What We Wanted (Was Wir Wollten in the original German) is the story of a late-30s Austrian couple who signed up to be together, have kids, the whole kit and caboodle, trying to renegotiate their relationship after their fourth round of failed IVF treatment.
We meet them just as they’re getting the bad news in the IVF clinic. But their other problem, and what this exquisitely crafted film is about, is that they have never really had “the conversation”, never really hashed out, possibly in horrible recriminatory detail, why they can’t have kids, who’s to “blame” and where they go from here – what they wanted, what they want now and what they will want, either together or separately.
That explosion is what we are waiting for as Niklas and Alice set off from Vienna, chatting too-enthusiastically about driving directions, and arrive in a slightly out-of-season Sardinia where they also exchange banalities about their room, the resort, the weather, food, wine, anything.
We’re still waiting for it when another couple arrive in the next chalet to theirs – bigger car, richer-looking, slightly hotter… and this couple have two kids. As Niklas and Alice slightly reluctantly get to know the new arrivals, Romed is revealed as a self-made, rock-climbing man’s man, a lover of gadgets and barbies who, back home, has his own wine cellar, don’t you know. His sexy wife Christl thinks nothing of standing around topless (Niklas notices, and Alice notices that Niklas notices) and is your girly girl keen on horoscopes while their two kids represent either end of the child-rearing lottery. There’s sullen 13-year-old David and adorable poppet Denise. In spite of David (perhaps even because of him), this new family comes across almost like a rebuke to Niklas and Alice.
Niklas and Alice haven’t come to Sardinia to socialise. They just want to lie on a sunbed and lick their wounds. Romed and Christl, meanwhile, are all hands extended in greeting and offers of cold beer and holiday camaraderie.
This internal dynamic (Niklas and Alice don’t want to engage with each other in a meaningful way) and the external one (they don’t want to engage with Romed and Christl either) comes from Peter Stamm’s original story, Der Lauf der Dinge, which puts these volatile elements together and then gives them a good shake.
There are big films and small films. Big beasts like Avengers Assemble and then something like this, a handful of people, a place and a situation. There is no villain – Lukas Spisser’s performances as Romed suggests he’s possibly a bit of a dick when you get to know him, while Anna Unterberger subtly suggests Christl might be a bit of a baggage behind the scenes. Elyas M’Barek and Lavinia Wilson as Niklas and Alice, meanwhile, give us a couple hoping to be able to fake it till they make it with business-as-usual vamping.
Lovely acting. Nothing showy, just the necessary. This foursome are all just normal people.
Add to that beautiful scenery, the Mediterranean, food, wine, and a safe and clean beach resort. They don’t sound like the combustible elements of a tense drama, but in director Ulrike Kofler’s hands they are, especially when either Niklas or Alice tries to instigate “the conversation”. In between times Kofler also catches rather well the clinical atmosphere in those resorts where everything is catered – from restaurants to tennis courts – and boredom can worry away at any frayed ends that happen to be about – perhaps Niklas and Alice should have gone on a hiking holiday.
The film has been nominated in the Best International Feature category in this year’s Oscars. I doubt it’ll win. Not showy enough. But as a drama about the aftermath of failed IVF – or any event calling for a recalibration of a relationship – it’s hard to beat.
© Steve Morrissey 2020