With seven features already to her credit, Angela Schanelec can’t exactly be designated a “new” talent, but her latest, The Dreamed Path, certainly feels like something brazenly, mystifyingly new in international cinema. On one hand, the film wears a skin of Bressonian austerity—dutifully withheld character exposition, an emphasis on pared-down bodily gestures as opposed to dialogue, sturdily selective Academy ratio framings—that’s been more or less in vogue in the highbrow factions of the festival circuit for some time. On the other, the particular articulation of these tropes in The Dreamed Path operates so unapologetically on Schanelec’s own wavelength that the film risks, even invites, utter bewilderment on first pass from even the most discerning of viewers. That the film adheres, upon close scrutiny, to the rough shape of a classical romantic tragedy—a seemingly intuitively understandable genre—only confirms the extreme degree to which Schanalec’s idiosyncratic manner of storytelling skirts and frustrates expectations.
The film opens with a flurry of isolated scene fragments set around a hilltop park somewhere in 1980s Greece—the venue for a slapdash rally celebrating the country’s newfound integration into the European Union as well as the site of a bohemian couple’s busking session. Various disconnected happenings seize Schanalec’s attention during this oddly unhurried sequence. The demonstrators chase after their enormous flag, sent adrift by an afternoon breeze. Disembodied hands drop money into a weathered beret. The lovers, Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob), perform a duet of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and a group of hipsters spectate from the sidelines. Shortly thereafter, Kenneth suffers an episode of shock triggered by a phone call home, which is expressed only in a curious midriff-centered composition. In a subsequent shot, set at an unclear proximity to this action, a random onlooker is told by a policeman that “his mother had an accident,” to which the woman deadpans, “poor boy.”
Through this alternately mundane and enigmatic teaser, The Dreamed Path establishes its peculiar methods, which involve intermingling ambient distractions and narrative details so thoroughly that it’s hard to tell what to pass over and what to file away as possibly significant—a pursuit further complicated by the even-handed camerawork and editing, which treat each moment to its own lengthy examination. The twist is that, in Schanelec’s hands, everything is both important and inconsequential at the same time.
In the surrealist tradition, The Dreamed Path elevates the humdrum minutia of existence to the same plane as the ostensibly life-altering—or, rather, demotes the monumental to the level of the everyday, rendering both equally strange. When Kenneth returns to his native Germany to witness the passing of his mother in a drab hospital room, Schanelec’s first cut from the scene of the tragedy is to a modest backyard basketball court where the grief-stricken son is seen shooting hoops—a juxtaposition that’s less an indelicate treatment of death than a nod to the brutality of time’s forward march, the way something as upsetting as a parent’s parting must inevitably recede against the unyielding flow of daily life.
Without any lines of dialogue to tell us so, we intuit that Kenneth’s family tribulation has permanently separated him from Theres, who eventually reappears in the film after temporarily ceding the floor to Kenneth. A series of fragmented episodes indicate her acceptance into and departure to a schooling program in Berlin, but just when it seems as though Schanelec might follow through on this story thread, there’s an ellipsis—unadorned and nearly unnoticeable—that propels the film ahead a few decades and into the lives of a married couple, David (Phil Hayes) and Ariane (Maren Eggert), in contemporary Berlin. The latter, an actress shown to be working on an Antonioni-esque police thriller in inexplicably uneventful behind-the-scenes vignettes, is falling quickly out of love with the former and gradually registering the implications of that fact, a reckoning made trickier by the presence of the pair’s daughter (Anaïa Zapp), whose eventual broken-arm mishap necessitates a degree of collaboration between the two parents.
To synopsize this secondary narrative trajectory in such a way, however, is to profoundly undersell the oneiric strangeness of its telling, just as summarizing the time Kenneth and Theres spend on screen as the account of a doomed love affair feels immaterial given all the focus on, for instance, inanimate objects like chairs, pillows, a morphine cylinder, or a glass of water. Instead of dramatic exposition, The Dreamed Path doles out, in randomized chunks, the stimuli that fill its characters’ lives and lands upon emotional epiphanies—like the shot of Kenneth releasing an uncontrollable sob while eating at a café—as if only by chance. And instead of any particular fortuitous intersection that would clarify the significance of Schanelec’s two-scenario mash-up, we get mysterious surface echoes across the eras: Ariane thumbing through a book labeled In the Tropics, calling back to the lyrics of the earlier street performance; recurring shots of city buses, characters lying in bed, clothing draped over chairs, or clothing being packed into bags; and returning locations such as hospitals and elementary schools.
That these labyrinthine patterns don’t necessarily amount to a grand design will surely frustrate many, but it’s to Schanelec’s credit that her film captures something of the ineffable serendipities, ambiguities, and inconsistencies that make up our quotidian existences and yet so rarely enter the lexicon of storytelling. When Kenneth and Theres, curiously dressed in the same costumes, reemerge in the present-day timeline like somnambulant witnesses to their own isolated lives, it only further upsets the desire for narrative logic, even as it ambitiously bonds the sets of couples in a shared limbo of dejected estrangement. Anything goes in The Dreamed Path, which for some will mean that nothing sticks, and for just as many will offer a trancelike disorientation.