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DI­REC­TOR Maren Ade CAST Peter Si­monis­chek, San­dra Hüller, Michael Wit­ten­born, Thomas Loibl

PLOT Win­fried Con­radi (Si­monis­chek) is a di­vorced pi­ano teacher with a pas­sion for prac­ti­cal jokes. Griev­ing the death of his pet dog, he trav­els to Bucharest to re­con­nect with his daugh­ter in the guise of his al­ter-ego, life coach Toni Erd­mann.

IF YOU WANT a snap­shot of the odd­ball bril­liance of Toni Erd­mann, just hoover up some of the IMDB plot key­words: “fa­ther-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship”, “false teeth”, “woman watch­ing man mas­tur­bate”, “cap­i­tal­ism”, “zom­bie make-up”, and “ref­er­ence to Whit­ney Hous­ton”. Writer-di­rec­tor Maren Ade’s 2016 Cannes dar­ling works very hard to stack the odds against it­self. It’s nearly three hours long. It’s set in the densely de­tailed world of Ger­man busi­ness con­sul­tants. It’s a com­edy built around wigs, whoopee cush­ions and jizzing on pe­tits fours.

Yet the re­sult is funny, per­cep­tive, alive to life’s rich­ness and ab­sur­di­ties and in its fi­nal mo­ments, ab­so­lutely devastating.

The set-up sounds like well-tooled Hol­ly­wood com­edy: prankster dad cheers up his worka­holic daugh­ter through wacky per­sonas — sac­cha­rine life lessons en­sue. Hap­pily, Ade has no truck with for­mula. Thanks to great writ­ing and su­perla­tive per­for­mances, the re­la­tion­ship between good-hearted, hang-dog Win­fried (Si­monis­chek) and his daugh­ter, built-for-busi­ness Ines (Hüller), feels au­then­tic — deftly tog­gling between af­fec­tion and stone-cold ex­as­per­a­tion. There is no ill in­tent or mal­ice on ei­ther side but the pair can’t help but dis­ap­point each other over and over again. And it’s a joy to watch.

Ade de­liv­ers laughs in spades — there is some­thing of the dead­pan ab­sur­dity of A

Swedish Love Story di­rec­tor Roy An­der­s­son in her world­view — and cre­ates a mal­leable tone that can take in a man dressed as a tree and al­ways feel real. Yet she never for­gets to mine the hu­man from the high con­cept. It’s in beau­ti­fully ob­served mo­ments such as when Ines and Win­fried say good­bye to each other yet have to en­dure an awk­ward, ag­o­nis­ing wait for a lift. From its open­ing scene — Win­fried plays an elab­o­rate joke on a courier — to a naked party set-piece to its cli­mac­tic mo­ment of heartrend­ing sur­re­al­ism, Toni Erd­mann hits so many dif­fer­ent notes and colours. The ef­fect is daz­zling.

This range also runs to telling social com­men­tary. It is a film with a keen sense of the shift­ing land­scape of Europe (as Ines plans to make peo­ple re­dun­dant, Ade’s cam­era point­edly wan­ders from the meet­ing room to cap­ture the poverty out­side) and gen­der dy­nam­ics in the work­place, qui­etly etch­ing the way women are sub­tly de­meaned in pro­fes­sional life. Just watch how Ines is taken in­fin­itely more se­ri­ously just be­cause she has a man by her side, even if he is a weapons-grade buf­foon.

One of its man­i­fold plea­sures is see­ing its ini­tially un­sym­pa­thetic, bor­der­line un­like­able pro­tag­o­nists re­veal pre­vi­ously un­tapped depths, softer sides and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Be­neath Win­fried’s ir­ri­tat­ing Bea­dle-like pen­chant for wind-ups and dad jokes comes an open­ness about the world. Sim­i­larly Ines’ ca­reer-girl de­fences come down grad­u­ally, chart­ing a course from busi­ness-like re­serve to ex­hi­bi­tion­ism, un­til, in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, she is war­bling Whit­ney’s The Great­est Love. Hüller’s per­for­mance is beau­ti­fully mod­u­lated. In an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse, she will be bound­ing up the stairs of the Dolby The­atre to the podium come 26 Fe­bru­ary. But in the real world, let’s just mar­vel at the achieve­ments of a stun­ning cen­tral per­for­mance in a gen­uine, droll, emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful odd­ity. IAN FREER

VER­DICT Set in the un­promis­ing world of Ger­man busi­ness con­sul­tancy, Toni Erd­mann is a low-key tri­umph, es­pe­cially for writer-di­rec­tor Maren Ade and star San­dra Hüller. A weird, thought­ful, hugely af­fect­ing treat.

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