back to him: “I don’t want to lose my bite.” But there’s a truth about her in this too. She has to be tightly controlled. She can’t ever really unwind. That’s not how she got to where she is. She did so by being disciplined, tough, all but unyielding. She is quite a piece of work. But we also see the toll it takes on her.

Act III basically consists of four long scenes (or set-pieces) in which all the film’s themes and character dynamics come into sharp focus. The first is the nightclub scene. The second is the next morning when Winfried/Toni handcuffs himself to his daughter (on the charge of having used drugs) and then hasn’t got a key to open them. It’s a playful move, but there is also real concern beneath it. He saw something terrible the previous night and he is not letting his daughter out of his sight. Significantly, she does not panic or overreact. Either because she knows she can find a solution to even as absurd a situation as this (she gets in a cab, handcuffed to her father, and goes to a shadier part of town where some guys who look either like auto mechanics or low-level gangsters are able to undo the cuffs), or – I think – because emotionally she has surrendered to the Toni character at this point.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

ECONOMICS & POWER

I’ve already mentioned the way the film subtly critiques the economic relationship between Germany and Romania (or the First World and the developing world) simply by showing the contrast between the lifestyles of the foreign executives and the locals. Watch the arrogance and sense of entitlement in Ines when, spending time at a spa with her father, she walks out of a massage that wasn’t hard enough for her and demands, as compensation, not just another massage, but two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, two gourmet sandwiches, and two glasses of champagne.

(Incidentally, it is here that Winfried first raises the question of whether his daughter is happy in her life here. All the evidence is that she is not. She fights the question off with dismissive sarcasm about him casually raising such a big topic, throwing it back on him – what’s his formula for happiness, she wonders? Does he think he has it all figured out? He has no answer, but the theme will return at the end of the film.)

There are so many subtler and more overt references to the workings of economic power throughout the film: Henneberg’s wealthy Russian wife says she likes living in Germany because countries with a middle class “relax” her – i.e. because the middle class is a social buffer between her class and the poor that are all around them in Russia and Romania; Ines’s comment that the shopping mall is more Romanian than the Ceausescu Palace because it is full of things that people have no money to buy; and of course her job in Romania is to dis-employ people through outsourcing. She’s inflicting economic violence on vulnerable people in the name of efficiency and profit, which really comes to the fore when (in Act III’s second set-piece) she and her father visit the oil field.

There she needs to meet with Illiescu (Vlad Ivanov), a manager who has been subtly pushing back against her efforts by providing unreliable data to her team of consultants. That she takes her father with her to the meeting, again, shows the extent to which she has surrendered to Toni. She may even see him as an asset at this point. By having her father pose as a senior consultant who will not hesitate to fire masses of people (mostly through brooding silence in the office), she cleverly resets the relationship with Illiescu. Next to Toni, she seems more reasonable. But Toni is too good-hearted to really sell this hard-nosed persona, as the next scene proves.

While out talking to workers at the drilling site, Toni notices that one worker is handling the toxic oil with his bare hands, against regulations. Illiescu thanks Toni for pointing this out and fires the man on the spot. Toni is horrified, says it was just a joke, and insists that Illiescu not fire the man. But it’s too late. Illiescu will not change his mind, and when Toni tries to enlist Ines’s help, she delivers one of her harshest lines: “The more people he fires, the fewer people I have to fire.” Toni is appalled, but he’s not in control. She has manipulated the situation in such a way that his good-natured humour leads, inadvertently, to a personal disaster for a stranger, and it obviously pains Toni.

Despondent, Toni wanders off to go to the washroom, and is discovered in the bushes by a local who speaks no English or German. He kindly invites Toni to come use his ‘washroom’. In fact, it’s not a washroom – just a toilet in the corner of an open room (possibly the kitchen?). The man has to leave his own house to give Toni some privacy. It’s a very compassionate moment. When Toni tries to pay the man for his trouble, the man refuses, but his young son happily takes the money. Their visit at an end, Toni tries to make a human connection by telling the poor Romanian, “Don’t lose [your sense of] humour.” The cheerful man seems to take it as it is intended.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

In the car, however, Ines says to her father, “That was very bitter” (i.e. because the man is about to lose his job). Winfried insists, “That’s not what I meant.” It’s only bitter because of the fraudulent context in which he was present (playing the role of the hard-nosed consultant) – the context she set up.

“You piss your pants when we fire one person,” she says. “How are we going to fire hundreds of them?” (i.e. with that sentimental, soft attitude). Now he has seen her with her claws and her fangs out – she’s a cold-blooded, bureaucratic ‘killer’. But she manages to turn it around on him and make him out to be a hypocrite. “I can show you every step [in the economic chain] that connects you to these people. Your ‘green’ attitude won’t help you.” She’s right, in some sense, but this is exactly the sort of comment that provoked Winfried to ask of her (earlier in the film), “Are you human?”

In a Collider interview, director Maren Ade comments on this intergenerational dynamic:

I was also interested to have that political conflict between the father and the daughter. I mean, he belongs to a very typical generation in Germany, the post-war generation that was very political and raised their children with a lot of warm human values and then sent them out into the world to be curious. But that generation also believed in this world without borders and also in an economy without borders. But it’s their children who have to deal with it. Now, he’s confronted with that result in a way that everything turned against him in a way. She’s not home anymore and his view of the world for her is constricted and naïve. I just wanted the film to touch that situation.

THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL

At this point, Toni’s had it, and demands the cab driver take him to the home of a local woman he met at a party, to whom he introduced himself as the German ambassador (and Ines as his secretary, ‘Ms. Schnook’). Ines, curious as to what he’s doing and where he’s going, follows him in. (This becomes the third of the four set-pieces in Act III.)

They walk in on an Easter celebration, where children are painting eggs. Winfried gives it a quick try, then insists his daughter sit down to it and leaves her there with two women to assist her. Rarely, under the intense pressure of her career, does she have a chance to sit down to something artistic like this, so meditatively simple. But she cannot fully surrender herself to it. She’s self-conscious, an outsider and an amateur who senses (or fears?) she is merely being humoured. She gives it a perfunctory try and then tries to extricate herself as quickly as possible, failing (or refusing) to connect with these people.

Seeing that she is fighting off the experience, Toni does something quite aggressive. He forces her to sing for their hosts, while he plays the piano. It becomes a moment when something breaks inside of Ines, and, once again, the choice of song – ‘The Greatest Love of All’ (made famous by Whitney Houston) – is not random or casual. The lyrics ironically reflect the situation she is in. It suggests so much of the backstory of her relationship with her dad.

Notice that we never get a flashback or anything that shows us how they were together when she was younger. It’s all implied, and never more strongly in this scene. We can imagine that he taught her piano, maybe taught her singing, that she was good at it, probably took some pleasure in performing when she was younger, maybe loved this particular song, and that all of that has been sort of crushed out of her by adult life.

What is the song about? It’s about a person who was idealistic and optimistic and has been hardened by life to depend on no one but herself. It’s far too earnest for the Ines we know. But some part of her (maybe) has held onto that optimism, or simply buried it – that childlike quality that Winfried/Toni is trying to revive in his girl.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

“I believe the children are our are future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be

Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfill my needs

A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I'll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can't take away my dignity

Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me

The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all”

© 1977, Michael Masser (music) and Linda Creed (lyrics)

"The greatest love of all is easy to achieve" the song says. But the film shows us how hard it is to love ourselves, and to not take the people closest to us for grant. The song is bitterly ironic in this context.

And what does she do after giving this show-stopping performance? She walks coldly away. Her father has forced her (almost violently) to make herself vulnerable to these strangers, and she of course resents it, because it awakes buried feelings and memories of her childhood with her dad that are difficult for her to process. It’s a tremendous scene.

Winfried, of course, does not chase after her, because he knows what he has done. He sits on the stairs in the hall, maybe feeling like he has failed. A tiny detail that I loved: the host knows he is not the German ambassador, because she knows the German ambassador socially. But she sees something wild and free and fun in Toni that she wants to allow into her life too. It’s very tender.

And, of course, the Bulgarian folk ‘mask’ (part of a wild costume we’ll see in the 4th set-piece) is there beside him in her house, giving him the inspiration for his final gesture, which is the deepest and most profound yet. It totally subverts any kind of rational response and takes us into a deep part of the Id or the Unconscious. It is where the uncanny – the bizarre, the fantastical – fully enters the film, and it is glorious.

CARNIVAL & PLAY

The film brilliantly deploys the theme of how art, ritual and play can transform everyday life, but perhaps nowhere more pointedly so than in the final set-piece, Ines’s birthday brunch. Refashioned as a team bonding session for her co-workers, she runs into trouble with her too-tight dress and spontaneously decides to make it a naked party. She greets her first guest (an American businesswoman) in nothing but panties, and then goes completely nude thereafter. The woman plays along briefly, offers to help Ines pick out an outfit, then gets the idea that something stranger is going on, and is forced to leave.

It’s an insane conceit, and yet, this is where Ines has arrived after all the tensions and traumas of the previous few weeks. ‘If these people can’t take it, f*%$ them,’ seems to be her attitude. She’s had it and she’s willing to risk her career at this point. This is the cumulative effect Toni Erdmann has had on her. It’s her graduate thesis after his crash course in clowning.

Early on, Ines tries to insult her father by calling him a clown, and that’s exactly what he is. Clowns, like Shakespeare’s fools, exist to take the air out of our pretensions and self-importance, to humble us and help us stop taking ourselves so seriously. They make it safe to be ourselves by breaking up the rigidity of rule-bound, polite, instrumental (and thus, false) social relationships – like virtually all of Ines’s workplace relationships.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Winfried arrives at the party dressed up in an enormous Bulgarian folk costume of head-to-toe black fur that looks like some relative of Chewbacca’s! This is the fully embodied spirit of carnival entering the film. It reminded me of the spirit-animals that patronize the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. Superficially innocuous, their sheer strangeness evokes that mix of comfort, protection, otherworldly intrigue and possible danger that children must constantly navigate in this world full of those giants known as adults. And, of course, Ines ultimately responds to this strange creature with all those potent childlike emotions. (It is her father inside that costume, after all.)

Harold Bloom has said that a great work of art must have a fundamental strangeness to it that we can never quite assimilate, no matter how many times we come back to it. Every time we read or see ‘King Lear’, it shocks us again. We forget that it is so brutal – and so true – this multi-layered portrait of aging, the arrogance of power, the ingratitude of the young. Toni Erdmann has this strangeness in spades, while remaining a credible, realistic, and often hilarious film. And that Bulgarian folk costume is the pulsating black hole of weirdness at the film’s centre.

It takes the story to another place entirely, and it’s crucial that – even though she can guess it is her father – Ines doesn’t say so right away. He and ‘it’ are there to teach her how to be human again – through play, through clowning, through loosening up and enjoying the moment (at some risk and cost, of course). It’s very humane, very loving, what he has done. He helps her break through the icy, cool exterior that she uses to protect herself from the world. Some of her guests (like her boyfriend, and the businesswoman) are confused and turned off by the naked party. But others (her assistant, her boss), indirectly infected with Toni’s madcap spirit, choose to embrace it. By revealing who she really is to them, she forces them to reveal who they really are, and it’s joyful. As in carnival, they all feel temporarily, magically liberated from their usual, rule-bound lives, roles and relationships.

It’s a wonderful climax, made all the more poignant by Ines running out into the street in a robe to chase her father down and hug him in that big, bizarre, strangely anonymous costume.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

PLAINSONG: CODA

If you saw the film ‘Boyhood’ a few years ago, and loved it (as I did), you cherished the feeling of watching this kid grow up almost in real time. It feels very naturalistic (free of all the melodramatic coming-of-age clichés: no car crashes, no drug overdoses, no suicide attempts), and – more importantly – that it could go on forever. It feels correct, and yet, more or less arbitrary to end it where Richard Linklater does, in the boy’s first week of university. We feel like we could keep watching him forever.

It occurred to me on a second viewing of ‘Boyhood’ that the screen going dark at the end might actually be symbolic of the death of the mother. As she says, not long before, “We’re just hitting all these milestones, and you know what the next one is? My fucking funeral.” She’s a bit young – in her 40s – to be worried about this, but in terms of the narrative, it is the next logical plot development. And it speaks to a painful truth: we would all like to follow our children and keep them safe at every step of the way, but eventually we drop out of the story and just have to trust that they have the skills to survive on their own.

‘Toni Erdmann’ ends in a similar place. Ines comes home for her grandmother’s funeral and says simply, “I wish I had seen her” (i.e. before she died). And that’s the whole point: you never know when the people you love will drop out of the story, so if you get too caught up in the busy-ness of life, you might miss your chance.

Ines has quit her job in Romania and is getting ready to head off to Shanghai for two years. She seems to take for granted that her dad will still be there when she gets back. But will he? He could easily pass away in that gap.

That is, in fact, what happened to me. When I moved to Vancouver, at 23, I never imagined my mom would be dead within four years. I saw her and spent time with her when she was sick, but never did I dream moving away at that age meant no more Christmases together, or that by leaving I was essentially ending our family life as we had known it.

Similarly, if I had known my dad would die when he did (in 2013), I might not have chosen to spend three of the last six years of his life living in Japan. But, like Ines, that was where my career took me. I needed the job and the job was in Japan. Fortunately, I got to spend three more years with him here in Toronto, but I never dreamed it would be that soon after getting home. Yet that’s what death is like. It likes to surprise us. We always think we have more time with people than we really do.

Ultimately, the film states its theme quite baldly in the final scene on the veranda when the topic of how to be happy comes up again. Winfried asks his daughter, “How do we hold onto moments? We’re so busy getting things done that life is just passing us by.” Maybe that’s banal, but it’s very poignant when we think about our parents and the inevitability of their deaths. It’s also the theme of one of my other favourite films, ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, near the end of which Stockard Channing makes a similar speech: “We become these human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?”

Ines reaches into her father’s shirt pocket, pulls out his crazy false teeth, and briefly indulges him by mirroring his antics. She pops the teeth in her mouth and puts on an old hat from out of her grandma’s wardrobe. He loves it, and asks her to hold the pose while he goes off to get his camera – trying to hold onto the moment.

All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

While she waits for him to return, she slowly reverts to her normal self – cool, rational, pragmatic – taking off the hat and the teeth.

Something delays him. She looks out over the veranda, toward Shanghai, toward the future perhaps?

The film ends.

Will her father die in her two-year absence? Maybe, maybe not. We never know. Life goes on.

Then in comes this fabulously grand, beautiful, melancholic song from out of my mopey adolescence – ‘Plainsong’ by The Cure (which is about death too, by the way) – and I just lost it. I thought, “Wow, this filmmaker has read my mind - not just at this moment of my life but in tying many of the most poignant, emotionally charged moments of my life together.”

You can’t ask for a better movie going experience than that.

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Read my introductory piece in this series on film criticism - "Total Legibility"