Wild Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Nicolette Krebitz's peculiarly beautifully woman-and-wolf fable ventures far further into the wilderness than Cheryl Strayed.

True as the description may be, “a thoughtful, toughly acted story of one woman’s escape from urban societal strictures” won’t help anyone distinguish the adult German fable “Wild” from the 2014 Reese Witherspoon vehicle of the same title. “The one with wolf cunnilingus” certainly will, but actor-turned-filmmaker Nicolette Krebitz’s thornily sensual third feature deserves to be sold on more than just its raciest novelties. Galvanized by Lilith Stangenberg’s high-risk performance as a young office drone lured inexorably from notional civilization following a chance encounter of the lupine kind, Krebitz’s film questions the behavioral standards we take as given with quiet daring and disquieting sangfroid. Sure to be a recurring conversation piece on the festival circuit following its Sundance debut, “Wild” nonetheless won’t be easily domesticated for arthouse release.

There’s a pleasing lack of emphatic moral definition to a film that a crass distributor could easily retitle “Feral Attraction”: In contrast with many return-to-nature tales, the great outdoors is presented neither as a kind of essential soul purifier, nor as a destructive leveler in the “Lord of the Flies” vein. Rather, it’s a parallel universe with its own virtues and pitfalls of pleasure: While eschewing obvious internal commentary, Krebitz’s narrative simply posits that this world might be a more sympathetic fit for Ania (Stangenberg), an intelligent, sensitive twentysomething who nonetheless never seems wholly in her element among fellow humans. “You never ask silly questions,” her boss (Georg Friedrich) observes admiringly, and he’s right; how much of her immediate environment she cares to comprehend, however, is harder to determine.

As the film begins, Ania is apparently out to shed the last vestiges of obligatory human contact from her humdrum existence in an unspecified, perennially overcast German city. Romantically unattached, she lives alone in an identikit high-rise unit previously shared with her terminally ill grandfather, to whose hospital deathbed she makes regular, dutiful visits; her apartment may be still be furnished to his tired, tweedy taste, but she evidently doesn’t care enough for interiors to make her own home out of it. Her married sister Jenny (Saskia Rosendahl, “Lore”) communicates via Skype to coax her into regular human interaction, perhaps somewhat unhealthily: Does she accidentally leave her webcam on while making love to her husband, or is she tacitly offering a warped birds-and-bees tutorial?

Ania is further goaded into human sexual awareness at the office, where the significantly older man to whom she acts as a PA makes stilted advances. “With a little effort, you could be quite something,” he says in a peculiar attempt at flirtation, personifying the dominant patriarchy to which Ania is entirely resistant; he routinely summons her to his office by throwing a ball in her direction, as if she were a dog playing fetch.

It’s a metaphor that turns out to be wryly off-base in light of subsequent developments: While walking to walk through a neighborhood park one morning, Ania locks eyes with a wandering wolf, clearly a long way from home, and is immediately transfixed. Whether this is a one-sided fascination or a case of interspecies love at first sight is for viewers to determine; either way, she can’t let sleeping wolves lie, as she eventually lures the beast to her apartment, initiating a more drastic retreat from the outside world.

What transpires between woman and beast is surely better seen than described, though Krebitz frames their ambiguous, slow-building relationship in a manner as tender as it transgressive. In the pic’s formal and emotional centerpiece, an extended, lilac-washed montage of physical bonding is exquisitely scored to James Blake’s shivering electro-ballad “Retrograde” — its desolate lyrics (“Suddenly I’m hit/It’s the starkness of the dawn/And your friends are gone/So show me where you fit”) giving plaintive voice to Ania’s newly aligned social priorities.

Startlingly lovely in isolation, the scene reps the watershed point at which viewers will either leap with the protagonist into the void or fail to invest in Krebitz’s hard-edged whimsy. Those who take the former course will identify a note of catharsis even in the film’s chilliest erotic (not to mention scatological) extremities; the spiritual release of bad behavior brings Ania around to a kind of improbable purity. Reinhold Vorschneider’s lensing, immaculately composed even at its most intentionally drab, progressively lets more light into the frame with each stage of self-realization; the marvelous, house-inflected score by German band Terranova likewise transitions from spare metallic percussion to lusher sonic textures.

Post-screening discussions — and there will be many, in public and private — can unpick the social ramifications of Ania’s walk on the wild side. Are her bestial inclinations a rejoinder to the assumed superiority of the human race, or of the alpha male in particular? Certainly, the pic could be interpreted as a specifically feminist parable, but Krebitz has little interest in direct rhetoric. Like its taciturn lead character — played with such reckless physicality and tingling sensory awareness by Stangenberg — “Wild” is mostly content to feel its way through its most challenging psychological terrain.

Film Review: 'Wild'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 30, 2016. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

(Germany) A Heimatfilm production in co-production with WDR, Arte. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Bettina Brokemper.

Crew

Directed, written by Nicolette Krebitz. Camera (color), Reinhold Vorschneider; editor, Bettina Boehler; music, Terranova; production designer, Sylvester Koziolek; costume designer, Tabassom Charaf; sound (Dolby 5.1), Christoph Schilling; supervising sound editor, Rainer Heesch; re-recording mixers, Lars Ginzel, Martin Steyer; visual effects supervisor, Felix Husken; line producer, Sascha Verhey; assistant director, Ron Hardt; casting, Susanne Ritter;

With

Lilith Stangenberg, Georg Friedrich, Silke Bodenbender, Saskia Rosendahl, Kotti Yun.

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