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DIAGONALE 2023

Review: Alma & Oskar

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- Dieter Berner’s movie is a solid period drama that portrays the brief, but passionate, romance between two artists

Review: Alma & Oskar
Emily Cox and Valentin Postlmayr in Alma & Oskar

Passionate love affairs between exceptional artists might only last for a brief period of time, but are remembered for far longer. That was certainly the case with the stormy romance between pianist and composer Alma Mahler and painter Oskar Kokoschka, which occurred some 110 years ago in Vienna. The pair are the titular and lead characters in Dieter Berner’s new film Alma & Oskar, in which the Austrian-German filmmaker continues exploring his interest in the public perception of the private lives of great artists, which he probed in his previous feature, Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden [+see also:
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(2016).

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After enjoying its world premiere at last year’s Goa International Film Festival, the movie’s Austrian premiere occurred at this year’s Diagonale. However, this type of period, audience-friendly film could fare considerably better in theatres than on the festival circuit, and it has already secured distribution in a few territories.

We meet Alma Mahler (Emily Cox, from the series The Last Kingdom) while she is on a tour of the United States with her husband, Gustav, who uses her as his assistant and represses her artistic ambitions. She admits to him that she has started an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (Anton von Lucke). When the great composer dies shortly after the tour, the multi-talented and provocative artist Oskar Kokoschka (Valentin Postlmayr, predominantly a TV actor) comes to their home to make a face mask of the deceased for one of his many artistic projects, which is enough for Alma to take an interest in his work. The affair will, however, really blossom when Alma, out of her sense of adventure, hires the young, aspiring painter to make a portrait of her.

Their romance is passionate but volatile, owing to Oskar’s character and Alma’s delicate position in society. Not only does she have to choose between the young, passionate painter and the more sensible, but also conservative, architect as a suitor, but she also has to secure the legacy of her late husband by ensuring that his last symphony gets a premiere, while also trying to forge ahead in her own career, which had been overshadowed by Gustav’s genius. She wants independence, but still has to obey the norms of that time, imposed on women and socialites. On top of that, the beginning of the Great War will change everyone’s lives…

Serving as the focal point of the film, Alma is the actual lead, since the audience can feel for her, and sympathise with her position, choices and dilemmas. Compared to her, Oskar seems a tad two-dimensional, torn between his artistic genius and the dark side of it, while the other supporting characters are boiled down to a trait or two in the linear script written by Berner and his collaborator Hilde Berger. Since Berner’s directing is competent, but conservative in style, it is the actors who have to pull most of the weight. Cox is perfectly cast for her role, not just because of her physical similarity to the character she plays, but also for the way she channels the tactility expected from such a character. On the other hand, Postlmayr plays Kokoschka always in an elevated, almost hysterical, emotional register.

However, the film makes up for this in the craft department, with a lot of attention to detail that can be both seen and heard, such as the pristine production and costume design, captured beautifully in the seamless melange of analogue and digital cinematography handled by Jakub Bejnarowicz, while the score by Stefan Will suitably relies on Gustav Mahler’s opuses. All things considered, Alma & Oskar is a solid period drama.

Alma & Oskar is a co-production between Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic, staged by Film AG, Turnus Film, Wüste Film and Dawson Films. Picture Tree International handles the sales.

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