Does life, once you’ve lived it for a little while, always have to get in the way of love? The simple question posed by German director Lisa Bierwith’s sedate but absorbing class- and culture-clash mid-life romance “Le Prince,” is one that can’t be answered simply, in grand declaratives or sweeping generalizations. So it feels right that this sensitively put-together relationship drama, produced by Maren Ade’s Komplizen Films, deals in neither. Between a white woman who moves in the upper echelons of Germany’s artworld and a Black Congolese businessman and diamond dealer, there springs up a love story that’s told in details, in the fleeting expressions and bitten-back words of two people warily working out if this thing they have is a precious stone or just so much cut glass.
Professionally outspoken but personally reserved Monica (Ursula Strauss) is the ambitious fortysomething curator of a leading Frankfurt art gallery, although as the film begins, that future looks uncertain. Monica’s boss (Alex Brendemühl) and, as we learn, ex-lover, is moving on, and her position is unstable. On her way home, she stops by a bar to get some cigarettes, and is out the back smoking her bad mood away when the place — a neighborhood joint of dubious legality — is raided, and a stranger hustles her into a hiding place to shield them both from the police. This is Congolese immigrant Joseph (Passi Balende), and after this dramatic meet cute, they walk part way home together. She gives him her number. A day or two later, he calls.
Bierwith, working from the careful script she co-wrote with Hannes Held, tracks their tentative relationship with a restrained but increasingly invested intelligence, through its honeymoon period and on into the more fraught territory of living together and campaigning for Joseph’s immigration status to be ratified. He introduces her to his friends — not all of whom she trusts — to khat and to a welcoming local Congolese hangout; she introduces him to the exquisite agony that is the polite inquisitiveness of white people at a dinner party, and the stabs of paranoia that arise when asides are made in a language you don’t speak.
It’s one of the screenplay’s strengths that with each other, Monika and Joseph talk in accented, imperfect English. Neither ever sounds entirely at ease in their conversations, and it’s easy to see how misunderstandings based on slight mistranslations might occur, especially given Joseph’s sensitivity to anything that smacks of condescension. When half-jokingly Monika suggests they get married to solve his citizenship quandary, he recoils, not from the idea of marrying her, but from the notion that this way, he would be under an obligation. “My father was colonized,” he hisses at a shocked Monika. “I am not.”
Jenny Lou Ziegel’s warm, clean photography stays calm even when the characters don’t, but again, the drama here tends not to manifest in theatrics or emotional pyrotechnics, but in unanswered phone calls, sudden changes in body language and long, trying-to-figure-you-out gazes. So it’s just as well that both actors are such consummate under-players. Balende makes casually profound work of the less developed role, but Strauss, in particular, with her coolly neutral styling and her definite Molly Parker vibe, provides us with a well-rounded, full-length portrait of a middle-aged woman who neither hates herself nor cherishes unrealistic illusions about her life stage and its expectations.
Riven as it is with knotty questions of class and cultural division (Monika bringing flowers to their first date in Joseph’s drab apartment, then having to cut up a soda bottle to use as a vase is a neat metaphor for the social gulf between them), “Le Prince” negotiates the minefield nimbly for the most part. That it does so is largely due to the inevitable favoring of Monika’s perspective — and so the white, upper-middle, home-turf vantage point — over Joseph’s. In rare moments, such as a dinner table outburst prompted by the phrase “conflict diamonds,” he gets to let loose, offering a glimpse of the hotter-blooded film that could have ensued had Bierwith really gone for the jugular of some of the divisive issues it raises. But that’s not the movie she’s making.
When Joseph disappears from Monika’s life, he disappears from the film. It means the main strength of this solid, affecting drama is also its chief flaw: We are unusually invested in a middle-aged professional woman’s interior life, which is a refreshing place to be. But we are never sure of his heart the way we are of hers and so “Le Prince” feels entirely truthful to her story, and maybe just a little unfair to his.