Fractured Fairy Tale
Tykwer Takes Another Run at Cinematic Brilliance
In 1998's surprise indie hit Run Lola Run, German auteur Tom Tykwer jacked us into 87 minutes of pure manic-panic energy as a flame-haired rave girl (Franka Potente) careened through multiple possible realities while trying to save her boyfriend from termination by drug dealers. The subsequent U.S. release of Tykwer's earlier Winter Sleepers, an eerie sort of Altman-on-the-Rhine multiple-viewpoint meditation on fate, played like Lola's somnambulistic double.
Lest he be accused of a stylistic bipolar disorder, the director now offers The Princess and the Warrior, which blends the Methedrine rush of Lola with the sober intent of Winter Sleepers. A lot of it works wonderfully. Some of it doesn't. But Tykwer is so good that even his oversights look inspired.
As befits a filmmaker obsessed with fate and the nature of causality, Princess hews to a one-damned-thing-after-another narrative model. Potente, here sporting a blond pageboy, bewitches as the sweet but emotionally frozen psychiatric nurse Sissi. One day, after masturbating a violent patient with mother issues, Sissi hits the street and is promptly run down by a gleaming truck.
Luckily, Bodo (Benno Fürmann), a twentysomething melancholic grieving the death of his wife, happens upon the scene. Bodo slips under the truck and finds Sissi gasping, her chest crushed. He performs an impromptu tracheotomy with a small pocket knife, saving her life. To tell more about this jaw-dropping meet-cute scene would be unfair (it involves a drinking straw and sucking), but there's no denying Tykwer's chutzpa in thinking we'll accept this fusion of love story and the Discovery Channel.
After Sissi heals from this bloody brief encounter, she goes out in search of Bodo, who is an emotional wreck and living with his brother Walter (Joachim Król.) Bodo's so emotionally wrecked, he cries--every 10 minutes or so. And yet, his incessant weeping does not come off as stupid, pretentious, or even Teutonic. It's just something he does. It's sad, funny, weird, and totally Bodo.
Anyway, weeping Bodo fends off Sissi's sweet advances until she proves her romantic mettle by assisting him and Walter in a desperate robbery. And then the film gets hoisted by the petards of its own grand ambition.
What follows is always fascinating. There are some weird One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-like Mexican standoffs done in the register of wildly romantic magical realism. There are three endings, two of which are fine, one of which is a lethally literalized metaphor. But in a world where, right now, somewhere, Michael "Pearl Harbor" Bay is plotting more empty-souled techno-pablum, overreaching ambition in the service of celebrating what it is that makes us a potentially A-OK species is to be celebrated.
Tykwer gives the impression that as a sapling auteur he saw every film ever made and memorized their camera moves for maximum impact. Fürmann, with his deadly baby blues, tight athletic build, and trembling lips, channels an ambi-gender charisma that makes looking away from him impossible. And Potente--good grief, where does one even start praising this performance? Basically, she redirects Lola's astonishing external energy inward. Sissi seldom talks, but you swear you can see her hitting emotional loggerheads and then, with a shift of her eyes, revealing unknown epiphanies. Potente's Sissi is essentially a literary creation, except the only words she uses are body language, gazes, and some indefinable ether-based energy.
See Princess and the Warrior for Potente's stunning turn, and for Tykwer's craft, insight, and sheer nerve. And, despite those troublesome multiple finales, for the film's deep, abiding faith that fate isn't always rotten. And see it so that when Tykwer is regarded as one of the greats, you can remember seeing this flawed but luminous early work.