Dir: Stina Werenfels.Switzerland-Germany. 2015. 88mins

Dora oder die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern 1

A young woman with learning difficulties gets pregnant after embarking on a sexual relationship with an abusive seducer… It would take a filmmaker of outstanding subtlety, or a fearless provocateur, to make the most of this premise. Unfortunately, writer-director Stina Werenfels doesn’t remotely succeed in Dora Or The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents (Dora oder Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern), a film that contrives to be at once well-meaning, half-baked and by the end, ill-judged, as the melodrama cranks up from the uncomfortable to the downright absurd.

The acting is creditable all round, with Eidinger even contriving to tone down Peter’s fire-and-brimstone factor to manageable levels, while Schily and Jucker agonise with commendable delicacy.

Based on a play by Lukas Barfüss, and featuring a spirited but unavoidably problematic lead performance by newcomer Victoria Schulz, Dora may provide ample fodder for festival discussions focused on disability and sexuality, but has slim commercial prospects.

Werenfels’s follow-up to her 2006 feature Going Private is about 18-year-old Dora (Schulz), who has learning difficulties and lives with her middle-class parents, party caterer Kristin (Schily) and maths professor Felix (Jucker). Despite the film’s subtitle, Mum and Dad don’t seem to suffer from any serious sexual neuroses, only an understandable discomfort around their daughter, as her sexual curiosity starts to erupt.

Dora bursts in on their love-making, attempts to give Dad a passionate kiss and, in a scene that yields unintentional farce, masturbates in the bath while embarrassed Mum reads her a fairy tale. One day Dora follows a young man, Peter (Eidinger), into a subway toilet and finds herself having sex with him. It seems to be straightforward rape, but she then starts a long-term liaison with Peter, leading to pregnancy.

Werenfels has stated that she is interested in questions of taboo surrounding disability and sexuality, but the film is never dispassionate enough to engage us productively in these issues. At the start, the film elicits our sympathies for Dora’s loving, but over-stretched parents, while skewing the film very much to their daughter’s perception of the world, through highly coloured subjective shots (including close-ups of fruit, flowers and snails) presenting Dora’s sometimes blurred, sometimes euphoric optic.

The film comes severely unstuck with the arrival of Peter, a contemptuous dandy who might as well be swinging a forked tail. A black-suited, BMW-driving flâneur who hangs around in seedy bars, he openly uses Dora for sex, totally disregarding her feelings or welfare. Even he, however, has second thoughts about the three-way he’s arranged with Dora and a sleazy friend of his – a scene that might just have been pulled off by Ulrich Seidl, but is deeply awkward here. The film ends on a risible note as Kristin gets in touch with her own libido at an upmarket sex party.

The acting is creditable all round, with Eidinger even contriving to tone down Peter’s fire-and-brimstone factor to manageable levels, while Schily and Jucker agonise with commendable delicacy. As Dora, Schulz - a former philosophy student discovered at a opera after-party - gives a vivid and genuinely fearless performance, albeit one open to accusations of ‘spazzing’ – the unlikeable but descriptive term popularised by Lars von Trier’s Idiots. Schulz is equally good in the scenes with her parents, and with several young players who have Down’s Syndrome, but her casting raises the usual thorny questions about the ethics of performing disability. Dora could have used a sharper edge to truly challenge viewer preconceptions, but its soft-centred earnestness makes it more a social case study than an effective drama.

Production companies: Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Niko Film

International sales: Wide Management, 

Producers: Samir, Karin Koch

Screenplay: Stina Werenfels, Boris Treyer

Cinematography: Lukas Strebel

Editor: Jann Anderegg

Production design: Beatrice Schultz

Music: Peter Scherer

Main cast: Victoria Schulz, Jenny Schily, Lars Eidinger, Urs Jucker