‘Amnesia’ stumbles on drama but doesn’t forget romance

So few films chronicle the courtship of a younger man and an older woman that I’m inclined to overrate Amnesia. This sun-drenched movie stars Marthe Keller and Max Remelt as the couple: she an expatriate living in Ibiza who has resolved to purge anything German from her past, including the language; he as a deejay who styles himself DJ Gello, interweaving field recordings into his electronic compositions. But Amnesia, set in the year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and before the re-unification of Germany, is about more than the flirtation, and, alas, much less. Despite the setting and attractive cast, Amnesia is too skimpily written to follow through on its themes.

For its first hour, Amnesia hums along on amiability and salted air. In a classic meet-cute, Jo (Remelt) wanders over to Martha’s house seeking help for a burn. Her cure (aloe vera) and insistence on speaking English despite her heavy German accent surprise him. So does the discovery that her house has no electricity and she likes it that way. This scene precipitates an intimacy no less fervent for maintaining an almost ascetic sense of tact. Shirking from speaking her native language isn’t Martha’s only peccadillo; her lips won’t even touch a Riesling until Jo coaxes her, as if she were a shy foal. Their relationship deepens against the backdrop of the hilly, endless blue landscape of these Mediterranean islands, a series of grateful transactions. Martha gives Jo, who can’t swim, confidence in fishing skiffs; Jo shows her how a digital sampler works. Luciano Tivoli’s camera follows Jo as he steals upon Martha playing the cello; Tivoli captures this moment as if Jo had stumbled on Martha undressing. Her mournful part eventually finding a home in one of Jo’s pieces

The disruption of an idyll has proven a fascinating theme in many films, and there’s courage in tonal shifts, especially in a movie as brief as Amnesia. But director Barbet Schroeder and his co-scenarists include a needless side plot involving men who want to buy the house leased by Martha. Then, to dramatize how German expatriates deal with war guilt, Bruno Ganz appears as Jo’s beloved grandfather. If Amnesia had Academy Award ambitions, they rest with Ganz, who delivers a monologue, at Martha’s urging, that after ten minutes shows the depths of his self-delusion about what he did under the Nazis. An awards showcase the scene remains, though, and its poignancy depends on audiences remembering that Ganz played Adolf Hitler as a sniveling loser in 2005’s Downfall. Schroeder rushes him offstage and we’re back to the Jo-Martha romance.

The Swiss director has specialized in films about self-styled outcasts (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Our Lady of the Assassins). The spirt of Eric Rohmer’s earliest films, with their delicate approximations of the interplay between light and air, infuses Amnesia. It’s not that the film isn’t as deep as it wants to be; it’s that I don’t think Schroeder wanted it to cut that deeply to begin with (a script with an abundance of awkward dialogue, e.g. “If you’re going to have a dream, at least believe in it,” doesn’t help).

Still, the couple at its center are charm incarnate. Keller, known best by American audiences for her role in  1976’s Marathon Man, plays a woman comfortable with a spartan life but willing to court possibilities. Remelt is ultimate boyfriend material. Schroeder choreographs their winsome pas de deux into a lovely final moment that is Jamesian in its use of resignation for erotic frisson.

GRADE:  B

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