One of the most talked-about films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the new film from Maren Ade (THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, EVERYONE ELSE) is an alternately hilarious and mortifying comedy about the fraught relationship between a repressed corporate consultant and her incessantly prank-playing dad.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a retired piano teacher, a divorcee who delights in persistent pranks and impersonations that alienate (and occasionally alarm) everyone in his German suburb. He hasn't been much for staying in touch with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-ranking management consultant in Bucharest who is as controlled and rigid as her father is impish. Ines also possesses finely tuned radar for the nuances of social interaction — a trait that serves her well in the corporate world but only intensifies her discomfort when Winfried pays a surprise visit.
The cringe-inducing clash of opposites that takes place over a weekend would be enough to fill a conventional comedy. But TONI ERDMANN is just getting started. Soon, inexplicably, the amateur impostor has insinuated himself into his daughter's professional life, turning it into a parade of embarrassment in which each day is worse than the last. And running beneath the humor is an increasingly disturbing undercurrent of dysfunction, one that threatens to sweep both Winfried and Ines away.
One can easily imagine this premise turning into a tale of redemption in which estranged relations heal old wounds — and the film certainly does explore the peculiar interdependency that can only arise between family members — but in director Maren Ade's hands, it becomes something wholly original and altogether more affecting. An instant classic of embarrassment comedy (it has an excruciating "team-building exercise" to rival anything in THE OFFICE), TONI ERDMANN takes its time in drawing us closer and closer to its beautifully conceived characters, and we're with it every captivating step of the way.