About a quarter of the way into Angela Schanelec’s new film, “The Dreamed Path,” a young man named Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) administers a dose of morphine to his mother as she lies sick and dying in bed. Even with more than half of the remaining picture to go, you’ll wish he’d spare a taste for you, too. “The Dreamed Path” is a movie at odds with itself, a breathtaking work of measured formalism and agonizing monotone; Schanelec’s technical chops are peerless, but her tonal sensibility is a drag. Either the film is dreary, or dry, or too much the same, though it’s usually all three at once. In the rare moments when it’s divorced of its uniformity, it’s quite as striking as you might expect a film by a veteran director with thirty years’ experience to be.
But the glimmers of aesthetic pleasure that ripple throughout “The Dreamed Path” just highlight its tedium. Ever seen a film or TV show stage a satire of European arthouse cinema as tediously flat with a surplus of excessive ennui? (For reference, think of the Le Film Artistique sequence in “500 Days of Summer.”) That’s “The Dreamed Path,” except that it’s intended to be taken seriously. Not that there’s any other way to take it, of course, because if you boil the film down to a single word, that word is almost assuredly “serious.” But “The Dreamed Path” is serious to its own detriment, somber, even, downright funereal at times, too, and on behalf of its sedation it demands that we regard it as meaningful.
The conflation between import and sobriety adds an element of unintended self-parody to the film’s dual-pronged narrative, which begins in 1984 and skips ahead three decades to realign its focus to a different set of characters than the ones Schanelec first acquaints us with. Kenneth, an Englishman is one of our two commencing protagonists, alongside Theres (Miriam Jakob), a young German woman; we meet them busking their way through Greece, singing their own lilting and sweethearted versions of songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” They observe as Greek youths make an impassioned protest about their country’s position within the European Union; afterwards, Kenneth calls home and nearly collapses upon hearing of his mother’s failing health. He returns to England. Theres goes back to Germany. No more need be said than that.
Schanelec restrains herself from dramatizing their split, carrying out the unspoken development with buttoned-up frankness before vaulting to present day Berlin, where actress Ariane (Maren Eggert) is actively bent on leaving her husband, David (Phil Hayes). If the first chapter of “The Dreamed Path” is theatrically unforthcoming, then the second is mum by comparison. There’s less said here, maybe less to say, or less that’s worth saying; early on Kenneth laments, “I’m a believer, but my god doesn’t help me,” suggesting that the world of “The Dreamed Path” is one that the divine has abandoned, or has at least chosen to neglect. In this, we find some thematic texture: cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, Schanelec’s steadfast collaborator dating back to the earliest days of her career, likes to shoot on high, angling his lens down from the heavens to mimic the eyes of the Almighty.
Funny enough, we never see anyone pray to the deity of their choosing, but we get the gist: any such prayers would just go unanswered, by God, by Vorschneider, by Schanelec. Kenneth digs a grave for his mother in the woods; horses trot around a lakeshore as Ariane watches from a hilltop. It sounds appealing on paper, and in truth the caliber of the craftsmanship in “The Dreamed Path” is almost recommendation enough to gamble on the film’s doldrums. It’s a sharp-looking movie told in abstraction, which makes its level of clarity all the more startling. If Schanelec loses you, it won’t be for lack of comprehension. It’ll be for lack of interest.
The problem with “The Dreamed Path” is that Schanelec holds a single note for eighty minutes. That’s the kind of artistic ambition that legends are made of. B.B. King could kill a man with one note, as he did Jonny Lang in a fingerpicking contest from ages past, besting the young guitarist by wringing pure sonic majesty out of a single strum. Them’s the blues. Pulling off the same feat in the context of filmmaking is entirely its own challenge, one that “The Dreamed Path” isn’t up to. Schenalac can’t sustain the note, and ends up squelching it. Woebegone ruminations on both spiritual and physical death, on the real and intangible barriers that separate us, and on Europe’s jaded political landscape need more than great construction. They need finesse. [C]