Arthur Schnitzler’s works are so fundamentally rooted in the roiling intellectual and cultural changes of early-20th-century Vienna that they sometimes feel pointless in modern-day updates, the very mixed bag of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” being one prominent example. But Anna Martinetz’s debut feature, “Else,” summons up a sufficiently stylized, dislocative atmosphere to intriguingly suspend the author’s 1924 novella between a present-tense surface and the evolving morals of a century ago. Short running time and arty presentation won’t make this a particularly easy sell, but further fest play and select Eurotube exposure are assured.
Else (Korinna Krauss) is a well-bred young woman on vacation at a gated resort in India (changed from the book’s Italy). There, she’s uneasily caught between propriety-obsessed Aunt Emma (Katalin Zsigmondy); the barely hidden adoration of cousin Paul (Michael Kranz), who’s nonetheless having an affair with married, bubble-headed Cissy (Marion Krawitz); and the queasy attentions of older Dorsday (Martin Butzke).
The situation grows more awkward when a letter from her mother arrives, advising that Else’s famous but financially irresponsible lawyer father risks debtor’s prison unless he comes up with a large sum within 48 hours. Dorsday being a longtime family friend of means, our heroine is arm-twisted long-distance into hitting up the gentleman for a sizable emergency loan. Her humiliation is heightened when he agrees, albeit in exchange for a lascivious favor in return.
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Else’s sense of family obligation under frankly abusive circumstances, her offended modesty and ultimate sacrifice all have a somewhat antiquated feel at odds with the modern dress sported by Martinetz’s actors. But their dialogue retains the formality of another era, and the exotic, sometimes hallucinogenic mood, complete with elephant rides and lurking tigers, usefully translates the heroine’s stream-of-consciousness literary voice into a cinematic unreliable-narrator style. While Krauss is a bit of a blank (perhaps deliberately), supporting turns from the expert supporting cast are vivid, adding various elements of social satire, menace and naturalism.
Some may find this striking miniature too abstract and off-putting; others will admire how deftly the director’s visual and audio collaborators realize an ambiguous, claustrophobic microcosm in which reality and hyperreality blur.