Maren Ade's staggering Everyone Else is a relationship drama with the distressing air of a particularly merciless horror film. There is nothing conventionally frightening about it. But Ade's dissection of a doomed and festering relationship is so thoughtful and unflinching that the movie burrows under your skin and stays there. It is a profound and chilling illustration of the adage that the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.
The film follows a newly formed German couple on vacation in Sardinia. Chris (Lars Eidinger) is a struggling, idealistic architect who's pinned his hopes on an unlikely win in a design competition. Lanky, good-looking (but for a burgeoning bald spot that, along with a score of other things, makes him self-conscious), and by all accounts brilliant, he appears at first to be infatuated with his girlfriend Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr, The White Ribbon), who clearly admires him. While waiting for the result of Chris's contest, they spend their days on sex, food, and lounging by the pool of the lovely vacation home they've borrowing for the week.
Complications arise, but by cinematic standards they are minor. The two run into Chris's former colleague Hans and his new wife, the sort of insufferably bourgeois couple Chris and Gitti in principle despise ("It's not a vacation if I have to see him," Chris complains) – but of course, Chris can use Hans's professional advice and connections. They go on a long hike and get brutally lost, as tensions between them begin to bubble to the surface. Out of nowhere, Chris sneaks out for a second rendezvous with Hans and his horrible wife, and then insists on a third.
The main arc of Everyone Else is a dawning realization that Chris and Gitti are doomed, their romance fated for either an explosive crash-and-burn or years of constant, mutual, self-propagating misery. The way Ade reveals this – through hints and observations that quietly show us what kind of people Chris and Gitti really are, and why they're wrong for each other – is what makes the movie such a profoundly uneasy experience. It's an insidiously effective form of dramatic irony: the kind that builds slowly, not cementing into a certainty until after we've been put through the emotional wringer.
What makes the film even more uncomfortable is that Chris and Gitti's problem is one that should seem familiar to bright, self-aware folks everywhere: they can't get out of their own heads. They love each other, but can't figure out how to say it without sounding lame, or corny, or dumb. Any expressed criticism gets dwelled upon, deflected, flipped around. At the same time, fears of inadequacy infect their relationship at every turn.
Worse, because they're smarter than the average bear, Chris and Gitti constantly see themselves through each other's eyes, and draw unhelpful conclusions. Early in the film, Gitti good-naturedly implies that Chris is not terribly masculine in the conventional sense; he sheepishly acknowledges that she's right. ("I thought it would come naturally, with age.") But following that conversation, you can see Chris trying to act "masculine" – and also that Gitti can see that he's acting, and sort of wants him to know that she knows (which of course is his biggest nightmare). We recognize the dynamic even as we realize it can't be healthy – a neurotic mobius strip of rampant overthinking. For Chris and Gitti, it's a sign of things to come.
The movie is not gloomy. Ade generously depicts the good in Chris and Gitti's pairing alongside the bad – the delirious inside jokes, the spontaneous (but always controlled) displays of affection. Remarkably, for all of the characters' obsessive self-consciousness, the film has none. It's loose and organic, nuanced, true to life.
The final minutes of Everyone Else are almost unbearably tense, and also kind of bewildering – one of the main characters goes wildly off-script, and it takes a few minutes for us to come to grips what s/he is doing. Once we do, though, it makes perfect sense: the last logical stage in a relationship that, despite its joys and euphoric highs, is a kamikaze mission.