Wild at Heart 

Lovesickness in Winter Sleepers; cardiac arrest in Return to Me

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000

Tom Tykwer is hot. Snatching victory from under the nose of imminent Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar a couple of weeks ago, the German director made off with an Independent Film Project Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, for Run Lola Run, a kinetic little number that so winningly caught the frustrated Geist of an aimless post-boomer generation, it played for months to adoring young audiences in American art houses. I wonder what those fans will make of Tykwer‘s Winter Sleepers, which, though it was made before Run Lola Run, feels like the work of a more seasoned heart and mind. Stoked by compulsive repetition and breezily urbane detachment, Run Lola Run came on like a distended rock video. Winter Sleepers opens with the same propulsive beat as Lola, followed by a camera hurtling through snow-laden fir trees, and a car crash, all of which seems to promise another wild 20-something ride. Thereafter, though, intricately stylized but moved by a meditative spirit and a tone more rueful than furious, the movie relaxes into a prose poem dedicated to the young and the truly restless.

Tykwer’s films are put together by X-Filme, a creative collective inspired by the original United Artists, whose members tried to work around studio hegemony by financing their own movies. Still, Winter Sleepers, which assiduously avoids furnishing background or motivation for its protagonists, seems more indebted to the loose, improvising work habits of that other collective, Dogma 95. Based on a novel by Anne-Francoise Pyszora, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tykwer, the film begins with a plot device just this side of clumsy, then dumps us without ceremony into the lives of four young people in a small ski-resort town, who appear to be as trapped in lethargy as the orange-haired Lola was in perpetual motion. Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse and halfhearted amateur actress, shares the villa she inherited from an aunt with her roommate, Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), who ekes out a living translating English bodice-rippers into German.

Much of what we know about the two women, and the men who step in to complicate their becalmed lives, is flagged by the emotional color-coding of what they wear. Raven-haired Laura -- retracted, cerebral, lonely (she‘s rehearsing for Blanche Dubois, who is probably overdue for a rest from symbolic appearances as Despair in other people’s movies) -- dresses in emerald green, while blond Rebecca, an instinctive temptress, is tricked out in red right down to her lacy bra. For all her brassily asserted independence, the insecure, quarrelsome Rebecca is deeply dependent on her ski-instructor boyfriend, Marco (Heino Ferch, in electric blue), a slacker as addicted to television as he is to cheating on his lover.

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Tykwer‘s formal debt to Peter Greenaway -- whose penchant for using color as a language has left his films as remote as they are gorgeous -- is clear. Winter Sleepers has more warmth, more life and soul, than Greenaway has ever permitted himself. Wallowing in neurosis, the three hole up like wounded animals in the dark, red-lit, cluttered house that functions both as a symbol of disorder and confusion, and as a cocoon shielding them from an outer world whose cold blue-and-white light denotes a harsh, painful clarity with which they can’t or won‘t deal. Until, that is, they’re jerked out of their holding pattern by the fallout from a terrible accident and the theft of Rebecca‘s car, which bring into their lives two strangers: a middle-aged farmer, Theo (Josef Bierbichler), whose critically injured daughter lies comatose on Laura’s ward and who is obsessed with finding the man he believes to be responsible, and Rene (Ulrich Matthes), whose gray clothing and creased, sensitive features bespeak mysterious stranger. Deprived of short-term memory by an old injury that has left a horseshoe-shaped piece of metal embedded in his head, Rene uses a camera and a tape machine to keep abreast of his life.

When a film character shows up with recording equipment -- especially if he‘s the projectionist at the local movie theater -- something writ large and ponderous about cinematic representation almost invariably follows. Mercifully, Rene appears primarily to be representing himself as a potential lover for Laura, and it is the slow flowering of their relationship, so at odds with the petulant symbiosis between Marco and Rebecca, that gradually occupies the center of the movie.

Like Lars von Trier, another acknowledged hero, Tykwer has said that he can accept love only as a ”passionate entanglement.“ Perhaps the obsession with extremity is the last resort of a generation with little enough to feel passionate about, whether in love or work or dreams of a rosier future. Rebecca’s passionate entanglement with Marco does neither of them much good. Almost everyone gets what they deserve, and the movie closes with a vertiginous death scene, intercut with the promise of better days to come. In Winter Sleepers, Tykwer, whether he knows it or not, offers himself as both moralist and messenger of hope, which, for someone representing an age group that‘s been written off as devoid of both hope and morals, is pretty damn optimistic.

A man loses his wife in a car crash, and her donated heart returns to him via the love of the woman who received it. High concept for the next Farrelly brothers movie? Ah, would that it were so. With Return to Me, actress Bonnie Hunt makes her debut as a writer-director of feature films. And she’s quite serious about it, or at least serious enough to play this unpromising premise as romantic comedy rather than farce. Wall-eyed and looking as though he‘d rather be anywhere but here, David Duchovny plods grimly along as Bob, an architectural engineer who’s trying to get his life back on track by building a humane gorilla space in the zoo where his dead wife once worked. Across town dwells waitress Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver, mugging horribly), who‘s healing her own brand-new heart by gardening, landscape painting and exchanging good-natured banter with a geek chorus of kindly old codgers headed by her devoted grandpa (Carroll O’Connor, definitely not in ”Meathead!“ mode).

Hunt has built an honorable if limited career playing best friend to stars more glam than she (Only You, Jerry Maguire). You‘d think that once in the saddle she’d seize the day and write a more substantial role for herself. Not a bit of it. Up she pops again as Grace‘s sensible, wisecracking pal, with boorish husband James Belushi on one arm and bags of good-humored gags on the other. Every now and then a decent one-liner bubbles to the surface (Hunt co-wrote with Don Lake), only to sink back into the great pile of treacle that passes for emotional dilemma in Return to Me. Despite the urging of those who know what’s good for them, neither Bob nor Grace will date, he because -- as he regularly confides to Sydney the gorilla -- he‘s still grieving, she because she’s terrified to show anyone the surgical scar on her otherwise fetching chest. Enter coincidence, big-time -- you know, those scenes where strangers brush by one another and feel a vibe, they know not what, until they just happen to cross paths in a crowded restaurant and love walks in, and so does adversity, at which point there‘s nothing to do but fly to Italy to paint and pine. Where else could this flabby excuse for a women’s movie go? Straight to the Oxygen Channel, if it‘s lucky.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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