Leaving Room for Miracles

German director Doris Dörrie makes the temporal political--and vice versa

So what does a director do after she has revealed masculinity and femininity as adjoining countries with no language in common but fatal clichés? She makes a movie about a talking penis, of course. Along with the Walker, I will graciously ignore Dörrie's sole American production, the 1988 Griffin Dunne "comedy" Me & Him (named for the Dunne character and his member). The director spent the next few years on two documentaries and the documentarylike Happy Birthday Turks (1990), a cutting portrait of German racism. She also began publishing short-story collections, which now number seven volumes and counting. When Dörrie returned to features in 1994, her filmmaking had changed--as had feminism. Both were becoming at once more inclusive and ambitious--informed by gay rights, cultures of color and class, and global economic critiques, along with those exhaustively unpacked primal sexual scenes starring the (white) female psyche. (And, yes, the latter were necessary.)

Dörrie's Nineties films are loose-limbed and droll, spiritual and sexy. I'm swimming against the critical tide, but I think they're her best. That opinion could be a function of gestalt, however: These movies ably capture and query the place where I am right now; and that's heady, a lot more so than looking back at where we were. What's absurd changes as the human heart does, and, despite all the Dr. Lauras, the heart does change. Nobody Loves Me (Saturday at 8:45 p.m.) begins with the video dating service taping of one Fanny Fink (Maria Schrader), a sad-eyed 29-year-old with a taste for skeleton earrings and basic black. After some shy demurrals, she faces the camera: "I wouldn't fall in love with me if I were you."

An airport security guard who lives in an apartment high-rise with not a few individualistic characters, Fanny is single and sorry about it. She buys self-esteem meditation tapes, but is also building a coffin in a "death appreciation" class. Then a chance meeting in her elevator with an African-German drag-queen psychic (who has less claim on one of those labels than the rest...probably) sends her chasing after the new building manager, an impotent yuppie misanthrope. That prediction fails (wonderfully), and so does Fanny's flickering will. The drag queen Orfeo (Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss) has his own problems, the least of which is money. Meanwhile, a dog lopes mysteriously through the high-rise halls, the residents face eviction, and the city is in Carnival.

So much beauty, so little time: Maria Schrader and Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss in Doris Dörrie's Nobody Loves Me
So much beauty, so little time: Maria Schrader and Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss in Doris Dörrie's Nobody Loves Me

Akin to a tender ass-kicking, Nobody Loves Me (1994) is the kind of romantic comedy Meg Ryan should make, where high romance is displaced in favor of compassion. Fanny is transformed by caring for Orfeo without considering the kickback; her coffin world breaks open and admits miracles--UFOs, a smidgen of faith, and a dancing community of like-minded misfits. Am I Beautiful? (Wednesday, July 12 at 7:00 p.m., screening along with a reading of Dörrie fiction introduced by the author) is sharper-edged and even better. As sprawling as Altman's Short Cuts, and likewise based on multiple short stories, the 1997 film shuffles from character to character: a vagabond woman playing at being mute and deaf, a man looping memory tapes of a finished affair, a widower carrying his wife's ashes, a woman in love with dieting. All of them lost.

Despite the constant flow, Dörrie tends a flame in each character, each scene. Two women--one grieving, one uncertain--wrestle a wedding dress in the back seat of a car. A cashmere sweater talks. A chef carves faces from potatoes and lets them shrivel. There is always the urgency of a clock ticking away--"How much time do you think you have to be happy?" cries a mother to her daughter. Then the film stops the clock with three striking and disparate rituals: a solitary burial, a wedding, and a penitents march in Spain. Each one looks silly and brave and awesomely bizarre: a step into the void. You don't need to know that Dörrie's husband and cinematographer Helge Weindler died during the filming (as recounted in the more prosaic 1996 doc One Last Glimpse, introduced by the director on Thursday, July 13 at 7:30 p.m.). The elegantly shot Am I Beautiful? plays like a prayer of love and loss.

It's not that these male characters do not mess up, or that the female ones are not loving what they should be. The old patterns continue, here and there--and change, here and there. Dörrie gives a quick boot where it's deserved: The piggy husband of Enlightenment Guaranteed (Friday, July 14 at 9:15 p.m.)--a man who fails to appreciate his wife's floor-scrubbing--is doomed to reach satori on his sudsy knees. But there's a sense in the current films that power hierarchies and gender-role idiocies are not all that right-thinking people should be concerned with. There is beauty in the world, these films say, and absurdly little time to open your heart to it. The funny thing--and the films know this, too--is that beauty's difficult to see when it's your job (and not a chosen spiritual practice) to keep the floor clean. Or when all you think about is accumulating possessions. What should take precedence: change (work) or beauty (love)? And the usual whimsical Dörrie answer: You can't have one without the other.


"Straight Through the Heart: A Doris Dörrie Retrospective" starts Saturday at Walker Art Center and continues through July 27; (612) 375-7622.

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