Amnesia appears to bring Barbet Schroeder's career full circle. The latest film from the eclectic French-based polymath who has done everything, from Bukowski (Barfly) to a Mad Men episode, from Hollywood psycho-thriller (Single White Female) to cult Euro-psychedelia (More), from staged documentary (General Idi Amin Dada) to Oscar-winning drama (Reversal of Fortune), was shot in the exact same Spanish seaside villa where parts of More were filmed in 1968.
The house near San Antoní, in the island of Ibiza, was actually owned by Mr. Schroeder's German-born mother Ursula, who is also the loose inspiration for Martha Segall (Marthe Keller), the central character of Amnesia. The film's title refers both to one of the key clubs in Ibiza's dance music scene boom of the 1990s, when the film takes place, and to Martha's deliberate refusal to address the past. She has rejected her native country and her native language, and has put as much distance as possible between herself and the Germany she left as Hitler came to power, but it's the country that keeps getting close to her: first in the shape of a family estate that needs to be settled, then through Jo (Max Riemelt), the young German who moves in next door with a view to become the next big international DJing star, dreaming of making the roster at Amnesia.
Despite the DJ angle (essentially a script convenience that is treated with some clumsy, throwaway naïveté), Amnesia is essentially the story of a woman coming to terms late in life with her choices and their consequences. It's a suggestively, subtly told piece, to which the too rare Ms. Keller brings a graceful yet intensely layered performance, attentively directed by Mr. Schroeder; it's almost a love letter from a director to an actress who has seldom been better.
Unfortunately, that story and that performance are wrapped up in an awkward tug-of-war, where the attentive, intelligent woman's picture struggles with a sincere but redundant re-stating of Germany's own need to come to terms with its nazi past. The lunch scene where Jo introduces his mother and grandfather to Martha, leading to a serious conversation about Germany's responsibility, avoids the trap of redundant didacticism by a whisker, but even if the issue is essential to the truth of Martha's character the way, Mr. Schroeder risks making it surplus to requirements; there's nothing in here that hasn't been told before, much unhelped by some occasionally awkward cutting from veteran Nelly Quettier.
That those are not the central, or even the most interesting, aspects of Amnesia end up being the film's saving grace: the sheer breathtaking beauty of the Ibiza landscapes as shot in bursts of blunt colour by DP Luciano Tovoli, perfectly capturing the starkness of its seaside light as a reflection of Martha's own blunt attitude towards life, help define and present the heart of the film as the story of her reawakening, so movingly captured by Ms. Keller. She alone is reason enough to watch Amnesia.
Switzerland, France, 2015, 96 minutes
Starring Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Corinna Kirchhoff, Joel Basman, Marie Leuenberger, Fermí Reixach, Bruno Ganz
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; written by Emilie Bickerton, Peter Steinbach, Susan Hoffman and Mr. Schroeder; cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; music by Lucien Nicolet; production and costume designer Franckie Diago; film editor Nelly Quettier; produced by Ruth Waldburger and Margaret Ménégoz, for Vega Film and Films du Losange in co-production with SRF/SRG/SSR, Téléclub and ARTE France Cinéma
Screened October 28th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon