So razor-sharp in its depiction of a troubled relationship that you'll want to bring tissues to mop up the blood, Everyone Else, which won the Silver Bear (second prize) and the Best Actress award at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, recognizes discomfiting truths about the nature of romance that few other movies seem inclined to even acknowledge, much less explore. The film's unusual prickliness is evident from its very first scene, in which 30-ish record-label exec Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) prods her niece, with equal parts playful affection and bizarre spite, into explaining what the little girl hates about auntie. As it turns out, that cruel-to-be-kind ethos has been carried over from her long-term affair with Chris (Lars Eidinger), an architect with more principle than ambition.
The couple are spending their summer at Chris' parents' villa in Sardinia, an island off the Italian Peninsula. As is often the case when lovers travel to gorgeously sunny climes in art movies, their inhibitions join most of their clothes in a pile on the floor, leaving both parties at their most vicious and their most vulnerable. But it's rare to see a film of this sort embrace so many contradictory yet recognizable aspects of the mating dance, particularly as it applies to a certain breed of highly self-conscious young adults. I know people who could barely finish watching Everyone Else. It hit too close to home.
That unnerving quality is proving to be a hallmark of German filmmaker Maren Ade, who's easily one of the most exciting new talents to emerge over the past decade or so. Few in the U.S. have seen her excellent 2003 debut, The Forest for the Trees, which depicts a case of toxic neediness so emotionally gruesome that it makes the Saw and Hostel series look painless by comparison. (Never released in this country, it's available on DVD via Film Movement.) Everyone Else, however, represents a huge step forward, in terms of Ade's visual facility and her sense of proportion. Sardinia's lush Mediterranean vistas make the ideal complement for Chris and Gitti's awkward negotiations, as they jointly work so hard to avoid bourgeois cliché that they effectively chloroform any hint of genuine affection; the movie recognizes that true happiness requires reveling in the same mushy, romantic kitsch that you may find repellent when you see it indulged in by others.
A number of critics have called this a breakup movie, but to Ade's credit (as well as that of her superb lead actors), it's much thornier than that. Not only is it unclear, after the stunning final scene, whether these two flawed people will continue on together, it's hard even to say whether or not they should. Perhaps you know that dilemma.