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Princess and the Warrior, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/29/05 23:41:03

"Highly recommended for fans of contemporary European cinema."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The central characters in Tom Tykwer's "The Princess and the Warrior," a nurse who works (and lives) at a mental hospital, Simone/Sissi (Franka Potente), and an ex-soldier incapable of financial or emotional stability, Bodo (Benno Fürmann), both suffer from a combination of ennui and the lingering effects of psychological trauma. The lives of these injured characters, of course, will intersect, but not in ways either would suspect.

Written and directed by Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), The Princess and the Warrior is constructed around a series of coincidences (and therefore of fate or destiny governing human events). After stealing supplies from a gas station, Bodo's escape attempt leads to a truck swerving and hitting Sissi. Discovering her underneath the truck, Bodo performs an emergency tracheotomy. Tykwer directs this scene almost claustrophobically, tightly framing both characters in each shot: as Sissi gasps for breath, voice over narration gives the audience access to her thoughts. Without Bodo's intervention, Sissi will die. The irony here, of course, is that Sissi is unaware that Bodo is both the (indirect) cause of her injury and her rescuer (surprisingly, Tykwer never resolves this particular plot strand).

Emerging from the hospital two months later, Sissi decides to locate her "savior." Despite her at times complicated relationships with both the staff and the patients at the mental hospital, Sissi finds herself in limbo, with every day a repetition of the previous day. Following narrative conventions typical of European films, the reason for her behavior, a long ago, childhood trauma isn't revealed until the mid-point. Bodo's brother, Walter (Joachim Krol) works as a security guard in a lavish, modern bank. With Bodo's help, he plans on a noonday heist. Walter functions as a selfless caretaker for the emotionally wounded Bodo. Sissi, of course, complicates their plans, by her persistent intrusions into their lives.

Not surprisingly, in a film whose major plot points turn on coincidence, Sissi is present at the bank (for unrelated reasons) at the same time that Bodo and Walter attempt their heist. The remainder of the film revolves around the aftermath of the attempted robbery. Unconventionally, Tykwer doesn't follow the two central characters through a series of picaresque adventures as they attempt to evade the police. Instead, the plot comes full circle: with both characters back at the mental hospital. Bodo finds himself confused for a mental patient at the hospital (given his emotional problems and a well-timed outburst, the confusion by the hospital staff is easily understood). His presence also generates conflict among the other patients, most of whom have ambivalent relationships with Sissi.

Tykwer's over-emphasis on coincidence is also problematic. By my count, there are four (probably two too many) coincidences that generate the major plot turns (the accident, the robbery, a locket, a return to the gas station where Bodo suffered his trauma). Obviously, Tykwer wants the audience to make the connection between coincidence and fate (and a kind of cosmic significance to events and our lives), but the over-reliance of coincidence also tends to foreground the narrative device, thus stretching the suspension of disbelief.

One of the major problems with The Princess and the Warrior, however, is the unresolved nature of Sissi's relationships with the patients under her care. One patient in particular, Otto (Melchior Beslon), is presented early in the narrative as friend and confidante, but by the third-act, he's been relegated to an afterthought. He's given one undermotivated scene where he reacts badly to Bodo's presence, but there's no subsequent scene between the two characters to resolve their relationship. Curious about this oversight, I watched the DVD extras, a lengthy interview with Tykwer and his editor where they discuss deleted scenes. One of the deleted scenes did, in face, help resolve their relationship.

Ultimately, however, the most significant problem is audience sympathy for the central characters: given the oblique presentation of their backstories, the audience essentially has to wait until the mid-point for those revelations. Given that Tykwer shows a penchant for narrative symmetry (the opening and closing shots occur near the ocean), the revelations about the traumas both characters have suffered is ultimately disappointing for its unimaginative neatness. Tykwer takes that symmetry well past believably: in a "magical realist" touch unsupported by the narrative "rules" established early in the film, Bodo meets his double, a kind of future self, no longer constrained and restrained by his past, who takes his place at the fateful gas station.

Nonetheless, Tykwer's use of cinematic techniques, from vertiginous crane shots (he introduces Bodo on a bridge, the camera suspended upside down on the underside of the bridge, then swooping up and over the character), to transition scenes (the helicopter shots that open and close the film, to God's eye point-of-view shots of the city that serves as the background to the narrative), to the editing (he tends to use white-outs, instead of blackouts), to the cinematography that serves to emphasize mood and atmosphere (and the often hallucinatory experiences of the characters), proves him to be in the front rank of contemporary directors, American or European.

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