Throughout the pandemic, the death of the kino was quickly lamented. Post-mortems pointed to an endless buffet of streaming options: an overabundance of choice paired with the perceived shortening attention spans of the post-millennial generations would naturally translate into a risk-averse box-office culture. Gone it seems is our want to be challenged by a film. Yet post-pandemic, audiences and directors alike have (re)emerged looking for new and challenging cinema.
This month sees the release of two such films, both of which premiered at this year’s Berlinale. Axiom and A E I O U are works underpinned by their genre experimentation, each varying in their methodology, execution and, ultimately, their success.
What’s a white lie between friends? Not as (in)consequential as you might think, particularly not when compulsive self-invention and the penchant for hyper-exaggeration are your daily modus operandi. The highlight from the Encounter’s Section at the Berlinale, Axiom, Jöns Jönsson’s second feature, is an original and excruciating character study. It’s also a huge success. Our protagonist is a liar – a serially inventive one at that. Notes sound early on in the film, as the obsessive lies of Julius quickly snowball. From stealing an anecdote and organising a trip on his non-existent family boat, to casual conversational cues about traumatic childhood episodes that are… well, you get the drift. But then it gets darker, more difficult to watch; it would be funny if it wasn’t so painful.
An exceptional script, its dryness and use of space posit a surprise ‘play along’ element to the film as you begin to lean in and partake in a bizarre semantic game of ‘spot the lie’. It can get a bit tedious in places, which is undoubtedly a deliberate device used by the director. Still, Axiom is an awkward necessity – fans of Joanna Hogg will not be disappointed.
If a sense of transgressive minimalism is achieved in Axiom, it comes from the clarity of vision. The same cannot be said for A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love. Nicolette Krebitz’s second film, on paper it sounds like the perfect summer release. A upend of social constraints, A E I O U redresses the normal lovers narrative: nonconformist lovers, defiant and feral, a troubled 17-year-old and a 60-year-old actress staring down the barrel of professional obsolescence are brought together through crime and coincidence. It is a knees-up of genre non-fixity, a work undeniably ambitious in its thematic and formal freedom. Its strongest suit is Sophie Rois. With a criminally overlooked resumé (Tom Tykwer’s Three and Terrence Malick’s recent A Hidden Life), Rois puts in a masterful turn as Anna, showing authentic flashes of Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert.
Indeed, the opening sequence of the film evokes Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, with a robbery scene laying the seeds for an intriguing noir aspect to the film which doesn’t really go anywhere. What follows seems to be several films happening simultaneously, and before we know it Anna is reunited with her fatally attractive mugger who she meets during a random encounter at the doctors office. Adrian turns out to have a speech impediment (of which there is no evidence), they flirt and suddenly fall in love (symbolised by Nina Simone and a slowed-down sequence of birds in her flat), then, of course, the clichéd trip to Paris followed by a Bressonesque pickpocketing spree.
Like most good whirlwind romances, the connective tissue doesn’t have to be the tightest part of the film. But A E I O U is sabotaged by a maximal use of narrative exposition that is contrived, haphazard and over-literary. A fun but flat-footed flick, it’s perhaps like everything you’ve seen before and also nothing you’ll see again.
Axiom Starts: June 30 D: Jöns Jönsson (Sweden, 2022), with Moritz Von Treuenfels, Ricarda Seifried, Thomas Schubert. ★★★
AEIOU – A Quick Alphabet of Love Starts: June 16 D: Nicolette Krebitz (Germany, 2022) with Sophie Rois, Milan Herms, Udo Kier. ★