Look: if you’re a Thai director who chooses to begin your film with a static shot of jungle foliage swaying in the wind, then proceeds with a languid, dreamlike narrative — well, it seems to me like asking for a bit of trouble. Like Duncan Jones doing an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey in his Moon, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nymph (Nang Mai) is surely referencing Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. And so comparisons are inevitable, to Nymph‘s disadvantage, but wow, the wonder of that long first shot, with the camera weaving behind the leaves and trunks as if we were seeing through someone’s point of view (with labored breathing on the soundtrack) until, miraculously, it levitates like an angel up and above the trees.
It touches down, a little later, on our two sullen protagonists and their marital disquiet: Nop, a photographer, who’s married to May, who in turn is sleeping with her boss. Nop and May go camping in the jungle, where Nop, camera in hand, is uncannily drawn to a certain tree, at which point he disappears. May doesn’t seem particularly distraught by this, and so neither are we, therefore dissipating the tension of the ostensible mystery at the film’s core. The hints at some visual meta-theorizing — the bravura tracking shot, the camera in Nop’s hands, the constant peering into the swirling digital motes of the jungle darkness — weren’t developed, so to speak.
The trouble, really, is that the lassitude sets in very early, and the last time I saw a movie with a character who has vanished and not have it emotionally register on anyone else, Monica Vitti was in it. Nymph leaves the audience with little to hang on to except May’s detachment and the vague feeling of dread — not the good existential variety, alas, but closer to a more pedestrian Blair Witch Project kind of dread. All the tangled limbs and greenery give the illusion of density, but other than the horror-movie accoutrements, there’s not much there.
Speaking of tangled limbs: you can do a Google search for stills from Maren Ade’s Everyone Else (Alle anderen) and see precisely that — elbows, backs, torsos and tousled hair. The man and woman lie diagonally or upside down or at oblique angles across the screen; we don’t always get a good look at them, but the visual scheme also mirrors the way they don’t quite see each other either. They feel each other, that’s for sure: Everyone Else is a very physical movie, but not in the way you’d expect. They touch each other constantly, but it seems more like an insecure fidgeting, to quell their anxiety and reassure oneself that the other’s still there.
But we do see them all too clearly in another sense. Everyone Else is uncomfortable viewing, but not in the way you’d expect: it’s because it’s intensely private — almost voyeuristic because everything we’re seeing seems so meaninglessly ordinary. They read books, they try to get work done, they go grocery shopping, and all throughout the discontent simmers and simmers. It never quite boils over, really. We don’t witness the Oscar-winning emotional slugfests we viewers are accustomed to in Hollywood marital dramas, or even those voluble, dissecting arguments in Scenes from a Marriage. Everyone Else is instead about everything else that happens in between the fights.
Ade’s film, one of my favorites of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival so far, happens to share some other elements with Nymph — a woman, a man, domestic discomfort, unfamiliar surroundings, and a mystery — but the similarity ends there. The mystery here, a greater and more eternal one, is how any two people, with individual and shared histories and sharp unexpected corners between them, ever achieve that magic semblance of something that looks parallel, and how they make that clumsy, angular thing called love work.
It’s the problem that this German couple, on vacation, has to deal with; the bigger problem is that they’re probably not fully aware it’s a problem in the first place. It’s almost like those terrible open-ended questions on those awful online dating sites (“What are you looking for in a relationship?”) — only it’s years later and you realize, stricken with panic, that neither you nor your partner have any answers and both of you are too afraid to ask. Now there’s a horror movie for you.