In a story rich in family dynamics with a substantial kicker of gender, class and nationality discrimination, Wanda comes to a luxurious villa in Switzerland, the manse of an industrial magnate. Although she has no wealth, her riches lie in her family. On one level, she has come to trade care (at times writ large) for money. On another, her presence results in ministrations hilarious, touching and, in the end, amazing.
Josef (Andre Jung) is recovering from a stroke and looks on his death bed. He has been a child all his life, entitled and, in the end, alone. His wife Elsa (Marthe Keller) has slowly become completely estranged from Josef not because she dislikes him, they simply no longer seem to have anything in common. Or perhaps all they have in common is their wealth and they are learning that is not enough. Keller plays a combination of two roles with panache, a wicked Anne Bancroft/Mrs. Robinson with the occasional goofy touch of Dianne Wiest, “The Birdcage” hausfrau Louise Keeley.
That these are both Mike Nichols films makes this directorial mandate a tough nut and writer/director Bettina Oberli (co-written with Cooky Ziesche) proves completely up to the task. Her winning the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival Nora Ephron Prize seems perfect. In her sixth narrative feature she proves an exacting commander-in-chief of the absurd.
Josef and Elsa’s daughter Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) bursts onto the scene fully formed, literally writhing with privileged class hubris. Along with hubby Manfred (Anatole Taubman), Minichmayr is so perfect in her role, so perfectly tone deaf as to anything approaching normality she is a joy to behold. The story will have her, as well as the entire Wegmeister-Gloor family, a loser as well as a winner. Through plot convolutions serious and ridiculous even the dynasty scion Gregor, a bird whistling escapee from the board room, will have his day.
Turning class consciousness on its head, Wanda the caretaker becomes Wanda the guiding hand. As in the “Wizard of Oz” the needy rich find that they do, indeed, already have hearts, brains and courage. Showing cheeky courage herself, Oberli does not flinch from the explicitly carnal in showing what Wanda will do for her family. Nor does she flinch when Germanic machinations need to be labelled as the white slavery they are.
Excellent production and an understated yet hilarious soundtrack (“These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down”) focus attention on the characters, their firecracker emotions contrasting with the permanently placid lake.
Very much a feminist movie, the men stay in the background, the base chords to the melody of the women. There is a little terror here and there, times when the story could go horror instead of humor. Perhaps this is the director’s unsteady hand or maybe it is the complexity of humanity. In the end it is the power of the gleefully mocking humor, the tough love juxtaposed with the cow on the castle lawn that will make the men in the audience love this movie as much as the women.
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