Everyone keeps asking average German 30-somethings Michael and Dina when they’re going to get married, long after they’ve moved in together, and still after they have a child. Their non-answer is always the same: They’ve been thinking about it; they’ll get around to it; there just hasn’t been time. It’s not as if anyone’s really interested, anyway. It’s just an obvious thing to ask of lives that have otherwise checked off the requisite middle-class boxes, and hey, don’t Michael and Dina need something to break up their sensible domestic routine? An arch, acid-laced comedy of manners from brother-sister filmmaking duo Dietrich and Anna Brüggemann, “Nö” takes a close, cool gaze at a relationship that seems, the longer we look at it, more a social construct than anything more intimate. It’s left to us to ask whether we’ve done any better for ourselves.
The film’s inquiry is carried out across 13 vignettes — all more or less self-contained as sketches, though centered on the same characters — that mark the largely dwindling progress of Michael and Dina’s relationship over the course of several years. It’s a heightened, mannered device, evoking Roy Andersson and early Woody Allen at different points, and some episodes naturally land more than others. Taken as a whole, however, this is a playful, distinctive return to form for the Brüggemanns, who had a festival hit with 2014’s stark religious satire “Stations of the Cross” before wiping out with the ill-considered anti-fascist comedy “Heil.” International buyers should say yes to “Nö” following its Karlovy Vary competition premiere.
Despite the academic, even forensic tone of the proceedings, “Nö” doesn’t offer a complete history of the relationship under the microscope. Rather, it begins five years into Michael and Dina’s time together, jotting in details and stray memories of how they started dating as it goes along. Already, things aren’t looking promising: “Sometimes I think we should break up,” says Michael (Alexander Khuon) flatly at the outset, and while Dina (Anna Brüggemann herself, resembling a Teutonic Michelle Williams) expresses her disagreement, it’s in rational, dispassionate terms. She wants a baby more than he does; equally, she’s happy to wait until he changes his mind, if that makes things less disruptive. Finding a soul mate is hard work, after all, and neither partner seems particularly keen to start the search all over again.
These single scenes from a not-quite-marriage are presented in linear order, separated by black title cards announcing an irregular passage of time: sometimes they’re weeks apart, sometimes years. Early on, we witness the partners’ mutual discomfort as a couple at the nuptials of others, or other stiff social occasions, though the longer they stay together, the more any sense of a social life outside their relationship evaporates. When Dina finally falls pregnant, the filmmaking tips into outright surrealism to express the couple’s respective but unshared misgivings about the supposedly happy news: At the first scan, the fetus keeps appearing to Michael as a kind of carnivorous gremlin; once she’s given birth, Dina experiences the hospital corridors as a destroyed war zone, soundtracked by juddering gunfire.
“Nö” cuts closest, and funniest, however, when its absurdist streak twists and taints real-world situations, as in one riotous funeral scene that is best not spoiled, but that inspires hard-won sympathy for seemingly sociopathic behavior. Another discomfiting highlight follows Dina, a professional but unconfident actor, as she joins an unconventional thespian workshop led by a spacey American grande dame: What begins as an exercise in emotional channeling turns, by degrees, into a laceratingly public admission of her own bourgeois misery. Surgeon Michael’s profession, too, inspires multiple episodes, including an operating-table confessional that begins wittily but somewhat outstays its welcome: At two hours, “Nö” could be a little more crisply paced.
Still, the formal construction of the film’s scenes is consistently impressive. Each is staged as a single shot — sometimes a static tableau, sometimes with a more fluid, inquisitive camera — that seems to trap the characters in its rhythm and trajectory, as if their relationship is a treadmill from which they can’t step off. Cinematographer Alexander Sass and production designer Cosima Vellenzer bring a refined, almost hyper-real composure to the couple’s everyday spaces: A kids’ climbing wall and a white-cube art gallery are depicted with an equally alien, imposing glare.
This austerity will feel familiar to admirers of “Stations of the Cross,” though it’s more surprising and effective when applied to chaotic domesticity. “Nö” ultimately frames its nominal lovers like pinned butterflies in a display case, alone even — or perhaps especially — when they’re together. Why are they together, anyway? Well, like said butterflies, they look good side by side. And stillness is less tiring than flight. For some, this caustic but not wholly unkind film suggests, that’s just about enough.