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The title The Princess and the Warrior leads us to expect a Disney fairy tale or, perhaps, a medieval Japanese legend. Initially, it seems an odd choice for writer-director Tom Tykwer’s offbeat love story, shot in his hometown of Wuppertal, Germany. But as the film unreels, the title becomes increasingly appropriate. Despite its contemporary setting, The Princess and the Warrior, an allegory about love and redemption and a meditation on the workings of fate, could be adapted to any culture and any era.
The two Tykwer features previously seen locally offer a bold study in contrasts. Winter Sleepers (1997) is a languorous mood piece about five characters hibernating at a snowbound mountaintop resort whose lives intersect following an automobile accident. His follow-up, the surprise hit Run Lola Run (1998), featuring a trio of tricky scenarios in which a young woman races to save her lover’s life, zooms along at the hyperkinetic pace of a Chuck Jones cartoon.
The Princess and the Warrior, Tykwer’s most ambitious effort to date, combines elements of both of these films, interweaving long, contemplative passages with several briskly staged action sequences. Franka Potente, Run Lola Run’s fearless racing redhead, reveals the scope of her expressive range as Sissi, a shy, compassionate blond nurse who works and lives in a psychiatric hospital. Cloistered within the institution’s walls, she devotes herself to the welfare of her patients, even to the extent of masturbating a young inmate who has a crush on her.
During a rare outing in town, Sissi is hit by a truck. Trapped beneath the vehicle, unable to move or breathe, she’s saved by a man who impulsively crawls under the chassis, improvises a life-saving tracheotomy, and then vanishes. Medical help soon arrives, and, after a two-month recuperation, Sissi is released from the hospital and returns to her job. But she’s obsessed with identifying the man who saved her and, armed with a single cluea button from the military jacket he woresets out to find him.
With the help of a blind patient who was with her at the time of the accident, Sissi learns that her rescuer is Bodo (Benno Fürmann), an embittered former soldier fleeing from a troubled past. With his brother, Walter (Joachim Król), Bodo’s planning a bank robbery to finance their relocation to Australia. Sissi visits the mountainside house that Bodo shares with Walter, only to be rejected by the pair, who want nothing to do with her. Later, she has an opportunity to save Bodo’s life: She happens to be at the bank during the brothers’ botched heist and assists them in evading police capture. She hides Bodo at the mental institution, where the pair are forced to determine whether they were brought together by destiny or merely by chance.
For the first hour, Tykwer withholds crucial information about what motivates his characters. Only after the accident and the foiled bank robbery are Sissi and Bodo sufficiently intimate to discuss the violent, perverse tragedies that have scarred them. Few love stories have featured such unlikely protagonists. Sissi’s belief in predestination helps her triumph over her physical vulnerability. (Apart from horror-movie protagonists, not many heroines have withstood so much punishmentalmost every time she attempts to assert herself, somebody knocks her down.) Conversely, Bodo’s tautly muscular physique conceals a tender heart. (He responds to emotional crises by bursting into tears.) As we come to know Sissi and Bodo, we realize that they are two halves of a shared soul, conjoined by the benevolent workings of fatewithout the lovers ever sharing a single kiss.
Tykwer deftly manipulates imagery to underscore his themes. His striking cityscapes of Wuppertal, a town nestled between steep slopes, combine modern (the bank) and classical (the mental hospital) architecture, mirroring the narrative’s dialectic between the characters’ existential alienation and the filmmaker’s affirmation of a divine plan beyond human understanding. As in his previous films, he employs color-coded costuming to define personality. Optimistic Sissi wears crisp white and yellow outfits; brooding Bodo’s wardrobe consists of drab military garb. Water symbolism abounds, signaling the death of one character and the ultimate liberation of the lovers. Frank Griebe’s cinematography alternates static compositionsa poetic shot of Sissi’s ear pressed against a seashellwith sweeping, complex camera movements. I’d be hard-pressed to name a recent film that viewed everyday objects and actions with a fresher eye.
Highly stylized and filled with the sort of improbable coincidences found in myths and folk tales, The Princess and the Warrior is a love-it-or-hate-it movie. If you succumb to its spell, you’ll be willing to accept Tykwer’s most outlandish contrivances. But if you resist, I suspect, this long, painstakingly paced fable will strike you as insufferably sluggish, arty, and pretentious. Even at moments when I thought that the director unnecessarily challenged disbeliefsuch as the climactic sequence in which a character’s tormented and hopeful sides symbolically split into twin physical presencesI found myself moved and often inspired by Tykwer’s unwavering faith in the healing power of love.
“Talent is one of the things that man still can’t copy,” observes a character in Everybody’s Famous!, a feeble Flemish comedy that was inexplicably nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. As if to illustrate his own aphorism, writer-director Dominique Deruddere shamelessly filches and conflates themes from previous movies, proving that imitation is neither a substitute for creativity nor, necessarily, a form of flattery.
Jean Vereecken (Josse De Pauw), a night-shift factory worker, dreams of transforming his tubby 17-year-old daughter, Marva (Eva van der Gucht), into a famous pop singer. When he and his friend Willy van Outreve (Werner De Smedt) are laid off, they hatch a scheme to make Marva a star. Jean kidnaps Debbie (Thekla Reuten), a sexy, chart-topping vocalist, and holds her for ransom in a remote country hideout. Debbie’s abduction attracts intense media attention and, as a consequence, her record sales soar. During a covert meeting with Debbie’s manager, Michael Jansen (Victor Löw), Jean cuts a deal, agreeing to keep Debbie safely out of sight if Michael will mastermind Marva’s career. Weary of the unresolved Debbie saga, the public embraces the new songbird’s first disc. On the night that Marva is scheduled to make her television debut, police discover Jean’s hideaway, and father and daughter both achieve overnight celebrity.
While reading this summary of Deruddere’s “original” screenplay, no doubt you’ve spotted many of its sources: Little Voice (a singing adolescent misfit), The Full Monty (jobless laborers with showbiz aspirations), The King of Comedy (a kidnapped media personality), and Nashville (an obscure vocalist replacing a popular singing star). After working through this cinematic checklist, Deruddere lards his film’s final reel with a pileup of cloying happy endings.
Witless and nakedly manipulative, Everybody’s Famous! has nothing fresh to contribute to the overworked theme of the public’s yearning for a quarter-hour of fame. (One would have hoped that Natural Born Killers had forever exhausted this subject.) Even the performers’ best efforts fail to transcend their cliché-encrusted roles. Toward the end of the movie, a cynical entertainment promoter suggests, “If you wrap shit nicely, it might end up smelling good.” But even Christo would have trouble encasing Everybody’s Famous! artistically enough to contain its ripe odor. CP