“When I love, I don’t notice time,” the eponymous character muses an hour or so into “My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot.” Even with two hours left to go in German provocateur Philip Gröning’s marathon of philosophical rumination, incestuous sexual tension and magic-hour nihilism, audiences are likely to understand the truth of this statement: 173 minutes pass in this film, and each one of them is likely to be noticed, felt and unloved. Following dysfunctional, disaffected teenage twins as they kill time — among other things — testing each other’s intellect and daring over the course of one scorching high-summer weekend, “Robert” begins merely ponderously before turning actively unpleasant at the halfway mark: When you’re almost grateful for a late bout of torture porn to break up the tedium, it doesn’t say much for the film’s ideas, however poetically expressed and visualized they may be.
A near-impossible sell internationally — without some drastic editing, at the very least — the film, unsurprisingly met with boos and copious walkouts at its Berlin press screening, comes as something of a disappointment from Gröning after 2013’s equally long, mannered but more emotionally compelling “The Police Officer’s Wife,” and even that was a polarizing arthouse puzzler. (A thistly anatomy of domestic abuse languorously divided into 59 chapters, “Wife” still plays like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” relative to Gröning’s latest.) The filmmaker who received universal acclaim and awards for 2005’s extraordinary monastic documentary “Into Great Silence,” meanwhile, is even harder to connect with this spiritless endurance test.
“Philosophy means working on truth,” lanky wastrel Robert (Josef Mattes) instructs his twin sister Elena (Julia Zange) near the beginning of the film, before confirming, “Are you ready to work on truth?” It’s a question that sounds more like a threat, and before the audience gets a chance to think it over, Gröning and co-writer Sabine Timoteo forge ahead with their dense, wordy tangle of philosophical discourse, drawn from sources including Plato and St. Augustine, and obsessively preoccupied with the concept of time — which is academically discussed and examined before the film’s own sense of chronology begins to stretch, warp and melt across its supposed 48-hour timeframe.
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Robert is notionally helping Elena prepare for a high-school philosophy exam she is due to take on Monday, though his lines of inquiry and argument seem to be largely off-syllabus: “Real thinking is based on serenity,” he helpfully offers, before gassing on further about the impossibility of knowledge, the failure of time to exist in the present, and the entropy that increases with, you guessed it, time. Serenity is provided by the rolling sun-ripened farmland that sprawls around them like a vast wheat-and-wildflower picnic blanket, with only a modest gas station, to which the twins repeatedly return for beer and bathroom breaks, disrupting both the view and the woozy all-day study session.
Even these obdurately affected kids can’t stay on-topic when the topic is this cyclically dull, however, and so the conversation drifts to other, more intimate matters of sibling rivalry and, queasily, the romantic jealousies between them, which they wrestle out through a series of increasingly dangerous dares and bets — with Elena’s restless virginity on the bargaining block. If she loses it by the time she graduates, her brother gets to demand anything of her; if she doesn’t, he gets the car they share. Quite what’s in it for her is one of several questions viewers will, by this point, be too numbed to ask of Gröning’s film as it dives into a nightmarish abyss of ugly, impulsive violence, equal-opportunity sexual abuse and repeated listens of Elena’s favorite song by (who else?) Serge Gainsbourg. A hapless gas station clerk (Urs Jucker) is drawn into their fun and games as our good friend time ticks by ever so slowly.
If there’s an underlying message here regarding generational ennui and sexual liberation, Robert and Elena are too vaguely and vapidly drawn for their exploits to accrue any greater power or resonance than their airy, naive philosophical ramblings; with no backstory or social context to their relationship, their most climactically shocking acts are too coldly schematic to be greeted with much more of a shrug.
Let it be said that Gröning’s gifts as a pure formalist remain robust. As in his last three features, the helmer acts as his own director of photography, and “Robert” is rich in sensual, seasonally saturated widescreen compositions streaked in tones of maize, flame and blood, while the documentarian in Gröning yields some astonishing nature-based imagery: We invest more urgently in a grasshopper, viewed in exquisite closeup as it swims and extricates itself from a body of water, than in any of the notionally human action here. The film’s extravagant visual language may not especially illuminate or substantiate its opaque storytelling, but it keeps the eyes engaged when so much else in this enervating film compels either to droop or look away entirely.