A debut fly-on-the-wall documentary by onetime journalist and festival consultant Alfredo Knuchel, “Better and Better” is an accomplished – though emotionally grueling and unashamedly voyeuristic – study of a bourgeois Swiss family’s dream of prosperity and progress gone wrong. Though it presses all the right emotional buttons and intelligently deconstructs the popular myth of Switzerland’s eternal prosperity, pic’s subject is too abstruse to resonate far beyond the festival circuit.
We first see curly-haired, iron-pumping Armin as he is clipping his mustache. A youthful 61, he’s just been pinkslipped and has set up a printing business, which has turned out to be more headache than help, in his basement. His wife, Marlies, has joined a religious community in search of spiritual values, and we can see why.
There is a typically harrowing husband-wife conversation early on, in which Armin wonders why he is no longer any good as a source of spirituality. To add to the couple’s problems, their 30-year-old son, Markus, is trying to kick the
same kind of drug habit that killed his older brother, Thomas, in 1987. Slowly, the family is breaking apart. So is Armin, who nonetheless continues defiantly to wear his remarkable, flowery shirts.
Shot in grainy half-tones, the family’s story is intercut with sections of radio shows and tracking shots along city streets, which combine to point up the bleakness of it all. This structure is maintained for the duration, and starts
to feel repetitive. Revelatory details are picked out unforgivingly by the camera, nicely showing us what broken dreams look like – as, for example, when B&W shots of supermarket trolleys fill the frame. When Armin finally breaks down and cries, there is no sense of release: The camera looks on mercilessly.
What pic lacks, because its subjects do, is even the slightest touch of humor which might have saved both them and their film. The effect of so much irony combined with so little humor is wearying, and distances one from the subjects when sympathy should be forthcoming.