Dir/scr: M X Oxberg. Ger-UK-Fr-Switz-It. 2004. 92 mins.
It's a chilly place, the stratosphere, and the air can get pretty rarefied. Nothing wrong with that, of course: but down here on earth, cinemagoers need a little character warmth and a little story oxygen, and the third feature by young German director M X Oxberg fails to supply either in sufficient quantities.
The story of a young Belgian girl who draws manga-style comics and who gets caught up in the sordid hostess scene of Tokyo's after-hours clubs for bored businessmen, The Stratosphere Girl is a triumph of style over substance, and of graphic-novel emoticons over anything more satisfyingly human. The film has a lush visual style, and Michael Mieke's moody, neon-night vision of a Tokyo that is more Blade Runner than Lost In Translation is one of the highpoints, together with Norwegian composer Nils Petter Molvaer's moody ambient jazz soundtrack. But the target audience for this Euro souffle is too vaguely spread between manga-reading teens and Wallpaper*-reading thirtysomethings, and it does not quite hit the spot for either demographic. At Berlin the film played in the Panorama sidebar.
Oxberg's big idea is to make the crime storyline his young protagonist is drawing for her latest manga graphic novelette feed into her own experience of life in Tokyo, and vice versa. So there is plenty of cutting back and forth between the comic strip (drawn by talented storyboard artist Ann-Katharin Otto) and Angela's search for Larissa, a Russian nightclub hostess who has gone missing.
There is no real clue as to why Angela suddenly turns detective: she gets enough flak from the other hostesses as the new girl on the beat, and her prying into an unsolved case which her flatmates are clearly reluctant to talk about is hardly designed to win over her catty colleagues. But Angela is a bit of a mystery all round. We only learn that she has a family from one throwaway line, and her inevitable husky French voice-overs are too cod-metaphysical to enlighten us much.
Chloe Winkel, a sort of blonde Belgian Liv Tyler, who has done mostly modelling work to date, certainly has the kind of iconic Lolita face that works in a comic strip context. But it's as if she's suffering from emotional lockjaw: she drifts through the film looking great but not connecting much with anyone - not even her love interest Yamamoto. In fact, their affair seems to exist because they look good entwined in an all-white room, he with his calligraphic shoulder tattoo, she with her transparent skin, ski-jump breasts and yearning, little-girl-lost look.
Comparisons will be drawn to stylised Eurozone films like Diva or even Amelie; but both had scripts that got emotional hooks into their audiences over and above the style games they played. Some of the film's problems derive from it is oddly stilted English dialogue, which too often sounds translated. In the end, although it often looks and sounds ravishing, The Stratosphere Girl leaves its audience feeling numb. The only smile comes right at the end of the credits, with the line 'No blondes were harmed in the production of this motion picture'.
Production co: Pandora Filmproduktion
Co-prod cos: Palomar, Clubdeal, Dschoint Venture Filmproduktion, Paradis Film, Motel Films, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, SRG/SF-DRS
International sales: Bavaria Film International
Producers: Christoph Friedel, Karl Baumgartner
Screenplay: MX Oxberg
Cinematography: Michael Mieke
Production design: Petra Barchi
Editor: Peter Alderliesten
Music: Nils Petter Molvaer
Main cast: Chloe Winkel, Jon Yang, Rebecca Palmer, Tuva Novotny, Tara Elders, Linda Steinhof, Filip Peeters