Review: ‘Am I Beautiful?’

A gallery of characters who are all tormented about the way they look, the onset of old age or the impermanence of relationships feature in Doris Dorrie's intermittently engaging "Am I Beautiful?," a kind of neurotic "Short Cuts." Many of the characters and incidents have considerable validity; others seem included for no special reason. Uneven as it is, pic should perform well on its home territory, thanks to a sock cast of fine actors. International theatrical distribution is more iffy, though quality tube programmers will stand in line.

A gallery of characters who are all tormented about the way they look, the onset of old age or the impermanence of relationships feature in Doris Dorrie’s intermittently engaging “Am I Beautiful?,” a kind of neurotic “Short Cuts.” Many of the characters and incidents have considerable validity; others seem included for no special reason. Uneven as it is, pic should perform well on its home territory, thanks to a sock cast of fine actors. International theatrical distribution is more iffy, though quality tube programmers will stand in line.

Pic starts off in the countryside near Seville, Spain, where just about every character to pass by happens to be from Germany. While Germans may be voracious tourists, the preponderance of Germans trekking through the Spanish landscape reaches plague proportions here, reducing the film’s credibility.

There’s Linda (Franka Potente), a hitchhiker who tells tall tales (claiming she’s deaf and dumb or terminally ill) in order to persuade men to give her a bed for the night; if sex is part of the deal, she seems to have no objection. Then there’s Klaus (Steffen Wink), who can’t get over the fact that Franziska (Anica Dobra), the girl who came with him on a Spanish vacation a year ago, has dumped him. He keeps calling her back in chilly Munich, where she works in a clothing shop, but she refuses to come back to him.

In fact, Franziska, the daughter of businessman Herbert (Gottfried John) and the beautiful Unna (Senta Berger), plans to marry her fiance, Holger (Michael Klemm), that very weekend — although she still has nagging doubts.

Meanwhile, she sells a cashmere sweater to diet-conscious Rita (Iris Berben) who, unknown to either of them, will be catering the wedding together with her obese, sexually active husband, Fred (Oliver Naegele).

Driving home in blinding rain, Franziska collides with a car driven by Elke (Maria Schrader) who has a sad story to tell about her own fiance.

And so it goes, with dozens of characters flitting by and usually reconnecting somewhere else in the mosaic of the story. They include, among others, Jessica (Elisabeth Romano), Herbert’s mistress, who slashes her wrists in Herbert’s apartment when he brings there for a quick assignation; he has only a short time to clean up the blood from the sheets and the white carpet (a preposterous sequence), but he’s helped by another daughter, Charlotte (Nina Petri), who suspects her husband, Robert (Joachim Krol), has had an affair on his last business trip.

And then there’s a third sister, Vera (Heike Makatsch), who’s also been traveling in Spain and who has troubles of her own; Bodo (Uwe Ochsenknecht), a married man on his way to join his wife and kids in Seville, who takes pity on Linda and sleeps with her; Juan (Dietmar Schoenherr), an old man grieving over the death of his German wife of many years and carrying her ashes back to Munich; and David (Otto Sander) who had been Unna’s lover in Seville 30 years earlier but who now, as the result of a stroke, no longer remembers her.

The many characters and stories are skillfully choreographed by helmer Dorrie. Some episodes have more emotional resonance than others; particularly touching is the reunion between sickly David and still-vibrant Unna. There’s not a weak performance in the ensemble, but the film might have benefited from dropping some of the weaker subplots and concentrating on the most involving characters.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and to ponder in a film that asks such questions as “How much time do you think you have to be happy?” and reminds the viewer that “growing old is really lousy” and that we all have only one life to live.

Production values are sleek, with excellent location photography by Theo Bierkens in vibrantly contrasted Spain and Munich.

Am I Beautiful?

(ROMANTIC DRAMA -- GERMAN)

Production

An Atlas Intl. presentation of a Constantin Film/Fanes Film production. Produced by Bernd Eichinger, Martin Moszkowicz. Executive producer, Norbert Preuss. Directed by Doris Dorrie. Screenplay, Dorrie, Rolf Basedow, Ruth Stadler.

Crew

Camera (color), Theo Bierkens; editor, Inez Regnier; music, Roman Bunka; production designer, Claus Kottmann; costume designer, Yoshi'o Yabara; sound (Dolby digital), Wolfgang Wirtz; special effects, Heinz Ludwig; line producer, Patrick Zorer; casting, Andorthe Braker. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting --- Closing Night), Sept. 12, 1998. (Also in Toronto Film Festival --- Special Presentation.) Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Unna ..... Senta Berger Herbert ..... Gottfried John David ..... Otto Sander Linda ..... Franka Potente Franziska ..... Anica Dobra Elke ..... Maria Schrader Jessica ..... Elisbaeth Romano Klaus ..... Steffen Wink Rita ..... Iris Berben
With: Oliver Naegele, Suzanne von Borsody, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Nina Petri, Joachim Krol, Heike Makatsch, Gisela Schneeberger, Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss, Dietmar Schoenherr, Michael Klemm, Lina Lambsdorff.
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