Troubled romance in slow-burning ‘What We Wanted’

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 2:39pm

NOSELL

Netflix

Based on a short story by Peter Stamm, “What We Wanted” lends a peek into the lives of Niklas (Elyas M’Barek, “Who Am I”) and Alice (Lavinia Wilson, “Hey Bunny”), a young Viennese couple who are having trouble conceiving. After the fourth failed cycle of in vitro fertilization, the pair decides to take a short vacation in Sardinia, seeking a few days in the sun to recharge and reconnect. They arrive at the resort and move into a villa with a back garden looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. The mood of their arrival is soured somewhat by the child’s bed mistakenly and almost mockingly placed beside their own in the bedroom. Unfortunately, this was only the first of many pains Alice would feel over the coming days.

Their relaxation is quickly interrupted as the occupants of the neighbouring villa, an attractive couple, Christl (Anna Unterberger, “200 Meters”) and Romed (Lukas Spisser, “The Eremites”), with their two children, 17-year-old David (Fedor Teyml) and maybe-four-year-old Denise (Iva Höpperger), loudly unload their Audi. The villas’ adjacent backyards are barely separated, and only by vegetation. There is much coming and going, and Alice is forced to interact with the family she wishes she could have. Denise takes a particular liking to Alice, who is remarkably maternal to the neighbors’ children, even the withdrawn and unhappy David.

Confronted with the life she would like to have, Alice is only further hurt by the need to compete for Niklas’s attention. Christl has a habit of sunning topless in the back garden, and Niklas is drawn to Romed’s masculine energy. As it becomes clear that Alice and Niklas had imagined different vacations, it is too late to remedy the situation. After a protracted development, the film’s prolonged climax is two-pronged when a dinner party has consequences for both families.

Despite a great deal of time dedicated to character development, little clicks into place when a crucial event from the early days of Alice and Niklas’s relationship is revealed. In truth, the only character with significant interiority is Alice, and her multidimensionality is out of place among shallower characters. Much of the film’s exposition is expendable, as is the subplot of Alice and Niklas constructing their new home. The metaphor is not lost on the viewer (inability to conceive and a troubled marriage reflected in construction issues and budgetary concerns), but it does not contribute much to on-screen dynamics. 

In fact, the most dynamic on-screen relationship is between Alice and Denise. Alice’s pain coexists with a deeply kind and maternal affinity for the young girl, who herself is able to intuit Alice’s melancholy. Yet this relationship is one of many, and this film is constructed atop a web of relationships. Christl and Romed, Romed and Niklas, Niklas and Alice, even Alice and a resort employee (Marta Manduca, “Agadah”). Across all, intimacy is strained in one way or another. 

“What We Wanted” reluctantly builds to a climax that, while interesting, causes the families’ paths to sharply diverge rather than further intertwine. The denouement is swift and arguably a bit cliched, with a tacit return to the site of a bittersweet memory. The premise would make for a fantastic Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) production, but as directed by Ulrike Kofler (“Wir fliegen”), the film is flaccid and forgettable. 

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.


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