To a certain audience, the return of Philip Gröning is big news. The German director has been working for twenty years or so, but his last film, 2005’s “Into Great Silence,” a documentary about the Carthesian monks of the French Alps, really saw him win recognition, becoming a favorite on the festival circuit and winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. It’s taken eight years, but Gröning has returned, and not just with a new film, but with his first fiction feature in thirteen years in the shape of “The Police Officer’s Wife,” which screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival today.
The first thing that catches your attention is the film’s distinctive structure: it’s divided into 59 chapters, varying from seven or eight minutes to barely ten seconds in duration, with a fade in and out, and announced by a “Start Of Chapter X” and “End of Chapter X” title. Start of sentence five. As you can imagine, it’s a technique that has its pros and cons. End of sentence five. Start of sentence six. On the one hand, it lends a certain suspense and variety to proceedings, so you’re always a little intrigued to know what the next segment holds. End of sentence six. Start of sentence seven. It also helps to create a curious rhythm that, in places, verges on the hypnotic. End of sentence seven. Start of sentence eight. At the same time, as you’re probably discovering right now, it’s also distancing, sometimes enervating, and kills whatever momentum Gröning might have built up in the story, and as a result, you feel every second of that 175-minute runtime. End of sentence eight.
It’s certainly more than a gimmick (unlike the previous paragraph). The film’s clearly been designed from the ground up to tell its story via these sketches, focusing on the marriage between a provincial policeman, Uwe (David Zimmerschied, who looks like he could be a German cousin of the Gleeson family), and his wife Christine (Alexandra Finder), and of the effect it has on their toddler-aged daughter Clara (impressively played by twins Pia and Chiara Kleemann). By getting these somewhat abstracted, self-sufficient glimpses, we build up a picture of Uwe’s obsessive protectiveness, his quick temper, his physical abuse, and the way that Clara begins to witness the abuse in the household.
As you might expect from Gröning’s last film, or have guessed from the plot details above, it’s spare, austere stuff, lensed with a documentarian’s eye, often from above, from angles that bring to mind CCTV or, perhaps, some kind of higher power (not an interventionist one, clearly). There are moments of beauty (shots of a stream are a recurring motif), effective and affecting moments of observation (Uwe’s stonefaced photography of a horrific and fatal car crash goes a long way towards explaining some of his actions) and even surreal touches.
And some of these scenes are among the most powerful things we’ve seen on screen this year. A mesmeric shot of Christine and Clara in an oversized bathtub is still haunting 24 hours later, while the first reveal of Christine’s horrific bruising comes cannily during a playful water fight that sees the couple at their happiest. For a good chunk of the film, we did find it absorbing and powerful, if a little patience-testing.
And yet as the closing stretches, it becomes clear that it’s not going to amount to all that much. Gröning might be documenting this kind of abusive relationship in incisive detail, but he doesn’t have anything particularly revelatory to say. Domestic violence is a terrible thing? Few in their right minds would argue against that. It can lead to worse crimes? That’s pretty much a given. It can have a poisonous effect on children growing up in that environment? Absolutely. But it feels mostly likely the filmmaker’s preaching to the choir, and that the conclusion was inevitable and tragic doesn’t automatically make it meaningful.
Perhaps worse, for a film called “The Police Officer’s Wife,” it doesn’t present much in the way of shading for its title character. Uwe is an admirably complex figure, capable of great love and generosity one moment, and terrible violence the next. But Christine is never glimpsed as anything other than a victim or a mother, and that seems to be something of a fatal flaw for a film with the intentions of this one. For a film with so many parts—many of which are terrific on a standalone basis—their sum ends up not amounting to all that much. [C+]