A Psychological Pirouette
Jakob Lass’s galvanizing third feature delivers a welcome jolt of anarchy before questioning the conscience of institutionalized power. It’s not long before the laughs get caught in your throat.
By Matt Fagerholm
An intoxicating energy has defined the cinema of Jakob Lass from the very beginning. His camera and characters are always on the move, involving us in their adventures with such playfulness and unpredictability that we can’t help but be enthralled. Tiger Girl is somewhat of a departure from the director’s previous two films, both starring Franz Rogowski as a misfit stumbling through luxurious locales while embarking on a sexualized relationship with a smitten woman.
The self-imposed restrictions developed by Lass, which he has dubbed FOGMA, lent a spontaneity to the proceedings through improvised dialogue and loose scene structure. This approach, inspired by the Danish movement Dogme 95, has earned comparisons to American micro-budget films broadly labeled by the press as “mumblecore,” particularly the early work of Joe Swanberg. Lass certainly shares Swanberg’s interest in shattering the taboo associated with male nudity, allowing the men in his films to be stripped and vulnerable while under the microscope of the female gaze.
Out of thin AirWith a bracing roar, Tiger Girl pushes the FOGMA aesthetic into new terrain, incorporating choreographed stunt work and sly visual trickery into its offhanded style. After mesmerizing audiences with her entrancing poker face in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Maria Dragus undergoes a startling transformation as Margarete, a young student ridiculed by her male peers during a police entry exam. When a flirtatious officer (Enno Trebs) tries pressuring her into bed, Margarete is rescued by Tiger (Ella Rumpf), a mysterious troublemaker with an allergy toward politeness.
Exhibiting the magnetism spiked with mischief that characterized her stellar turn in Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Rumpf initially materializes out of thin air, as if embodying the repressed id of Margarete, whom she nicknames “Vanilla.” There are echoes of David Fincher’s Fight Club in the deftly subtle ways Lass blurs the two women’s identities together until they appear to be each other’s Tyler Durden. Upon being challenged by Tiger to reject her societally imposed timidity, Vanilla makes the pivotal decision to fight back, picking up a baseball bat as the camera rotates 180 degrees. We later see her hugging the bat with her neck as her eyes appropriately mimic the Kubrick Stare.
Rhyming CompositionsAs the friendship between Tiger and Vanilla grows, so does the risk factor in their schemes. They don security uniforms to intimidate unsuspecting men, though it is suggested through abrupt edits and dreamy slow motion that some of these pranks may be little more than erotically charged fantasies. In one memorable scene, the friends insist that a man disrobe in front of them, forcing him to experience the violation that countless women have been subjected to both on and off the screen. This gender role-reversal is empowering for much of the film’s first act, yet Lass is careful not to overlook the consequences of their increasingly senseless actions.
While Vanilla descends into sociopathic hysteria, Tiger’s conscience becomes awakened, resulting in a psychological pirouette of sorts. Like Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, the anti-heroines in Tiger Girl absorb one another’s attributes until they have, in a sense, traded places, a phenomena that cinematographer Timon Schäppi conveys through rhyming compositions that bring the film full circle. Lass provides viewers with a considerable number of laughs and fist-pumping moments, but his concerns shift toward the limits of institutional power and how easily it can be corrupted.
Even at their most untenable, it’s easy to understand why Tiger and Vanilla don’t take authority seriously, considering its history of patriarchal oppression. It is the restlessness spawned from a society prone to passive aggressive politeness that fuels the women’s anarchy, as well as Lass’s artistry. His work is so potent that it leaves an indelible mark, much like a sucker punch to the face.
© Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He has contributed to a variety of publications including Time Out Chicago, The A.V. Club, and Magill’s Cinema Annual. He’s the publisher of Indie-Outlook.com, a site dedicated to independent cinema, for which he has interviewed German talent including Dietrich Brüggemann, Maria Dragus, Jakob Lass, and Anne Zohra Berrached.