French writer Michel Houellebecq’s spiky cult novel of ideas “Atomised” — about two brothers, genetics and contempo sexual mores — is planed down to make “The Elementary Particles,” a tasteful and ultimately sentimental movie about two brothers and sex, with a couple of ideas on the side. Still, Berlin competish entrant reps a more mature and relatively understated effort from helmer Oskar Roehler (“Agnes and His Brothers”) who extracts from source elements (despair, suicide, sexual outlaws) he’s explored before. Dream cast of top German thesps and book’s notoriety should breed healthy b.o. in Teutonic territories but probably won’t clone success elsewhere.
Opening in contempo Germany, pic crosscuts between two half-brothers who have both come to crossroads in their lives. Professionally respected by lonely theoretical geneticist Michael (TV star Christian Ullmen) is going back to an Irish laboratory to resume work on cloning he’d abandoned before. On his last day at work, his parakeet dies and he learns the authorities are planning to move his grandmother’s grave, necessitating a return to his hometown.
Bruno (the estimable Moritz Bleibtrau), Michael’s half-brother, is also having a rough time. Unhappily married and a new father, he can’t control his lust for the schoolgirls he teaches. When one rejects his advances, he has a breakdown and checks himself into a psychiatric ward. There, he tells a shrink (Corinna Harfouch) of his unhappy childhood, shown in alternately comic and horrifying flashbacks.
Though sired by different dads, Bruno and Michael share a mother, Jane (Nina Hoss, “The White Masai”), a spoiled hippy dropout who dumped both boys (Herbert Knaup as Michael and Tom Schilling as Bruno in flashbacks) on different grandmothers while she flew round the world pursuing lovers and enlightenment.
Budding math geek Michael grew up in love with girl-next-door Annabelle (played by Franka Potente as an adult). On trip back to oversee the moving of his grandmother’s coffin, he meets her again and has a second chance to consummate the love he could never express years ago. She reciprocates, but a problem pregnancy eventually blights their chance to have a family, an irony given Michael’s work on parthenogenesis.
Bruno’s sexuality was kinked by exposure to his mother’s free-love lifestyle and has grown up longing for kinky thrills he can’t find in his now dead marriage. He leaves the asylum to go on vacation at a camp ground for grown-ups where shagging and psychobabble are the order of the day.
This particular reel’s extended satire of New Age cant (“Dance Your Job,” is one enticing seminar on offer at the camp) reps film’s strongest section, especially as Bruno grows increasingly bitter over his inability to pick up women.
However, he finally clicks with Christiane (Martina Gedeck, soulful), who introduces him to swingers’ clubs and is everything he’s ever wanted in a partner. Of course, such happiness can’t last in Houellebecq’s remorseless universe. Bruno’s inherent but honest selfishness contribute to a cruel climax, a shrewdly executed suspense sequence that marks another of film’s highlights.
Unfortunately, where Houellebecq’s novel puts its characters’ in a nihilistic vice and never stops squeezing, pic wimps out and tacks on a sugary ending, with one character allowed to be happy through manic delusion and two others let off the book’s hook. Perhaps wisely eschewing voiceover, the film hasn’t the means to soar upward and present the broader sociological picture that is the source’s most intriguing offering.
At least pic offers chance to see some of the best players in contempo German cinema going through their paces. Nearly every part is played by a major name, not just Bleibtrau, Gedeck and Potente, but even down to the walk-on roles, filled with casual skill by the likes of Michael Gwisdek (“Goodbye! Lenin”) as Michael’s old boss, and Uwe Ochsenkneckt (“Das Boot”) as Bruno’s jaded father.
Production designer Ingrid Henn and costume designer Esther Walz turn up the kitsch factor in the flashbacks all the way, while Roehler’s regular lenser Carl-Friedrich Koschnick pushes the grading to achieve an eye-searing palette. Score by Martin Todsharow sounds like the music for a lost Miramax movie, while shoddy covers of ’70s classics offer facile comment on the action — the line “nothing will last” from the Dylan-penned but covered here “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the end is way too on the nose for English-speakers. Sluggish editing drags out the final reels, and pic could do with a loss of ten minutes in the midsection.