“Just What We Wanted” is a compact and quietly compelling German drama about a couple teetering towards a break-up because of their desperate desire to have a child.
Ulrike Kofler’s film, based on a Peter Stamm short story, wrestles with what people do when they start to grapple with a changing concept of the detailed plans they’ve built their entire lives around, and how a marriage where this is the core of their shared experience together is frayed when that connective tissue breaks.
All that is set up and laid out in the opening scene, coping with the bad news that their latest attempt at a pricey fertility clinic has failed. The doctor supervising their treatment quietly suggests “rethinking” things as they juggle which credit card can withstand the payment for this latest throw of the dice.
But the whole point of Alice (Lavinia Wilson) coping with endless expenses and contractor issues is that they’re building a house, one big enough for their planned family.
Niklas (Elyas M’Barek) can apologize, make the most tentative suggestions about other options, but that’s to no avail. The disappointment is still too fresh. Maybe a vacation to an Italian isle will do the trick.
That’s where they’re roomed right next door to a noisy, fractious family of their fellow Germans. Boundaries break down as their little girl (Anna Unterberger) gets underfoot, especially with Alice, the loud, gregarious father Romed (Lukas Spisser) chats them up and Christl (Iva Höpperger) the often-topless mom (Germans, amIright?) shoves her amateur astrology at them as a couple and her semi-careless parenting at Alice in particular.
What might have been an intimate healing/decision-making vacation turns into a broadening schism as Alice struggles with her pain, her husband “noticing” the half-naked blonde next door and the pesky but adorable child that reminds her of what she can’t have.
As the brittle union starts to crack, we wonder if the temporary “neighbors” and their “good life” will be the force that finally tears Alice and Niklas apart.
Wilson underplays Alice’s increasing uncertainty, and she and M’Barek are convincing as a loving, supportive couple and as one where that support erodes as it endures its most severe stress test.
Editor-turned-first-time director Kofler keeps the tension on simmer and gradually draws us into the most intimate rifts marriages can face. German reserve — Alice doesn’t tell Niklas she watched him watching the outdoor love-making of the boors next door — cracks a little on the tennis court, breaks in heated exchanges with contractors and erupts when wife and husband blurt out exactly what they think — never a good idea.
Kofler can’t avoid the melodramatic minefield that the third act serves up, but she deftly humanizes the calamities that play a decisive role in how this fraught, understated Scenes from a Marriage turns out.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, nudity, adult themes
Cast: Lavinia Wilson, Elyas M’Barek, Anna Unterberger, Lukas Spisser and Iva Höpperger
Credits: Directed by Ulrike Kofler, script by Ulrike Kofler, Sandra Bohle and Marie Kreutzer, based on a short story by Peter Stamm. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33