‘AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love’ Review: An Oddball German May-December Love Story

Six years after her striking woman-wolf romance 'Wild,' director Nicolette Krebitz returns with another eccentric study of unconventional attraction.

AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love

The title is a bit misleading in German writer-director Nicolette Krebitz’s offbeat romantic comedy “AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love.” Despite its promise of deeper meaning attached to all the vowels in the alphabet, it’s ‘A’ on which it fixates: Said aloud and elongated, we are told, the first letter vocalizes a spectrum of feeling ranging from primal need to sharp pain to orgasmic release. Sure enough, all are present in this unpredictable tale of mutual misfit attraction between a juvenile delinquent and the middle-aged actor whose role in his life shifts from mentor to mother to lover. It’s difficult, prickly material that “AEIOU” handles with a light touch, even as the narrative lurches recklessly across genres into flighty caper territory.

Marked by a gentle deadpan drollness that occasionally blossoms into fanciful romanticism, this an altogether less intense proposition than Krebitz’s last feature, the Sundance-selector 2016 psychodrama “Wild,” in which a socially alienated young woman finds what one might politely term companionship with a voracious wolf. “AEIOU” doesn’t go quite so aggressively out there, though it does extend that film’s exploration of female desire outside society’s accepted norms — while its amorally lyrical depiction of a romantic relationship between a teenage boy and a far older woman will still raise plenty of eyebrows. Commercially, however, this Berlinale competition entry from Maren Ade’s production outfit Komplizen Film may suffer for lacking the crossover star power of “I’m Your Man” or the comic extremities of “Toni Erdmann” — to name two roughly comparable reference points for a nonetheless singular work.

Somewhat unnecessarily, the film opens near the end — introducing Berlin-based actor Anna (Sophie Rois) far from home at a Nice police station, scrutinizing a lineup of suspects for an unspecified crime — before flashing back to the start of her adventures. “AEIOU” hardly needs such attention-grabbing trickery, given that it literally hits the ground running: On her way home from a failed reading for a radio play in Berlin, Anna has her handbag snatched by drifting youth Adrian (Milan Herms), cuing a vigorous cross-town chase that culminates in the safe return of her bag, if not her purse. Days later, she’s enlisted as a speech therapist to a troubled orphaned teen in a school drama club — naturally, her pupil turns out to be Adrian. The film would have us believe this is fate; that their names both begin with ‘A,’ too, is significant in the script’s slightly under-elaborated alphabet conceit.

Swallowing her consternation, Anna persists with giving the boy twice-weekly elocution lessons at her apartment, without ever addressing their past encounter. The initially sullen Adrian, meanwhile, responds to her coaching with a mixture of childlike dependence and an affection that edges into more adult territory: It isn’t long before they’re returning each other’s flirtatious advances, without ever directly voicing them or putting a name on the strange, inexorable bond they feel to each other. (“They didn’t want to lie,” explains the film’s omniscient, slightly irregular narration, “but they didn’t know what the truth was.”) Krebitz handles this impossible relationship with nuance and restraint, keeping it poised on a fine line between innocent devotion, exploitation and old-soul understanding — at least until the odd couple pack their bags and head for the Côte d’Azur, on a dizzy, irresponsible jag that may or may not tip over into outright fantasy.

Transitioning from delicate, heavily interior two-hander to extravagantly far-fetched, wish-fulfilling farce and thriller — gone slightly giddy in the Riviera sun — is no easy needle to thread, and “AEIOU” doesn’t pull it off with complete elan. Krebitz occasional steers too far into fey whimsy, while one romantic passage involving fluttering canaries and a Nina Simone cover of “Here Comes the Sun” strays into outright kitsch. The harder, darker instincts she displayed in “Wild” serve her better, and the film’s drastic change of scene in its second half — signaled by a point-of-no-return escape scene, exuberantly soundtracked to Robyn’s propulsive dance track “Send to Robin Immediately” — permits them to a greater degree.

Uneven it may be, but Krebitz’s fizzy, up-for-anything directorial energy ensures things are never dull, matched as it is by Reinhold Vorschneider’s clean, lucid lensing and the oddly compelling chemistry between her well-mismatched stars. With her striking, blade-cut features and aloof, watchful air, Austrian actor Rois (in her meatiest big-screen lead since Tom Tykwer’s “3”) projects an assured maturity that reads protectively maternal in some scenes and sensually forthright in others. The remarkable Herms, on the other hand, is all restless, unformed softness, occasionally shaping itself into a precocious performance of masculinity, and sometimes collapsing into childish want. As Anna’s patiently amused neighbor and friend, a sparingly used Udo Kier gets no such range of notes to play, though the hovering curiosity of his presence suits the film’s peculiar sensibility just fine.

‘AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love’ Review: An Oddball German May-December Love Story

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 13, 2022. Running time: 104 MIN. (Original title: "AEIOU — Das schnelle Alphabet der Liebe")

  • Production: (Germany-France) A Komplizen Film production in co-production with Kazak Productions, Kineo Filmproduktion, Südwestrundfunk, Arte. (World sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade. Executive producer: Ben von Dobeneck. Co-producers: Jean-Christophe Reymond, Peter Hartwig.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Nicolette Krebitz. Camera: Reinhold Vorschneider. Editor: Bettina Böhler.
  • With: Sophie Rois, Milan Herms, Udo Kier, Nicolas Bridet. (German, French, English dialogue)