Toni Erdmann ★★★½

Let’s start this review of one of the most difficult films to recommend by admitting critics and audiences around the world have been raving. It garnered great acclaim when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year (which may be partly because it came as a welcome respite among a crowd of grimmer, darker movies) and it must be said that Toni Erdmann, regardless of one’s predilection for broad visual comedy and bittersweet family drama, is an accomplished piece of art. But would you enjoy it? Well, let’s discuss.

First, and most importantly, don’t believe the publicity. This German Oscar nominee (for Best Foreign Film) is being touted as an uproarious comedy about a father who tries to reconnect with his distant daughter through a series of practical jokes and impersonations.

Plot-wise this is basically true, but tonally this description fails to warn that the humour ranges from dark to surreal to excruciating (and thus, for some, unfunny), the central relationship is actually full of truth and pain and not played for laughs, and the two and a half hour running time meanders through a series of discomforting mishaps and minor set-pieces towards a blow-your-mind finale which will have your eyes boggling as you squirm in your seat. As far as dark, boundary-pushing comedies go, The Intouchables this certainly ain’t.

To its credit, the film’s writer-director is a previously unheralded woman named Maren Ade who has clearly followed her very distinct vision for the film, and created something quite extraordinary and certainly brave. One of the best things about it is the incredibly naturalistic acting by all the performers, from the broken-hearted, well-meaning and undoubtedly frustrating titular father (Peter Simonischek) to the absolutely stunning Sandra Hüller as the daughter whose career aspirations are destroying her sense of self. Perhaps greatest kudos must go to Hüller’s beleaguered Ines for keeping a straight, tortured face as her father dons messy wigs, shambles about and over-relies on a set of gruesome false teeth to lighten the mood. It is Ines who prevents the film from being a farce (though goodness it comes close) and provides the backbone which makes it a worthy piece of storytelling.

But blimey, it’s a hard watch if you don’t find wigs and silly costumes remotely amusing. The script pushes buttons and boundaries, and if you can settle into its tonally-mixed groove early on, you may be enriched. But for a Sunday afternoon jaunt to take in some modern European cinema, Toni Erdmann may prove unsettling and dissatisfying. Does it sound like a bit of you?