When we speak of someone “refusing to be a victim,” it’s usually in praise of their resolve and resilience: It’s a refusal that asserts an identity stronger than the worst adversity you’ve experienced. There’s undeniable power in that, but at what point does defiance twist into denial? This is the fine precipice on which German writer-director Eva Trobisch’s searing debut feature “All Good” balances its frayed-nerve drama — after a self-possessed young woman is raped by a man she hardly knows, and chooses to continue her life without acknowledging that fact. A fascinating flip on themes contentiously raised in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” underpinned by a breakout performance of raw candor by Aenne Schwarz, this is grown-up filmmaking of sharp, subtle daring.
Written as a graduation project at the London Film School and a worthy victor in Locarno’s first-feature competition, Trobisch’s finely poised film will likely prompt auspicious comparisons to the early work of Maren Ade as it burns through the festival circuit. Trobisch’s narrative voice, however, is very much her own, with savage deadpan humor cutting into its head-on articulation of everyday human horrors. “All Good” — a seemingly bland title that turns bitingly resonant in context — would inspire vigorous post-screening debate even if it weren’t arriving in the heat of the #MeToo movement. As it is, arthouse distributor interest should be amped up by the film’s blazing (if hardly momentary) topicality.
We all know that “I’m fine” is a statement that can indistinctly cover any number of personal conditions, from genuine contentment to raging inner torment. At the film’s outset, however, you’d have little reason to believe Janne (Schwarz), a thirtysomething publishing professional, is anything but. We meet her as she’s cheerfully renovating a dilapidated, newly bought house with her boyfriend Piet (Andreas Döhler), a stand-up guy with whom she has quiet, comfortable chemistry.
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From that opening picture of domestic bliss, the cracks begin to widen. They’ve recently declared bankruptcy after a joint business venture failed, the resultant stress of which might explain Janne’s uncharacteristically uninhibited behavior at a college reunion, where she drinks heavily and gets chatting with gangly, socially awkward stranger Martin (Hans Löw, cutting a very different figure from his lead in the recent Cannes premiere “In My Room”).
What she intends as innocuous flirtation, however, he crassly misreads as a sexual advance; when she rebuffs him, he rapes her, in a stark, unsensationalized scene that’s wince-inducingly painful to watch. Janne is so stunned (“Are you serious?” she asks her attacker as it happens) that she almost forgets to be angry. And perhaps, she decides, that’s easier: Once the shock subsides, she attempts to pick herself up with no visible disruption, not even telling Piet about her ordeal. It’s an already fragile plan that collapses when she takes a job with a former associate, only to find herself working alongside Martin.
Though she suggests to him, too, that they pretend nothing has happened, it’s an increasingly hard lie to live: As her mental composure deteriorates, her personal and professional lives plunge into simultaneous freefall. Working in a mode of unornamented naturalism, with no score and a preponderance of tight, peering closeups, Trobisch paints an unstinting portrait of unreleased trauma — one marked by deep compassion for its scarred female protagonist, but a complex amoral stance on the spiralling, self-harming irrationality of her behavior.
It’s a nuanced characterization brought to seething, silently volatile life by Schwarz’s tremendous interpretation. While the actress recently made an impression as the eponymous author’s wife in Austrian festival favorite “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” this is a potentially career-altering lightning bolt of a turn, alive with intuitive, revealing body language and expressive verbal tics — as the steaming fury inside her occasionally forces its way past her painstaking self-containment. It’s the kind of fearless emotional spin-cycle with which Schwarz’s compatriots Nina Hoss or Sandra Hüller might have stunned us earlier in their careers. Even as an ambiguous final act arrests Janne’s freefall for the comparative relief of psychological limbo, director and actress are plainly on the same purposeful, zero-compromise page; “All Good” feels the urgent benefits of their combined conviction.