In The Carriers Are Waiting, Benoit Poelvoorde, the charismatic killer in Man Bites Dog, plays an altogether different and perhaps more problematic monster. Well-meaning but far from harmless, Roger Closset is a chronic dreamer whose outsize fantasies have a way of seeming touching one moment and terrifying the next. A tabloid photographer in a small Belgian industrial town, Roger is also a hotheaded boor, who gets his irrational schemes off the ground by browbeating his family—an exasperated wife, a morose teenage son, a watchful younger daughter. All worked up about a local competition offering a new car to anyone who breaks a world record, Roger decides that his visibly torpid son Michel should train to become a champion . . . door-opener.
Shot in luminous black and white, The Carriers Are Waiting is mainly pitched in a mournful deadpan, though first-time director Benoit Mariage, a former photojournalist, is equally comfortable puncturing the glumness with bursts of hilarity or pushing it to the brink of full-scale tragedy. He has a flair for offhand, outlandishly absurd detail (Michel hosts a radio show devoted to continuity errors in movies) and an acute feel for the comedy of embarrassment—the particularly mortifying form that only parents can inflict on their children. Mariage takes his time and allows the film to drift in an almost ostentatiously casual manner; that the result is neither flimsy nor indulgent has much to do with the young daughter, Luise, played by Margane Simon (the title, incidentally, refers to the shy, slow pigeon breeder next door whom Luise befriends, a subplot left mercifully underdeveloped). Surrounded by pushovers and nutjobs yet improbably serene and resilient, Luise is the movie’s center of gravity, its Lisa Simpson. Riding on the back of her dad’s motorbike as he rushes from one ambulance-chasing gig to another, her steady but perceptibly sad gaze provides the film with its most enduring image.
Made a year before his recent art-house smash Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer’s Winter Sleepers is similarly preoccupied with fate, chance, and cosmic hocus-pocus. But if Lola was a breathless, mindless blur of perpetual forward motion, Winter Sleepers approximates nothing so much as a slow deep freeze. Tykwer’s slick pop moves and calculating hipster gestures are in evidence (show-offy camera, prominent electronic score), but mainly, this earlier film revels in a chilly grandeur. In fact, pivoting on an accident that reverberates through a Bavarian mountain village, it carries echoes of The Sweet Hereafter. Less fortunately, it also slogs through the romantic travails of its thirtyish characters with the soapy solipsism of generic Sundance product.
Constructed with more attention to geometry than anything else, the narrative links four village residents: lughead ski instructor Marco (Heino Ferch); his girlfriend Becky (Floraine Daniel), a romance-paperback translator; her roommate Laura (Mari-Lou Sellem), a nurse and amateur actress; and René (Ulrich Matthes), a movie projectionist with short-term memory loss. One night René steals Marco’s car and gets into aforementioned accident, the young victim of which is tended to at the hospital by Laura, who shortly after starts dating René. The film looks terrific—harsh, clean winter light on vast, pristine snowscapes—but Tykwer, an upstart Kieslowski, fetishizes the role of coincidence in narrative (or, depending on how you look at it, assigns hollow meaning to mundane connections) with no real purpose in mind. Despite the visually dramatic conclusion—a figure in infinite free fall—Winter Sleepers is a cheat. The movie unfolds in a shroud of nonspecific suggestiveness but never emerges from under it.