How one of the most talked about films of New York Film Festival represents every well-mannered woman.
It’s been an interesting week in the US for the female experience, to say the least.
When New York Film Festival director Kent Jones took the Alice Tully Hall stage on Saturday night to introduce Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, “It seems it’s national misogyny day. So in a bold effort, we decided to program this film,” he said, joking about the timely feminist oasis Mills’ female-driven film would temporarily provide the festival-goers with.
The misogynistic occurrence Jones was referring to was that vile, now infamous Trump video from 2005, the contents of which require no further summarizing. (Honestly, I can’t quite stomach having that image in my head anymore, but here’s a link if you’d like a refresher.) But once Trump’s vulgar, subhuman bragging about sexually assaulting women took the political, social and culture landscape by a complete storm (and even found its way to the perennially classy NYFF), its echoes caused a domino effect online. First, New York Times bestselling author and social media maven Kelly Oxford asked women to tweet at her their first sexual assaults on Friday. Thousands and thousands responded with grim stories; the tellers of some (like myself) a lot luckier than others. Then the ever-growing online talk finally found disturbing cracks in our own ‘Film Twitter’ community too. A young woman, who tweets from @spacecrone, bravely spoke up about the assault she’s been subjected to by film writer Devin Faraci. (Faraci stepped down from his post at Birth.Movies.Death. Earlier this week, abuse stories about writer Chase Whale started surfacing, too.)
Meanwhile that very same day on Sunday October 9, we watched a second blood-boiling Presidential debate where the said arrogant sexual assault boaster interrupted, threatened, bullied and attempted to intimidate an intelligent and supremely qualified female presidential candidate as she smiled, shrugged, and held her breath, while getting her points across with seeming ease and good manners. Huffington Post’s Jessica Samakow correctly identified Hillary Clinton as “every woman” following Sunday’s debate; one that has learned to put up with this kind of male behavior at home, on the street and in conference rooms at work. On her blog, Baltimore Magazine’s Max Weiss accurately dissected the well-behaved woman she saw on stage and explained why Clinton’s fine decorum was a victory. As I watched Clinton, the well behaved every woman routinely disrespected by a bully, my female blood boiled inside my female soul, and my mind skipped back to the New York Film Festival. But more precisely, to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann.
Ade’s was not the only film in New York Film Festival’s 54th line up that follows a female trajectory. In addition to the aforementioned 20th Century Women, Kelly Reichardt’s quiet masterwork Certain Women was among this crop, too, with its three rural vignettes where women negotiate, navigate misogyny, build their nests and dream about the future. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come follows an aging female college professor and intellectual shuffling some major changes in her life. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl displays the suspenseful struggle of a young doctor searching for answers in the wake of a deep tragedy. Olivier Assayas’ Kristen Stewart-starrer Personal Shopper digs deep into female trauma and emotional desires through a ghastly ghost story. From Almodóvar’s Julieta to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (both of which I am yet to see), the stories of our unique experience as females were of no shortage this year at NYFF. But it was Toni Erdmann that popped up in my head on Sunday.
You might have heard everything about Ade’s Cannes-heralded film. Or you might have heard nothing at all. At the heart of this nearly 3-hr long story is the relationship of a father and daughter. Many will tell you it’s the shortest nearly 3-hour film that’s ever been made. Others will say you’ll laugh hysterically one minute, and start crying the next. Some will tell you it’s a masterpiece; others will shrug it off and say it didn’t quite work for them (for the record, I’m in neither extreme camp, but I do love the film.) But what most won’t tell you is; this well-mannered film is also an every woman by design that hides its real emotions under smiles in a studious fashion.
Toni Erdmann’s protagonist Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a German professional climbing the corporate ladder in a high profile and high stress consultancy job. Stationed in Bucharest for a year, Ines receives a semi-surprise visit from her father one day; a truly idiosyncratic, kind-hearted guy who loves to play pranks on people with his wigs, false teeth and strange sense of humor. He notices his daughter (who seems to have little patience for him), despite all her success, is unhappy at her career and drowning under its weight. So duty calls Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and he obliges.
The relationship between Winfried and Ines ‐ basically, where the story is anchored in ‐ is one every parent/child, who embarrassed or rolled their eyes at each other at one point in time (because the other “doesn’t get it”) can identify with. But the film’s side theme ‐ misogyny ‐ requires wearing and walking the earth in female shoes to fully grasp. As Winfried starts following Ines around to some of her most high-profile meetings and outings, we get to observe the sexism the sharply, uniformly suited Ines is routinely subjected to. For instance when she has a new idea to conquer an important, time-sensitive presentation, her approach gets questioned by her lesser male peers and boss (Ade always finds a way to make you ask yourself “would they have asked her that if she were a man?”) Similarly, when she takes some very high profile Clients out for a night in town, she finds her father grabs much of the interest and she gets stuck with having to take one of the men’s wife out for shopping. Hüller, who doesn’t quite crack a real smile in the entire movie, accepts this humiliating task (and lots of others) with a polite face, even when she doesn’t want to. In one scene, she satirically says she is not a feminist to one of her male colleagues. Because if she were, she wouldn’t ever put up with men like him; a philosophy that extends to other facets of her life, as we get to learn.
Thankfully, Ade allows Ines to blow some steam off a couple of times. In one brilliant scene (which ended with an enthusiastic applause at NYFF), Ines unexpectedly launches into singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” and hits those high notes about finding her inner strength. And [SPOILER ALERT] in the film’s near-finale, she abruptly decides to convert her fancy birthday party to a nude gathering, requiring all her guests (many of them, colleagues) to strip down naked. Surely, nothing feels or remotely looks sexual in the awkwardness and bitter humor of the situation. Instead, we see a female breaking free, daring her colleagues to rise up to her level of self-confidence and comfort in one’s skin. With nudity, she invents a scenario where she doesn’t need to be polite, agreeable, or likable. She finally gives up on tolerating someone not as qualified as her, mansplaining something obvious to her.
With rich observations and articulate arguments, the meticulous, methodical and thoroughly poised Toni Erdmann understands the everywoman in Ines and helps her rise above her situation. Along with its marvelous protagonist, this is a film that disguises its true, deeper and darker emotions under laughs. Much like that every woman that took the stage against a bully on Sunday.