By choosing a small-canvas, downbeat drama as her long-awaited follow up to Oscar-winning arthouse goldmine “Nowhere in Africa,” German writer-helmer Caroline Link defies expectations as deliberately as “A Year Ago in Winter’s” rebellious heroine does. The smoothly crafted but not particularly fresh tale of a dysfunctional Bavarian family struggling to move on after the untimely death of a loved one reps something of a marketing and sales challenge. Constantin Film is planning a Nov. 13 release in Germany.
When grieving mother Eliane (Corinna Harfouch) commissions a portrait of dead son Alexander (Cyril Sjostrom) and troubled dancer daughter Lilli (Karoline Herfurth), the painting process ultimately catalyzes emotional healing for mother and daughter — and for conflicted middle-aged artist Max (Josef Bierbichler).
Based on the American novel “Aftermath,” by Scott Campbell, the narrative recalls Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” There are the affluent, emotionally cold parents, the sibling left behind who felt threatened by the dead one’s apparent perfection, and feelings of guilt festering beneath the surface that erupt as self-destructive behavior. However, there are also obvious plot mechanics visibly grinding away at every turn.
With the truth-seeing painter in the psychiatrist’s role, the pic’s pivotal relationship is between Max and Lilli, a gifted student of music and dance who enjoys playing seductress. His probing, nonjudgmental questions help her come to terms with her family and her pattern of failing at everything she undertakes. Meanwhile, her frank, confrontational attitude prompts him to rethink his retreat from society.
With Max and Lilli as the central focus, Link’s script gives short shrift to Eliane and perfectionist scientist hubby Thomas (Hans Zischler), although she returns to their stories at the close, dragging out the running time to tie up loose ends. Finale’s extended cutting between Lilli performing cathartic choreography to Peter Gabriel’s “Signal to Noise” and Eliane’s wild weeping in the woods feels way overdone.
While strong perfs by Herfurth (“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”), a petite former dancer with a resemblance to the late Adrienne Shelly, and especially Bierbichler (“Winter Journey”) create plausible characters and an intense mood, they can’t make the plot feel less stale.
The polished widescreen lensing by Bella Halben looks particularly fine in interiors such as Max’s studio/home and Lilli’s rehearsal space.