They’re hashing out the friendship vs. romance, two-guys-one-girl thing, in French yet. Those basics aside, protags in writer-director Romed Wyder’s first feature recall “Jules et Jim” rather less than they do the Stateside alt-youth in “Slacker,” “Singles” and other breezy pics a few years back. “No Coffee, No TV, No Sex” (the title sums up one lead’s “pretty Zen” lifestyle) reps a more-than-promising debut. This very ingratiating, wry yet earnest seriocomedy could break out of the fest circuit offshore if distribbers can figure how to pitch a Swiss seriocomedy to the same auds who connect with hip Amerindie efforts.
Much of what feels fresh here is due to the milieu Wyder places his story in: Geneva, a city in a country usually defined by bourgeoisie “neutrality,” is not where one would first look for an active counterculture.
But “No Coffee” suggests otherwise, seldom straying outside a collectivized world of artists and refugees squatting in hitherto abandoned buildings, whose makeover decor sparks pic’s bright production design.
This left-of-center setting is less a backdrop than a central presence, one that not only informs the characters but makes their potentially old-hat conflicts seem unpredictable and inventive.
The quasi-Zen minimalist of titular tastes is Arno (Vincent Coppey), a sweet-natured if somewhat reticent specimen in his early/mid-20s who runs a basement recording studio with longtime friend Maurizio (Pietro Musillo).
Latter — who also shares Arno’s flat, along with tartly bemused jewelry designer Alice (Nalini Selvadoray) — is the more suave, outgoing type. He’s baffled that Arno doesn’t even try to get a girlfriend. Arguing that such “things always get complicated,” Arno’s content simply imagining relationships with women spied on the street.
Despite his own roving eye, Maurizio is planning to live with Nina (Alexandra Tiedemann), a German-born translator he’s been seeing for several months on regular business trips to Paris.
Since Switzerland is a EU holdout, Nina needs a green card to find gainful employment there. Although they haven’t met yet, Arno, out of friendship to Maurizio (and without much evident forethought), agrees to a “convenience marriage” with Nina.
Nina duly shows up and moves in. The fragility that her slender blonde beauty suggests is belied by considerable self-assurance; indeed, she seems rather unimpressed by the somewhat squirrelly, private Arno at first. But Maurizio encourages their friendship, and they soon develop a mutual attraction. When Maurizio must travel to Paris once again, they’re left alone, and the inevitable occurs (to bystander Alice’s morning-after amusement).
For Arno, this is no mere screw-up; he’s deeply smitten and forces a shared confession shortly after Maurizio’s return. Not unexpectedly, the b.f. is initially furious, while admitting to something of a double standard regarding fidelity.
A few drinks and one mutual skinny dip later, he allows that it’s sorta OK if the two continue an occasional intimacy, assuming it’s “just sex, not love.”
While the romance between Arno and Nina seems a bit hastily introduced, all main characters accrue considerable depth as the deceptively loose-slung screenplay develops, making the angst palpable as this uneasy threesome’s conflicting loyalties cause grief.
Light, casually comic tenor shades gradually into more troubled emotions, with Nina in particular registering distress — she resents being pressured from both sides and isn’t at all accustomed to or comfortable with such indecisiveness in herself.
Dialogue is so naturalistic, even sparse at times (Wyder shows a knack for revealing characters via nonverbal, everyday activities) that there’s unexpected force to late seg when Arno bares his innermost yearnings in a Rohmer-like monologue — a moment notable also because we realize we knew already how soulful Arno is, well before he’d articulated it.
All leads here are appealing. It’s Coppey, however, who centers the movie with a perf of seemingly guileless, idiosyncratic charm.
Despite sex-comedy premise — acknowledged in a funny, nervous scene where the three very briefly share bed space — “No Coffee” is after something more than stock menage-a-trois titillation. It skillfully traces evolution amongst friends/lovers old enough to be on their own in the adult world, yet inexperienced enough to find relationship dilemmas utterly baffling and unexpected.
Mercifully, there’s no self-pity indulged here — these characters aren’t glib or whiny. They want to secure personal happiness without hurting anyone but must learn that life seldom works out so neatly.
Ending doesn’t cop out but is a little frustrating (if you’re rooting for Arno, at least), and rather too conveniently presents the boy-not-chosen with an 11th-hour possible romantic substitute. This lukewarm if upbeat wrap doesn’t significantly detract from whole’s fresh, emotionally complex tenor.
In design and tech terms, too, pic manages to convey a lot in apparently casual terms — via oft hand-held yet bright lensing, colorful but credible thrift-store duds and the funky details of the squat.
Soundtracked music is notable as much for its frequent, tension-exposing absence as for pleasant occasional impact.