Jordan Blady’s feature, Softness of Bodies, opens with a rack of clothes and a back to the camera. We first meet our protagonist, Charlie (Dasha Nekrasova), as she examines which shirt, exactly, she’s going to shoplift. It’s an abrupt start to the film and an interesting first impression on the character we’re going to be following for the next hour or so, but it’s the right way to introduce her.
Charlie — real name Charlotte — is an American poet living in Berlin, slouching and smoking her way through the city. She rolls her own cigarettes, has a boyfriend who is in a long-term relationship with another woman, and rides her bicycle in the middle of the bustling streets. At first glance, she’s unpleasant, if not slightly intolerable. “I hate Americans,” she says in her American accent, within the first seven minutes of the film. When she’s handed a letter by her roommate (Johannes Frick), informing her that she’s a finalist for a poetry grant, she whines that she can’t read it: it’s in German.
It would be easy to say that Charlie’s depth is nonexistent. In fact, she’s eerily reminiscent of the pretension-dripped sort of man who sleeps on a mattress without a bed frame and blames you for his lack of emotional cogency. Even her poetry seems lacking — she rarely shows passion for it and heavily critiques her peers’ work when her own seems relatively uninspired. However, when she finds out that she’s a finalist for such a prestigious poetry grant, she says, “I’ll be like a real adult.” In this moment, which comes at the beginning of the film, we get a glimpse behind the curtain at the insecurity that pervades Charlie’s life. The idea of a “real adult” suggests that she’s just pretending for right now. With the events that transpire throughout the rest of the film, it’s safe to say that she’s right.
The plot of Softness of Bodies is loose; it feels aimless, much like Charlie does. She’s torn between two men: her boyfriend, Franz (Moritz Vierboom), who is in a relationship with another woman, and her photographer ex from LA (Morgan Krantz), who is just smarmy enough to make you not want to trust him. Neither of them are necessarily the right choice, and Charlie has more obvious chemistry with a rival poet, Sylvie (Nadine Dubois). Clearly, the story is about her (“you only listen to me if I’m talking about you,” her boyfriend says at one point), rather than any sort of major plot-driven come-to-Jesus reckoning moment for her to change her ways.
Charlie eventually gets arrested for shoplifting, which was inevitable. She has no money (despite a job as a mediocre barista), but needs enough euros to pay her fine. Her stealing, she says, is a result of a capitalist society: isn’t the store she stole from more to blame than she is? The German courts decide that no, that’s not really how it works. Stealing — the way we are first introduced to Charlie — leads up to the film’s climactic moment, which is less a climax for the plot, and more for the audience to understand her character better. With the little amount of backstory given to the audience, we have to wonder whether or not the Charlie we’re seeing is an act, or the real thing.
After the climax (which I’m avoiding stating outright to not spoil you!), we can make the decision ourselves: it’s the real thing.
Nekrasova is excellent at portraying Charlie with the bored disinterest — even in the most tumultuous moments — that truly does make her unlikable… which is a good thing. She is petulant and self-obsessed, and Nekrasova makes us wonder how in the world we’re supposed to root for her. Blady’s direction is also worth noting; it’s full of wide shots, making us feel at arm’s length — just the way Charlie would like it. In many shots, Charlie is front and center, a testament to the symmetrically composed cinematography, courtesy of Christian Huck.
This is a character study in a film, which isn’t a bad thing. Charlie is a character to think about and in her, we see some of our most unpleasant selves. How many of us bite back our sarcasm and self-obsession in front of others? How often do we wish we could avoid our trauma by writing poetry and going out for brunch? Dasha Nekrasova as Charlie brings our worst impulses to life, with none of the good that we put on for show.
Pay attention to when you squirm, when you roll your eyes. There’s something more complex (and definitely darker) to Charlie than what is immediately evident upon first watch.
Softness of Bodies is available to stream on Amazon, InDemand, Vimeo on Demand, DirecTV, FlixFling, Vudu, FANDANGO, Hoopla + Slight/Dish.