Though his technical footwork is never in doubt, German helmer Tom Tykwer drops the dramatic ball in “Wintersleepers,” a disappointing sophomore outing after his impressive psychodrama “Deadly Maria” four years ago. Where the earlier pic married a highly visual style with solid content, this claustrophobic drama about five people’s intertwined fates in a snowbound mountain town fails to deliver the goods promised by an impressive start. Export and home business both look to be mild beyond festival play.
Opening reels undeniably are gripping, with Tykwer marshaling the full forces of widescreen snowscapes, a pregnant “Tubular Bells”-like score and fancy cross-cutting as the characters and story are set up. It’s only when he and co-scripter Anne-Francoise Pyszora, adapting her novel, must come up with a real story that the pic starts to show there’s not so much beneath the emperor’s clothes.
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Relationships are unexplained as we’re introduced to a motley collection of characters. There’s young, blond looker Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), who’s joined in a mountain villa first by her friend Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), and then by the handsome Marco (Heino Ferch) for some serious sack action. Observing them, after a night of drinking, is the mysterious Rene (Ulrich Matthes), who steals Marco’s car and then is involved in an auto accident with local yokel Theo (Josef Bierbichler), whose young daughter is almost killed.
Some 25 minutes in, the story proper begins and the protags’ identities are clarified. Rebecca is a translator and Marco a ski instructor, her latest squeeze; Laura, a nurse and bad amateur actress, owns the villa and distrusts Marco; and Rene, a local cinema projectionist, is suffering from mild post-crash amnesia among other psychological problems.
Rene becomes the linchpin in everyone’s stories, though nobody realizes it — least of all Rene. By starting a cautious relationship with the introverted Laura, he exposes the weaknesses in the sex-driven affair between Rebecca and Marco, especially when Marco starts a casual affair with one of his pupils (Laura Tonke). Meanwhile, Marco still is looking for the man who stole his car, and Theo for the man who almost killed his daughter — in both cases, Rene.
Tykwer does his best to keep the pot bubbling with plenty of ellipses and full deployment of the stunning mountain locations in Berchtesgaden (Pyszora’s novel was set in southern France). Complementing Frank Griebe’s striking lensing, printed with a slight ocher tinge, are Aphrodite Kondos’ color-coded costumes: Rebecca always in red (even down to her underwear), Laura in green, etc.
Strip away the elaborate dressing, however, and all you have is an average relationship drama in which an outsider seduces first one woman and then her best friend. Though there’s plenty to admire in the way Tykwer crisscrosses the various relationships, pic essentially is a good-looking confection.
Performances are very much at the service of the direction, though the experienced Matthes gives Rene some requisite weirdness to balance Ferch’s ski hunk. Of the women, Daniel is decorative and Sellem low-key but the best drawn of the bunch.