In love and war

Love—of the deeply felt, complex, and battle-tested variety—is so terrifyingly intimate that, while in its throes, it is nearly impossible to communicate to an outsider how it started, how it works or where’s it going. Love lives in the close-ups, in those shared unspoken moments where two imperfect beings collide, in the hope of rearranging their molecules into something closer to perfect.

The two lovestruck, imperfect beings in question are, in this case, Felice and Lilly (known to each other privately as Aimee and Jaguar), the friends-then-lovers at the heart of Max Faberbock’s 1998 film, “Aimee & Jaguar,” playing this weekend at 5th Avenue Cinema.

The movie is set in Berlin, 1943–44, which should alert the reader to the big issues of the film and its milieu: Berlin’s bomb sirens echo in the background and uniformed fascists patrol the streets for those who have not yet been sent to the concentration camps.

Our heroines are, of course, heavily and unfortunately involved in the turmoil of the times.

Lilly (Juliane Kohler) is a mother of four who is cheating on her Nazi soldier husband with a Nazi captain while the former is at war. This is before she meets and begins an affair with Felice (the tremendous Maria Schrader), a Jewish newspaper reporter who hides her ancestry by writing anti-Semitic vitriol for the local newspaper.

Let’s just say there are entanglements.

The two women begin a friendship, which Felice complicates by writing Lilly secret love letters, addressing them to “Aimee” and signing them “Jaguar.” The pseudonyms mark the genesis of the self-contained universe that Lilly and Felice create for themselves in the midst of such despair and destruction.

Faberbock’s depiction of this self-contained universe, where Lilly can be Aimee and Felice can be Jaguar, is touching, unflinching and honest. Lilly has never been with a woman and Felice, as the more experienced of the two, guides Lilly through their relationship, including their first romantic night together.

The actresses’ first bedroom scene perfectly articulates both the excitement and terror of new love. As Lilly and Felice begin undressing, Felice asks, “Do you feel safe?” and Lilly replies “No.” “Should I stop?” Felice asks. “No,” Lilly says.

In the tender moments between these two women, Aimee & Jaguar conveys the overwhelming vulnerability of love, of exposing yourself wholly to the one who could hurt you the most. The scenes between Schrader and Kohler are charged with electricity: These women are beautifully flawed and fractured, their relationship both believably volatile and credibly loving.

Unfortunately, their chemistry also illuminates the one-dimensionality of the world they inhabit. The time and place is rendered so superficially (Bombs! Nazis! Homophobes!) that the perfectly-rendered scenes between Lilly and Felice feel like clips removed from a different, better movie.

“Aimee & Jaguar” gets bogged down by this outside world—by Berlin, by the war, by Nazism and anti-Semitism, by those pesky big issues. The streets of Berlin feel lifeless, like a bunch of set pieces from a community theater strewn haphazardly around a sound stage. When Lilly and Felice step outside their comfort zone into the streets, it feels more like a tour of the old MGM studio lot than two living, breathing people encountering the real world.

Most of the ability and vigor the supporting cast could have theoretically displayed is sapped by this static, clichéd world. The bit parts are underwritten and mired in banality. There is the cad husband, the kindly old couple, the hard-drinking newspaper editor and many, many faceless Nazis. (I must say, however, that it feels like a small victory that every man in “Aimee & Jaguar” is reduced to nothing more than a uniform and a penis.)

The most fully-realized supporting player is Ilse (Johanna Wokalek), who, as nanny and maid to Lilly’s family, serves as the viewer’s introduction to the title characters. But the role of Ilse often confuses more than it enriches.

Although she serves as the viewer’s eyes during the movie’s first act, Ilse abruptly drops out of the film once Lilly and Felice become more deeply involved. The shift to the couple’s point-of-view serves the story much better and is where Aimee & Jaguar picks up steam, but the viewer is left wondering, What happened to Ilse? It’s as if Nick Carraway peaced-out 50 pages into “The Great Gatsby.”

With the outside world closing in on Felice and Lilly, it’s not too long into Aimee & Jaguar that the viewer gets the sense that this will not end well. (The title’s nod to Romeo and Juliet also does not augur particularly well for our star-crossed lovers.)

The joys of “Aimee & Jaguar” lie not in its plot or story but in its ability to encapsulate those millions of brief moments that comprise a relationship. The quiet domesticity of a couple chatting while making their morning coffee. The intimacy of two lovers sharing a morning-after kiss.

And that moment when maybe, if two people hold each other close enough and tight enough, this could all last forever.

The Portland Vanguard, 11.15.2011. Link: http://psuvanguard.com/arts/in-love-and-war/

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