If Tom Tykwer's unexpected art-house hit Run Lola Run was a breathless sprint, his followup, The Princess and the Warrior, is a daylong treasure hunt. It wanders, ponders, sprawls; it feels longer than its 130 minutes. You've heard of "real time" filming? Here, scenes achieve expando time.
The first shot steals from Breaking the Waves's interstitial still lifes: a long view, in dappled light, of a dirt road to a house by the sea. Seconds pass. You're still looking at a dirt road. You imagine Tykwer chuckling to himself: "I'm a short-attention-span-having, snapshot-taking, video-game-loving, one-trick pony, eh? Well, suck on this!" More time passes. You're still looking at a dirt road.
Which is not to say that Tykwer has turned into Hou Hsiao-hsien. Besides the road, The Princess and the Warrior features a pedestrian/truck collision, an emergency tracheotomy, a bank robbery, a psychiatric-ward murder, and a gas explosion, along with various whiz-bang camera techniques (though they're relatively subdued compared with Run Lola Run's "touch-'em all, Tommy!"). The movie's mysteries are tightly constructed, and they unwind very deliberately, if slowly. The slowness, too, is deliberate, self-conscious: It's all part of Tykwer's game.
Sissi (Franka Potente, a.k.a. Lola) is a quiet woman working and living in a psychiatric-care ward, where she has a couple of quietly bizarre relationships with patients. Bodo (a sullen Benno Fürmann), a former soldier, cries a lot for unknown reasons and performs petty theft at gas stations. When a truck hits Sissi, she spends innumerable minutes alone under the vehicle thinking about her struggle to breathe. (Does Germany not have police?) Then Bodo saves her. The film asks: Is his appearance a coincidence, or is it fate?
As she recovers, Sissi considers it destiny. She returns to the psychiatric hospital, only to recognize the isolation and suffocation of her former life. Again, she can't save herself; she must find Bodo. Bodo does not want to be found. He and his brother are planning a bank heist so they can move to Australia and hopefully leave Bodo's suicidal grief behind. When Sissi finds her savior, he pushes her down. (She gets pushed down a lot. Are we supposed to be inspired, as in Run Lola Run, by the fact that she keeps getting back up?) Sissi perseveres, inexorable as fate.
You could read Run Lola Run's rewind-and-play plot variations as a form of butterfly-wing chaos storytelling: See what divergent ends can result from minute alterations in timing or action.
But cinema is rarely if ever random, so there isn't a lot of drama to Sissi's conundrum: Of course her meeting with Bodo was scripted; of course their lives are tangled now forever. On one level, Sissi makes her own fate, through her relentlessness. On another, her choices were decided for her before the story began.
Because Tykwer is clever (and because we are postmodern), the film mocks the fatefulness that is built into film. Sissi says to a doubting Bodo: "Nothing is meaningless." And, in The Princess and the Warrior, nothing is. Everything that seems random at first--the house by the sea, Sissi's odd relationships with patients, Bodo's series of gas-station thefts--is returned to and picked up like a stitch, until you see that all things are connected, and absurdly so. Like Snatch, the film ticks on like a perfect timepiece: no stray parts. The watch is slow in this case: The characters have been slow to forge forward in their lives, slow to "shit or get off the pot," as a recurring joke would have it. Indeed, Bodo is so slow to change that he eventually gets left behind. Sort of.
Run Lola Run begins with the intimation that life is a game, and ends by proving that the movie certainly is. The Princess and the Warrior represents yet another game in which the adroit play outweighs the significance. What's left of Tykwer's film after you appreciate the whirring, interlocking parts, and the amused presence of the creator above it all? Tykwer has said that his movie celebrates the healing power of love. Yet, within such slow machinery, the principals move more like puppets than lovers. Bodo, in particular, plays such a passive role that Tykwer finally has to invent a sly visual device to (unconvincingly) complete the character arc.
Franka Potente's wild-eyed determination made Run Lola Run worth seeing, and here she again provides a bit of an emotional anchor. Her Sissi is at first appealingly generous and naively sensual: It's no wonder the male psychiatric patients are in love with her (though the jealousy of the female patients didn't need to be laid on quite so thick). When Sissi herself decides to love, Potente conveys all the self-righteous willfulness of the inexperienced lover who assumes that her beloved will fall in with her plan. Meanwhile, her tentative, arms-out-for-balance gait reveals the story of her strangely insular childhood before she relates it.
The other actors, mostly playing mental-ward patients, work the material as best they can. Unfortunately, Tykwer doesn't provide much more than stock crazies, including an oracle, an obsessive lover, a sad progenitor, and someone whose mad reaction to a mad world is sane. Perhaps the director is mocking these standards even as he samples them--but I didn't get the impression that he had given them much thought.
And for all Sissi's focus on meaningfulness, Tykwer doesn't seem to have given much thought to what his movie means, either. Love conquers all? You could say that the opposite is argued more often and more clearly (e.g., Bodo's grief, his brother's misbegotten robbery plan, the madly obsessive lover). People create fate--by granting meaning to actions and events? Not via this overprogrammed scenario. Tom Tykwer is one smart dude? Sure, and clever is as clever does. The game is all? Maybe, but this spectator is wishing for a less predictable outcome--and higher stakes.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.