Starring: Richard Madden, Rebecca Hall, Alan Rickman
Written by: Patrice Leconte, Jérôme Tonnerre
Directed by: Patrice Leconte
How good is this movie?
I don’t recommend watching this movie, so I’ll just summarise the plot for you: Friedrich, a bright young man who grew up an orphan and lives in a slum, begins a job as a clerk in an office. His boss, Karl Hoffmeister, is initially aloof, but soon takes a mysterious interest in him, promoting him for no discernable reason, transferring an increasing amount of responsibility to him, and inviting him into his home. There, Friedrich meets Karl’s much younger wife, Lotte. She welcomes him, treating him like a part of the family. Friedrich is, by turns, pleased, baffled, and increasingly uncomfortable as his relationship with his boss’s wife goes from professional to personal. It’s all wonderfully ambiguous and intriguing for the first hour – and then suddenly takes a sharp turn into conventional territory, opting for the easiest, most predictable resolution, though still dragging on for another half-hour to get us there. I don’t know what I resent more, the tedium of the second half or the wasted potential of the first.
How ace is this movie?
There’s one scene where a female friend tries to pressure Friedrich into unwanted sex. He says “No”, but after some unsolicited groping apparently changes his mind. This rather unpleasant sequence is the movie’s only sex scene, but sex is still an integral part of the story. It is clear early on that Friedrich is sexually interested in Lotte, which leads to him creeping about her room and making passive-aggressive outbursts at her. How she feels about him is more ambiguous; she obviously cares about him, but her feelings do not, at first, seem to be romantic. Complicating matters is Karl’s quasi-paternal relationship with Friedrich and the genuine affection between Karl and Lotte. Friedrich’s sexual desire for Lotte thus finds there are many other issues to contend with: Friedrich’s friendship with Karl; the mutual love of Karl and Lotte; Lotte’s apparent lack of sexual interest in Friedrich; Friedrich’s friendship with Lotte. With so many concerns to balance, the conventional boy-gets-girl resolution seems, at first, unlikely, and the film seems to be building toward something much more nuanced and interesting. And then it all gets derailed. Lotte reveals that (of course) she returns Friedrich’s feelings, and (of course) they have to act on those feelings sexually, and (of course) Karl banishes Friedrich in a fit of jealousy, and (of course) Karl conveniently dies, and (of course) Friedrich and Lotte are eventually reunited, and (of course) they still feel the same way about each other, and (of course) they end up together. What is so frustrating about this is that you can see the cracks, the better story that keeps trying to break through, but this story must constantly be averted so the film can run its “course”.
How ace is Alan Rickman?
Character: Karl Hoffmeister (businessman, husband, father)
Karl has a wife and child, so he’s presumably had sex. However, as a husband, he’s neither demonstrative nor possessive. He sees the growing friendship between Lotte and Friedrich, and he encourages them to spend even more time together. He surreptitiously watches the young people with what could be fear but could just as easily be hope. He makes Friedrich an integral part of his family’s life, then sends him half-way around the world for two years. What is he playing at? Is he deliberately manipulating the people around him? To what end? We know from his deathbed confession that he wants Lotte and Friedrich to get together, but he never explains his reasons. Is his goal his wife’s happiness? Friedrich’s loyalty? Grounds for divorce? Is he suspicious, selfish, and cruel, or trusting, generous, and caring?
Especially given the age gap between her and Karl, we are probably meant to read Lotte as stuck in a passionless marriage and thus naturally drawn to the younger, more virile Friedrich. Her story about her past suggests that her primary feelings for Karl are gratitude and friendship, rather than sexual desire. For his part, Karl derides and avoids many husbandly duties. Just before Friedrich is to accompany Lotte to the opera, Karl quips, “I thank you for relieving me of these dreary obligations.” Lines like this suggest other “obligations” Karl might just as soon be free of. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife. Their interactions all suggest respect, trust, and affection. When she is grieving the loss of Friedrich he actually comforts her in the film’s tenderest scene. Moreover, if Karl is physically reserved, he has an almost erotic relationship with his wife’s piano playing. In one scene, he and Friedrich are discussing business and he suddenly stops to listen as Lotte begins the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. (I’ve always considered this one of the most soothing pieces of music ever written, so I can totally relate!) He goes into a kind of trance for some minutes, and only reluctantly resumes the conversation. Karl is clearly not incapable of emotional attachment, he just seems to experience and express it in unconventional ways. That does not necessarily indicate asexuality, but it sort of resembles it.
What if he is?
Asexuality provides a very tidy explanation for Karl’s behaviour: He finds himself incapable of meeting his wife’s sexual needs, so he courts someone else to do it. However, since being asexual is not the same as being aromantic, he still experiences jealousy and decides to put a stop to the relationship. It’s not the only possible explanation for his actions. But it’s as good as any.
2 Stars; 3 Aces