With or Without You
By Eric Hynes
Dir. Maren Ade, Germany, Cinema Guild
[This article contains spoilers. ]
Couples come to life. Couples develop a language. Couples keep company. Couples can find and provide support, comfort, and protection. Couples can harbor, create and define happiness. Couples share a past and live for the future. Couples make, feel and define love. // Couples also forget how to love, and forget how to feel. Couples can regret the past and dread the future. Couples can harbor, create, and define misery. Couples can expose, neglect, and degrade. Couples make lonely. Couples develop a language of resentment and hostility. Couples come undone.
Itâ€™s as a couple that we come to know Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger), the two main characters of Maren Adeâ€™s Everyone Else. Their individuality arises from within couplehood, rather than the other way aroundâ€”or rather than separate from it. But the more we learn about them, the more they seem to strain against the boundaries of togetherness. The central tensionâ€”in a film defined by frictionsâ€”is whether Gitti and Chris are better off together or apart. Everyone Else holds absolutely nothing back yet still leaves that tension unresolved, and itâ€™s as good a filmic Rorschach as youâ€™ll ever see: one is tempted to speak of the film with shoulder-shrugging clichĂ©s about the irrationality, impossibility, cruelty, and fickleness of romantic love or about the intertwined dance of love and hate. But the events of Everyone Else are simultaneously too uniquely banal and too irreducibly profound for those handles. In its own wild wayâ€”and precisely because of its wildnessâ€”Adeâ€™s film is a perfectly complete portrait of romantic entanglement. Being on the inside can be brutal, but few things are as worthy of the trouble.
As the film begins, Gitti and Chris are passing pleasant days in Chrisâ€™s motherâ€™s Sardinian summerhouse. They babysit Chrisâ€™s sisterâ€™s kids, lounge by the pool, take afternoon naps and make mascots of ginger snaps. Their differences are apparentâ€”heâ€™s inward, quiet, and faintly noble, while sheâ€™s emotive and earthyâ€”yet complementary. But mutual annoyances quickly make themselves known. Gitti canâ€™t sit still. When Chris retreats to the quiet of a book, she gets restless and pesky. Chris tends to kill joyful moments with waves of mopey self-doubt. He not so silently disapproves of her watching TV, and she thinks he takes himself too seriously. Whenever each is feeling vulnerable, the other offers comfort but also a bit of malice. He worries over his masculinity, and then she praises his prettiness. She says she loves him, and as if to avoid both appeasement and clichĂ©, he refuses to say the same. Subtly, and without Ade formally privileging either party, we see Gitti through Chrisâ€™s judgmental eyes. Then over time we feel that gaze, identify with Gitti, and look anew at Chris. Yet on second viewing, with plot expectations aside, the above can just as easily be reversed. Each of the characters is dominant, and each is subject. Everyone Else works as well as it does because it witnesses an even fight.
After a bloody encounter with a glass door, Chris spends a day on the couch with a bandage stuck to his forehead and his thoughts sifting through his life and future. When Gitti returns from an excursion, he wants to talk. â€śItâ€™s so silly, how I live,â€ť he says, and she freestyles a long rejoinder about his idealism, his fear of failure, and why they should just take a chance and move in together. When she finishes he looks at her with contempt. â€śWhy do you think you know me so well?â€ť
By now weâ€™ve learned that heâ€™s an architect and sheâ€™s a music publicist, and can infer that Chris is the more educated and moneyed of the two (his family has a house in Sardinia, after all). She doesnâ€™t really get what he does, and he in turn doesnâ€™t seem particularly interested in what she does. The latter isnâ€™t so much of a problem, as Gittiâ€™s sense of self seems independent from what she does for a living, but the former is no small matter. In a later scene she says, â€śI donâ€™t care if youâ€™re not successful,â€ť not realizing that instead of comforting Chris sheâ€™s exposing their incompatibility. Chris canâ€™t live with himself if he doesnâ€™t succeed professionally and artistically, and her unconditional acceptance threatens to hold him back.
Our sympathies shift when Chrisâ€™s impatience starts to resemble condescension, which becomes most apparent when two new characters invade their idyll. At the supermarket they first avoid and then greet Chrisâ€™s old friend and fellow architect, a hulking Julian Schnabel type named Hans (Hans-Jochen Wagner), and his Crystal Galeâ€“haired girlfriend Sana (Nicole Marischka). They agree to have dinner at Hansâ€™s place, where they drink champagne, talk about architecture and design, and watch the small fractures in their relationship split wide open. Facing this self-satisfied yet admiring colleague, and eyeing his porcelain-prettyâ€”and pregnantâ€”partner, Chris shows a self-doubt eclipsed by envy, aspiration, and a sudden revulsion for Gitti, who tries to defend Chris against Hans but mistakes collegial encouragement for belittlement. Chris repays her by unleashing his inner Haneke. â€śYouâ€™re so embarrassing,â€ť he says.
Considering the mathâ€”strictly twos and foursâ€”itâ€™s a miracle that Adeâ€™s scenes donâ€™t come off as acting exercises. The world comes crashing down and then rises up again all within a dinner conversation, and then again in a day hike, and then again and againâ€”but Minichmayr and Eidinger are so fully present for every second of screen time that thereâ€™s no stepping back to admire the strain. Which is not to claim that performance isnâ€™t happening, or that the actors are somehow realer than real, but simply that narrative and character progression never yield to scene-making. Considering the intensity of what transpires in those scenes, Everyone Else (and not the futon films of Swanberg & Sons) merits comparison to the work of John Cassavetes, in which the momentum of life similarly pushed characters from one unbearably honest moment to the next.
Like Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence, Gitti stifles herself and retreats inward, appeasing Chris and hating him for letting her do it. â€śSometimes I want so badly to be different for you,â€ť she says, and he never really protests. So she buys a bourgeois dress, cooks a proper meal, and plays the role of docile wife when Hans and Sana come over for a retry. Chris is slow to recognize her sacrifice, and by unknowingly forsaking her for these bourgie pigs he risks destroying whatever love she has left. The real Gitti returns before the night is through, yet now sheâ€™s motivated by anger rather than joy. She pulls a knife on Sara, leaps from a window unnoticed (echoing a daydream that Chris recounted earlier in the film), and fucks Chris goodbye precisely when he feels most committed to her. Itâ€™s never clear if these people should be togetherâ€”I flipped from no to yes from one viewing to the nextâ€”but in this climactic dinner party actions and reactions rapidly outdistance wants or intentions, as if the relationship were a slippery fish eluding hands and vanishing downstream. The relationship may be ending, and maybe it should be ending, but a sudden demise can still feel like a cheat, or like a tragedy.
For a few moments during the dinner party sequence, Everyone Else elevates from an uncommonly wise, collaboratively masterful film about couplehoodâ€”indeed, itâ€™s among the best ever madeâ€”to something unspeakably sublime. The drunken foursome lounge in Chrisâ€™s momâ€™s kitschy birdcage room (glass birds hang from a white porcelain tree) as a saccharine German torch song plays on a rack stereo system. Hans puts the song on randomly and exults with ironic appreciation. Sana, the very embodiment of high class, goes girlish, revealing that she used to adore the singer, Herbert GrĂ¶nemeyer. While the men groan, Sana looks to Gitti to commiserate, but Gittiâ€™s too preoccupied with this violation of Chrisâ€™s momâ€™s sanctum (during an earlier visit, she endures Chrisâ€™s interpretive dance to Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelsonâ€™s â€śTo All the Girls Iâ€™ve Loved Beforeâ€ťâ€”she also retreats here when Chris stays out all night drinking). But the song continues to play. The camera settles on a two-shot of Chris and Gitti, with him standing at left, looking back at her while she sits against the wall. â€śI love you so, so much,â€ť GrĂ¶nemeyer sings. â€śMore than you realize.â€ť For a moment it seems theyâ€™re alone together, and the lyrics bounce between them, a borrowed, sentimental language of true feeling. Then Hans stops the music. â€śI canâ€™t take it anymore,â€ť he says off-screen, as the camera (Bernhard Kellerâ€™s cinematography is an invisible force of geometric relational articulation throughout) hangs on Chris and Gitti for a moment longer. Then Hans enters from the right and disrupts the frame, and the moment, and perhaps the couple, is broken. Events speed up again, things happen as they will, and that brief convergence of kitsch feels more and more like the bleeding heart of the film.