About a third of the way into German director Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior, his rambling follow-up to his surprise smash Run Lola Run, is perhaps the most thrilling movie scene I've witnessed this year.
The "princess" in the film is Sissi (Franka Potente, who was Lola), a psychiatric nurse beloved by a group of patients who come across as stock film crazies. The "warrior" is Bodo (Benno FÅrmann), a former soldier stricken with suicidal grief who is planning a bank robbery with his brother.
At the outset, the film follows both characters separately, and the show-stopping scene occurs when the pair finally meet. Bodo has just robbed a gas station and is running from the police; Sissi is taking one of her patients for a walk. Bodo's flight unwittingly leads to Sissi being hit by a truck while crossing the street. Bodo dives under the truck to evade his pursuers only to find Sissi prone and struggling to breathe. With a pocket knife and a straw, Bodo performs an emergency tracheotomy on Sissi, sucking the blood through the straw in order to clear a passage, Sissi staring, terrified, into his eyes the entire time.
It is an unbearably intense scene -- at once frightening and erotic and emotional -- and Tykwer's use of sound and pacing is bravura. Tykwer adds a grace note afterward: Bodo accompanies a still-silent Sissi in the ambulance (more to escape the police than to be with her), then Sissi reaches out desperately as Bodo walks away, a button from Bodo's jacket in her hand.
This meeting (fateful or coincidental, the film seems to be asking -- you decide) is the crux of a long (130 minutes), rambling, ambitious film that, in Tykwer's own words, is about the healing power of love.
But it is not an entirely successful film. Filled with startling shots (Bodo's entrance is a bit of show-off camerawork that really does impress) and expert staging (the bank heist shows Tykwer has a lucrative future as a Hollywood genre director if he wants it), The Princess and the Warrior confirms Tykwer as a directorial force, but the film's whole doesn't quite match the sum of its parts.
Both Bodo and Sissi have family tragedies in their past. Bodo witnessed his wife killed in a gas station explosion; Sissi's mother was electrocuted in the bathtub. Both characters are clearly scarred by these events, and by bringing them together in a series of fateful encounters (the tracheotomy scene isn't their only "chance" meeting), Tykwer is trying to say something profound or mysterious about healing, but it doesn't cohere.
The film's awful title implies something archetypal about the characters and, unfortunately, though both are striking screen presences, they sometimes come across as archetypes rather than actual people. This sense of emotional distance is partly built into the characters, but FÅrmann, in particular, has trouble making us care about the inexpressive Bodo. And Tykwer's ambition gets the better of him at the end with his laborious literalization of Bodo's recovery from this previous emotional shell shock.
This typifies a film that at times reaches for too much. But in a season most often marked by the lowest common denominator, Tykwer's grasp offers enough to make his film well worth seeing. -- Chris Herrington