She Came to Me | 2023 Berlin Film Festival Review
Guilty of Romance: Miller Weaves a Wacky and Disarmingly Charming Love Tapestry
To those who think the possibilities of heartfelt romantic comedies dried up in the formulaic ether ages ago, look no further than the bewitching She Came to Me from Rebecca Miller, her sixth, and by far, kookiest, offering to date. In essence, she presents a series of woefully neurotic characters who coincide and collide in ways which sound perilously contrived on paper, and not unlike grinning through the insufferable idiosyncrasies of a first date, there’s some patience involved in warming up to them. But the payoff is considerably pleasing in ways which bolster the strengths of its characters rather than crippling them at the finish line to satisfy unstated requirements for a happy ending.
In fact, it’s not so much a happy ending, but a reasonably bittersweet and sobering one, speaking to the necessity of following our own feelings rather than convention. It’s shaggy eared and zany and utterly aware of its oddball nature, and while never quite a classic screwball comedy, it generates the same heart swells of the madcap templates generated by a Howard Hawks or a Preston Sturges.
Steven (Peter Dinklage), a noted composer, is struggling from writer’s block on his latest opera, the success of which will determine being awarded a major commission. Though he’s supported by his Type A wife, Patricia (Anne Hathaway), a psychiatrist whose obsession with cleanliness prognosticates her own emotional dilemma, Steven’s ennui following a nervous breakdown five years prior can’t seem to dissipate. A chance liaison with Katrina (Marisa Tomei), a tugboat captain from Louisiana addicted to romance, inspires him to write an opera about her as a sea witch who seduces men and cannibalizes them. Meanwhile, Patricia’s son Julian (Evan Ellison) is head over heels in love with Tereza (Harlow Jane), the daughter of their new cleaning lady, Magdalena (Joanna Kulig). When her mother discovers erotic photographs of Tereza, she shows them to her stepfather, Trey, (Brian d’Arcy James), a court stenographer preoccupied in his hobby with Civil War reenactments. Trey’s own repressed interests in Tereza influence him to threaten statutory rape charges against Julian, since he’s eighteen and two years her senior. As both families grapple with a mixture of adultery, betrayal and potential court proceedings, Steven pools his resources for an unorthodox solution.
What nearly all of the adult characters have in common here is their realization they’ve been repressing their actual feelings, whether it be for their relationship, occupation or economical necessity. They’re the rhythms we all fall into, allowing us to ignore those nagging yearnings, which, if explored, will disrupt, sometimes to strengthen through change or even inspire the dissolution of an unhealthy facade. So it’s no mistake the dramatic catalyst which throws everyone’s world out of whack here is by Steven being actively challenged to break his rhythm. What begins as something in the vein of a Nicole Holofcener study suddenly feels like Christopher Durang took a jackhammer to this universe, and before you know it, an obsessive tugboat captain played effortlessly by Marisa Tomei inspires an opera, someone’s nervous breakdown, and one of the most poignant ‘marriage as salvation’ moments between a man and a woman conceived in quite some time.
Dinklage’s entertainingly lachrymose composer is allowed to stage two impressive and ultimately romantic operas so corny they’re endearing, while a strangely intoxicating chemistry builds with Tomei. Anne Hathaway, who recently unleashed an equally captivating performance in William Oldroyd’s Eileen (2023), has the harder task of selling a woman so uptight and rigid we have to buy her religious expiation which stops just short of self-flagellation—-and yet, she fits into this gangly puzzle of people who might have once desired what they have, but have long denied something else, something more fulfilling in the first place.
It’s the teens, played by Harlow Jane and Evan Ellison, who’ve already read the writing on the wall, and recognize the probability of growing out of their love even as it’s what they undeniably feel. In essence, love isn’t not guaranteed and is certainly not infinite, but the communication of these changes, of authentic desires, is where building a prosperous relationship begins. Certainly, it’s not all completely perfect, as Brian d’Arcy James remains a one-dimensional villain whose soul deadening talents as a court stenographer commingle queasily with his devotion to being a Civil War reenactor. The sweet and clear-eyed Joanna Kulig’s Magadelena seems consistently sold short by being with him in the first place, but Miller uses the briefest of moments to suggest the actual problem is his attraction to his adopted daughter, whose body he’d rather control and manipulate rather than allow her to have sex with a person of color. But it’s how these ragtag assembly of misfits are conceived and connected which ultimately allows She Came to Me a level of seductive potency long-lacking in anything resembling a romantic comedy, at least one allowing for the realism of how desire is more of a tool of control and manipulation than it is of fulfillment or release. The bottom line is, you should trust your feelings and realize they change, just like everything else does, in response to the inescapable realities of life.
Reviewed on February 16th at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival – Berlinale Special Gala. 102 mins.