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Sundance Film Review: ‘Axolotl Overkill’

A striking, impressionistic debut from Helene Hegemann focuses on a troubled young woman who tests her sexual and emotional limits in wild Berlin.

Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Arly Jover, Mavie Hörbiger, Laura Tonke, Hans Löw, Bernhard Schütz. (German, English dialogue)

An axolotl is a small, translucently glowy, slightly comical-looking amphibian, also known as a Mexican salamander. Its claim to fame in amphibian circles is that, unusually, it reaches maturity without metamorphosis, so it never develops lungs and crawls out of the water, but remains aquatic, with gills. Another way of looking at it: the creature remains permanently young, even retaining the ability to regenerate parts of itself that might get lopped off. At least that’s how it’s described to fresh-faced, deeply screwed-up teenager Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) in Helene Hegemann’s formally impressive but thematically slippery directorial debut.

The parallels between Mifti and the creature are clear, but the film’s refusal to judge her mercurial, volatile behavior, while laudable, contributes to a sense of ambivalence in the viewer. How much is this eternal, futureless, and absolutely self-centered individual to be envied as an expression of ultimate liberation, and how much should her suspended-animation existence be pitied as a trap? The axolotls Mifti encounters are, after all, confined to a tank a couple of feet square.

Hegemann adapts her own bestselling book, the German-language “Axolotl Roadkill,” though the film’s title has been puzzlingly altered to the marble gargle “Axolotl Overkill” (if you’re searching for a name for your emo band, have at it). But Hegemann deserves considerable praise for avoiding the standard pitfalls of both the neophyte director and the writer-turned-filmmaker: Her movie is not overly wordy, and is anything but over-explained. In fact, using fragmentary, crisp images that somehow combine into a woozily impressionist, non-chronological whole, and accompanied by a brilliantly pulsating soundtrack that ranges from soul and R&B to German punk/hip-hop/house fusioneers Terranova, it’s a story that by design doesn’t have a beginning and an end so much as a start and a stop, with room for a great deal of incident, but no substantive change, in between.

The ungovernable Mifti lives with her brother and sister, and maintains a cordial if removed relationship with her father who resides in a designer-brutalist house of poured concrete and steel. Her mother, we come to understand, recently died, and there are hints dropped that Mifti underwent some kind of trauma and is now on meds for borderline personality disorder. That diagnosis is ridiculed by actress Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger), herself no slouch in the unpredictability department, for whom Mifti seems to fall, though Ophelia’s reciprocation is scattershot. Instead, the hard-partying Mifti embarks on a sexual relationship with an older woman, Alice (Arly Jover, from David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”), and has random sexual and potentially violent encounters elsewhere, including a flirtation with a guy who truns out to be Alice’s ex-husband (Hans Löw).

Simple though that might seem, “Axolotl Overkill” can’t easily be summed up as a story of overlapping love triangles set against an authentically strobey Berlin backdrop; it’s a film that rejects normalcy with almost the same vehemence that Mifti does. The men peripherally involved can be relied upon to have predictable reactions, but the three principal women display emotional responses that almost always come pinging wildly out of left-field. The focus is distinctly feminist in this regard — part of what makes Mifti so coolly compelling is that she’s a teenage girl pursuing her own whims and desires with the single-minded, sometimes self-destructive intent that’s usually reserved for male characters. She’s an incarnation of egoless id, devoid of the desire to second-guess her impulses.

While anything but whimsical, the film does have tinges of the deadpan German surrealism that marks recent national hits “Toni Erdmann” and, to a lesser extent, “The Bloom of Yesterday.” In fact, the moments when we are released from trying to piece together Mifti’s mystifying motivations and psychology are among the most memorable — the sudden appearance of an inexplicable penguin, for example, or the transcendent sequence in which an unnamed girl performs an uncanny body-popping dance through an unlit apartment to the strains of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Me and the Devil.” These are perhaps projections, or perhaps symptoms of Mifti’s mental state: her sexuality, her emotions, and her relationships are all such shifting entities, there’s no reason why the boundary between real and unreal should not be equally porous.

As a whole, though, the film engenders as much frustration as fulfilment, which is likely to keep it a niche proposition, best suited, perhaps, to the temperature-controlled, aquarium-like environment of the film festival circuit. And yet it has to mark a very encouraging beginning for Hegemann, who seems to know exactly what she’s doing, even if she’s not particularly keen to clue us in to the secret: the film is self-possessed to a fault. There is, nevertheless, plenty here to keep the patient viewer engaged — in the clear gazes between the excellent actors, you an find authentic notes of connection amid all the switchblade emotional U-turns and willfully contrarian reactions. But the movie’s moment-to-moment dynamism can’t compensate for its lack of forward momentum: The problem with a story in which no one grows up is that it’s also a story in which no one grows.

Sundance Film Review: 'Axolotl Overkill'

Reviewed online, Jan. 20th 2017 (In Sundance Film Festival - World Drama Competition.) Running time: 94 MIN

Production: A Constantin Films/Alpenrot presentation of a Vandertastic and Constantin Films production. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Hanneke Van Der Tas, Alain De La Mata. Co-producers, Constanze Guttmann, Friederich Oetker.

Crew: Directed, screenplay by Helene Hegemann, based on her book "Axolotl Roadkill." Camera (color), Manu Dacosse. Editor, Bettina Böhler.

With: Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Arly Jover, Mavie Hörbiger, Laura Tonke, Hans Löw, Bernhard Schütz. (German, English dialogue)

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