Nicolette Krebitz established her interest in pushing the boundaries of conventional screen love stories with 2016’s Wild, about a young woman seeking escape from constricting social norms through her steamy rapport with a wolf. The German writer-director continues more or less in that vein with a May-December romance that’s no less seemingly absurd in AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love. But Adrian and Anna, the troubled youth and the middle-aged actress who meet cute when he mugs her outside a Berlin bar, are no Harold and Maude. Not that the revered Hal Ashby model was necessarily what Krebitz had in mind. But what exactly she did have in mind remains unclear.
It’s all very well to upend audience expectations with characters who operate according to their own unorthodox rules, but that requires at least a credible kernel of truth. Droll character-driven material like this demands a fine balance of tenderness, humor and eccentricity, as achieved by Maren Ade — one of the producers here — in Toni Erdmann, which remains the gold standard for unclassifiable recent German relationship comedies. Actress-turned-director Krebitz doesn’t have the same command; her material more often feels strained and cutesy.
AEIOU — A Quick Alphabet of Love
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Anna (Sophie Rois) is facing professional obsolescence at 60, her acting roles have dried up, reduced to thankless radio plays with disrespectful collaborators. She’s feeling disheartened from one such job when 17-year-old Adrian (Milan Herms) snatches her bag and bolts, leaving her stunned and shaken as a friend chases down the mugger and retrieves her bag in a dynamic action sequence that has little to do with the rest of the movie’s tone.
Krebitz shakes up the narrative chronology and glides over some of the connective tissue, so it’s a bit of a jump when Anna starts giving lessons in her home to correct the speech impediment of Adrian (hence the vowels of the terrible title), who has come up through the foster-care system. Despite her reservations about this new role, she proves a natural at teaching and he’s such an excellent student you wonder if he ever really had a problem. Her task is to prepare him for a school theater performance.
The unlikely pair begin to relax around each other, even if they’re still figuring out how they fit together. The changes in Anna are observed by her indulgent landlord Michel (Udo Kier in an under-developed role), who appears to take vicarious pleasure in his dear friend’s new adventures. She lights up when her student brings her a pair of budgerigars, and the sight of the parakeets fluttering around the room Anna reserves for lessons clearly prefigures romantic developments. (Though can we please have a moratorium on Nina Simone singing “Here Comes the Sun” to signal bliss?)
When Adrian continues bringing Anna gifts, obviously stolen, she seems flattered but still unsure, telling him he’s too attached and needs to get a girlfriend his own age. He takes the rejection hard but his tears prove enough to overcome her hesitation.
The action then shifts in a tonally jarring lurch to the Côte d’Azur, where they travel by train and embark on a pickpocketing spree, swim naked at night in the Mediterranean and consummate their relationship. But when Adrian starts robbing luxury seafront hotels, the odd couple earn the attention of a local police inspector (Nicolas Bridet), who threatens to put an end to their union.
The idea of two defiant nonconformists on a romantic caper is bolstered to some degree by Anna’s voiceover narration, but this device is simultaneously overused and too intermittent to give the clunky film much binding. The light touch needed to buoy the escapist fantasy isn’t quite there in Krebitz’s flat-footed direction. It’s commendable that the film — like the more assured Berlin entry, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande — insists we see a middle-aged female protagonist as a vibrant sexual being. But the central relationship never feels convincingly inhabited, despite game work from theater veteran Rois and appealing newcomer Herms.