Do We Deserve Love?

in 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Demetrios Matheou

This year’s competition selection in Karlovy Vary was not without its dark subjects and unusual scenarios, including a Russian satire featuring a woman with a tail, a condemnation of workplace abuse in Turkey, and a drama involving suggestions of sexual perversion lifted straight out of the Slovenian news pages.

The German film chosen for the Fipresci Prize was perhaps the most challenging of all, not least because it has the most perplexing effect on the emotions. Original Bliss (Gleißendes Glück) leaves us at once dumbfounded and full of admiration for its moral complexity, daring and fleet of foot. And it’s a rare film whose provocations are so well matched by execution.

The German director Sven Taddicken and his co-writers have adapted the novella of the same name, by Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. Whereas Kennedy divided her action between Glasgow, London and Stuttgart, the film locates the story entirely in Germany; in truth, the setting is academic, for the characters and their issues are eminently portable. And a trio of excellent performers fit those characters like gloves.

Helene Brindel (Martina Gedeck) is in the grip of chronic insomnia: while her husband (Johannes Krisch) sleeps, she roams the house – reading, listening to night-time radio, preparing his breakfast and packed lunch, before falling asleep in front of the television, where he discovers her every morning.

This nocturnal condition is a symptom of pronounced emptiness: the suburban marriage is childless and probably loveless, and on top of that Helene has lost her religious faith. Though disdainful of her religion, her hypocritical husband holds her in contempt for losing her way, expressing his disapproval through violence.

And yet Helene is not as inert as she seems; in her sphinx-like manner, she is searching for something. And when she hears the popular psychologist Eduard Gluck espousing his self help notions on the radio, she’s hooked. She invents an alibi and travels to a conference in Hamburg to seek answers to her dilemma.

More often than not, a character like Gluck (Ulrich Tukur) would represent no more than a brief comic episode, a footnote in Helene’s effort to rediscover her purpose and save her marriage. The fact that he becomes a major protagonist is the story’s first surprise, but by no means its last.

Having granted her a polite audience, in which he fails to offer anything of use, this wryly detached man extends his own stay in Hamburg in order to continue their conversations. Gluck demonstrates a curiosity in Helene that is more than professional, suggesting some need, or issue of his own. But Taddicken takes his time in revealing what that is, first seducing us with a growing attraction between these chalk and cheese characters, which includes a visit to an amusingly inappropriate evening of Finnish modern dance that is the stuff of romantic comedy.

But then a brief glimpse of a porn page open on Gluck’s computer segues into a shocking revelation.

Taddicken has commented that his previous features Getting My Brother Laid and Emma’s Bliss deal in part with the question “do we deserve love?” So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to Kennedy’s story. At one point the aptly named Gluck asks, “Do we desire happiness, or do we desire the desire for happiness?” As she searches for her lost faith, Helene must wonder whether there can be a future with either a wife beater, or a sex addict whose public thoughts on “the etiquette of masturbation” would not seem so amusing if his audience knew the extreme nature of what he watched in order to get aroused.

Despite the startling nature of Gluck’s personality and tastes, Taddicken absorbs them into a mature, thought-provoking, often very funny reflection on what it means to need and feel love. And his skill is such that, just as Gluck seems to have tipped the story into irreversible darkness, it becomes even more romantic.

Anyone coming to Original Bliss without prior knowledge of the source material will be particularly surprised by the film’s thematic density and audacious tonal shifts. Loss of faith, domestic abuse, paraphilia and pornography: it doesn’t seem possible to assign this list of themes to a romance, not least one that challenges us to believe a match between a painfully inhibited suburban housewife and an urbane psychologist.

The sleights of hand wouldn’t be possible without completely nuanced performances. Gedeck lends Helene’s face a heartbreaking, yet also mysterious passivity. It could be alienating, were it not for the flickers of life that make us want to know what’s going on behind the mask, and which become more frequent and intriguing from the moment she sets foot in Hamburg. One of the chief pleasures of the film is that we discover Helene’s potential at much the same time as Helene herself.

Best known for Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Tukur shows a wonderfully playful side here as the self-involved but decent Gluck, whose intellect and humour allow both Helene and ourselves to keep faith with his character. And Krisch shades (if not redeems) the film’s most recognisable type, the abusive husband, with a certain helplessness.

Cinematographer Daniela Knapp and art director Juliane Friedrich give the film an elegant surface sheen that contrasts with the occasional bleakness and sordidness of the story, heightening its strangeness. For Taddicken, it’s yet another cunning way to keep us on our toes.