Relationship drama is about as basic as it gets when it comes to cinematic storytelling. After more than a century of film, it’s not whether the story’s been told before, but how one goes about telling it. Austria’s submission to the Academy, What We Wanted, begins with an interesting spin on the prospect, but unfortunately devolves into melodramatic cliché by the end of its 90-minute runtime, abandoning the mild intrigue it had at the outset.
Based on Peter Stamm’s short story, “The Course of Things,” the film centers on Alice and Niklas, a couple from Vienna (Lavinia Wilson and Elyas M’Barek respectively). They’ve been married for a while and have been trying to conceive a child for quite some time. However, as the film begins, their fourth attempt at invitro has failed, and their healthcare service won’t pay for any future tries.
The two decide to take a vacation and rent a resort house in Sardinia for a week, ostensibly for comfort, relaxation, and because the hormone therapy Alice had to take for the artificial insemination leaves her prone to mood swings that she doesn’t want to turn loose on the wrong people. Practically the moment they arrive – and find a child’s bed mistakenly placed in their unit with a welcome card and a teddy bear – another car pulls up to the neighboring house with a full family of four: Metalworker Romed (Lukas Spisser), his “astrology certified” wife Christel (Anna Unterberger), aloof teenage son David (Fedor Temyl), and precocious as fuck toddler daughter Denise (Iva Hopperger).
Now, at this point, the movie looks like it has something interesting to say, like a perspective where being childless can be a good thing. Alice and Niklas spend a good deal of time early on quietly mocking the other family, and seem to get a good laugh out of it. David acts like your stereotypical 13-year-old who doesn’t want to do anything, and Denise begins the proceedings by being rather annoying, just inserting herself into Alice’s space without even asking (except when it comes to getting treats). She even breaks Alice’s sunglasses. Add in Romed’s Ned Flanders-esque enthusiasm and Christel’s cringeworthy fortune telling, and you’ve got a textbook case for why it might not be so bad to not have kids.
Unfortunately, by the end of the first act, this rather novel concept is tossed aside in favor of the rather fertile ground (pun intended) of standard-issue relationship crap. Niklas starts to warm to Romed and hang out with him, ignoring Alice. Christel walks around the resort topless, leading Niklas to stare at her slightly perkier tits. Alice tries to get full-on amorous in public but Niklas can’t/won’t get it up. Denise becomes more tolerable, then outright adorable, forcing Alice to see her as an avatar for the sweet kid she can’t have. And no, unlike True Mothers, which delicately explored adoption, Alice outright refuses that as an option, because she wants only a combined gene pool of her and Niklas. Okay, then.
By the time we get to the third act, we might as well be in a soap opera. Alice and Niklas are arguing, both with each other and in front of Romed and Christel. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive nagging. Wine glasses get smashed against walls. Hurtful comments about impotence start flying. Then finally, it all comes to a head with a late reveal that is meant to crystalize everyone’s problems but just comes off as being there for shock value.
There was a chance to do something groundbreaking here, but in the end, it’s just entry-level drama against a backdrop of a destination resort. Even the subplots about Alice and Niklas’ financial situation, vis-a-vis their attempts to build the roof on their house, ring completely hollow because of where the film takes place. Even if their budget is more modest than rich folks stateside, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone when they’re busy rock climbing, playing tennis, and having enough private access to a swimming pool to nearly initiate some sexy time.
But what really matters here is the story of a couple who wants kids but can’t have them being confronted with the reality of family life while trying to escape it. That’s where this film should have gone. For a few fleeting minutes it flirts with the idea with a couple of snide comments, but that’s it. Even with the parade of cliché on display, the filmmakers didn’t even bother to shoehorn in a scene or two about the more rewarding side of having a family. It’s either the kids are terrible, the parents are terrible, or the childless couple is terrible. And sadly, guess what kind of movie that creates.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your feelings on having kids? If your significant other made out with you in a pool, got naked, and then mounted you, what would be your excuse for not banging? Let me know!