Friday, April 08, 2016

KINO! NYC ’16: Me and Kaminski

Sebastien Zöllner is no Boswell, that’s for sure. His prospective subject, Manuel Kaminski, was no Picasso either, but for a while it looked like he might come close. Time has since largely forgotten the contemporary of Matisse and company, but he is ripe for rediscovery. He just needs to die first. Zöllner is determined to have his definitive biography ready for exactly that moment. To do so, he must worm his way into the artist’s confidence. It is a rather ghoulish undertaking, but fortunately Zöllner completely lacks self-awareness. The art world elite will do their best to humble the impossibly self-centered twit in Wolfgang Becker’s Me and Kaminski (trailer here), which screens during KINO! 2016, the German Film Festival in New York.

Zöllner has alienated just about everyone he has ever met, including his long-suffering live-in girlfriend-meal ticket Elke, but somehow he thinks he can charm Kaminski and his protective grown daughter Miriam into allowing him exclusive access. There was a time when Kaminski’s celebrity rivaled that of Warhol. Frankly, it was not because the masses embraced his work, but because they found his progressive blindness so compelling. However, Zöllner believes he has the mother of all scoops to spring on the intelligentsia: Kaminski never went blind. He just has to prove it.

Miriam Kaminski considers Zöllner a potentially useful tool, but she is determined to tightly control his time with her father. Unfortunately, the pseudo-journalist is more tenacious and duplicitous than she bargained for. Much to her concern, Zöllner manages to whisk Kaminski away on an ill-conceived road trip to visit the lost love of his life. Of course, it will be greatly complicated by Zöllner’s clumsiness and gross negligence.

Based on Daniel Kehlmann’s novel, Me and K is cleverly conceived and often quite witty, but it features one of the most annoying and utterly loathsome protagonist you will ever find carrying a film. Everything about Zöllner makes you want to hurt him. In his perversely defiant performance, Daniel Brühl seems to go out of his way to emphasize his every cringe-inducing foible and flaw. Granted, it is rather impressive, but in an exhausting, good will-sapping kind of way.

Jesper Christensen’s work is far more predictable as the gruff but sensitive Kaminski. He is supposed to be an eccentric mystery man, but we pretty much know his story right from the start. However, there are some terrific supporting turns that give the film some real color and seasoning. Amira Casar’s Miriam Kaminski is wonderfully elegant and regally unamused, while the late Jacques Herlin is delightfully sly as Dominik Silva, Kaminski’s down-on-his-luck former patron. However, Geraldine Chaplin really delivers the film’s poignant kicker as Therese, the one that got away.

Throughout the film, Becker uses John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” as a recurring motif, but this is probably a mistake, considering how closely many cineastes associate the composition with Luca Guadagnino’s infinitely more lush and passionate I Am Love. Becker also displays a distinctive visual sensibility, but he just cannot compete with the sweep and style of Guadagnino’s masterwork. Still, he manages to wrap it all up in a satisfyingly intelligent manner. Recommended despite some reservations (specifically, Brühl’s clammy performance as the unfathomably abrasive Zöllner), Me and Kaminski screens this afternoon (4/8) and the following Thursday (4/14) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s KINO! In New York.