The Princess and the Warrior
dir. Twyker
Opens Fri July 20
Cinema 21

Early in The Princess and the Warrior, Sissi, an alluring but trouble-faced blonde, is slammed into by a truck. As she lies gasping for breath, Bodo, a would-be street punk, crawls under the truck to reach her. He grabs a straw and, with a switchblade, performs a skin-crawling tracheotomy. As Sissi lies flat on her back, she comments in a voiceover how sweet his breath is. "He must have had a peppermint," she says, as Bodo sucks and spits blood from the straw, and breathes into her lungs. In the context of director Tom Twyker's latest film, it is a calm and captivating love scene.

Unlike Twyker's breakthrough film, Run Lola Run, where characters hustle again and again through the same maze of conflicts and dilemmas, The Princess and the Warrior is a much more sophisticated and careful examination of fate and consequence. Here, as complications twist knots in the story line, and new clues about the two main characters' cursed lives emerge, the people--and, for that matter, the plot--must deal with these burdens instead of simply hitting the re-set button.

At its most basic, the film is a fairytale romance; Beautiful girl hit by truck, boy saves girl, girl hunts down elusive Prince Charming. But, castles are replaced by an amiable psychward, where Sissi is an attending nurse, and instead of Prince Charming, Bodo is a stoic former military hack who wants nothing to do with this princess. Bodo also suffers from a mysterious trauma that forces him to sleepwalk and hug a woodstove in the dead of the night. And from there, the age-old romantic formula begins to deconstruct.

Unlike, say, The Wedding Planner, which starts with the same knight-in-shining armor premise, what's alluring about The Princess and the Warrior is that the plot muddies emotions instead of working to simplify them. Even though the film is ostensibly Sissi's love story--her search for that lost piece in her life--the film stays away from pandering to simple emotional tricks.

Late one night in the psych ward, one of the patients who clearly has a crush on Sissi asks her to tuck him in, and then softly solicits a hand job. With no show of emotion, Sissi concedes. Although it is never clear why Sissi deals with her patients this way, at its root is certainly some sort of compassion and empathy. Those macabre riddles generate an emotional gravity that is too rare in contemporary love stories. Instead of true love as superficial as a Dentyne smile or as capricious as a sunbreak, emotions here are truly tortured, visceral and hard-fought.

The Princess and the Warrior is the second collaboration between director Twyker and actress Franka Potente, who plays Sissi. Trading in her fire engine red hair and belly tattoo for Barbie-doll blond and a borderline timidity, Potente is almost unrecognizable. In Run Lola Run, Potente played the title character with an audacity that shook the camera by its lapels. Here, Twyker still dotes on Potente, but it is with a demure admiration, sort of like the difference between the anxiety and showmanship of a first date and the confidence of a long-term love affair.

Clearly, both Twyker and Potente have matured as filmmaker and actress. Even so, it is likely that the crowd that was drawn to Run Lola Run for its Nintendo intensity may find the lack of swirling cameras and downshifted narrative pace a tad dull. But, that's the difference between those who would choose the rambunctious sex appeal of a MTV Spring Break episode over a truly crafted art film romance--The Princess and the Warrior chucks the superficial ruses for much more substantial anarchy. In a summer when movies like Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy are trading in plots for gimmicks, it's refreshing that The Princess and the Warrior heads in the opposite direction.