by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 15, 2016


A European couple traveling through the Southwest erupt into an argument that caps off years of dissatisfaction. The wife lights out and begins an improbable new life that's almost magically stocked with love and friendship -- and, of course, a job as a waitress.

As a comedy, this is Percy Adlon's 1987 hit "Baghdad Cafe." As a drama, it's Fabienne Berthaub's "Sky," an often surprising, frequently tender, and occasionally lachrymose study of a woman learning to embrace freedom.

Adlon's couple were German -- Bavarian, more precisely, and stereotypical to the point that, in a deft bit of cutting satire, the wife (equal to her husband in terms of being stout and, initially, humorless) ended up with her husband's suitcase, and thus his wardrobe, by mistake.

In this case, the embittered husband and wife hail from Paris. There's less literal baggage, but the emotional weight is similar. He loves her madly, and has grown resentful that she doesn't return his passion. There are intimations that the root cause for their mutual unhappiness is that she cannot have children, but on top of that is the simple fact that he's something of a pig, crude in humor and taste. Her name is Romy (Diane Kruger), his is Richard (Gilles Lellouche), and the names of the young women Richard chats with at a bar one evening are irrelevant. The girls tell a dirty joke about how Native Americans get their tribal names; Romy departs the bar in disgust and leaves Richard to sport with the girls; and when Richard rolls back to the hotel room at 2 a.m. -- after even his new American friends have decided he's too annoying and left him -- an episode of attempted marital rape ensues.

It's here that the movie takes the first of several wild turns and briefly becomes something of a thriller. (Joshua Jackson makes an appearance as a kindly police detective.) But like Romy, the film isn't sure, at first, what it wants or in which direction to strike off; eventually Romy ends up in Las Vegas, and it's at the film's halfway mark, as she's looking for a restroom at a casino, dressed in a bunny costume and fresh from hanging out on a street corner with a couple of Elvis impersonators, that she meets Diego (Norman Reedus).

He mistakes her for a prostitute and, rather than apologize of it, offers an unlikely pickup line: "I only fuck whores," he says, over drinks. "It's easier that way." Far from being turned off, Romy is relieved. "I'm done with love!" she exclaims. It's a casual match made in a neon heaven.

But what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas. When Romy follows Diego home and slowly starts to infiltrate his life -- meeting his brother Joe (Trevor Peterson) and sister-in-law Billie (Lena Dunham, who breaks from her "Girls" role and its oeuvre, to refreshing effect) and prompting a fight at a bar when another patron disrespects her -- Diego starts to act like he's feeling cornered. There's a reason for this, and it's more than typical male fear of commitment, but it doesn't derail Romy's progress. Quite the opposite: Diego fades into the background for a while, and lets the story stay focused on Romy.

As far as movies about female empowerment go, this is a far more believable story than others of its ilk -- say, "Waitress" -- and more grounded in what more or less feels like plausibility. There are still elements that have a magical sheen about them (not the least of which is how Romy is befriended by a Native American healer who tells her future and dubs her with the tribal name Sky -- both the film's title and a cleansing counterbalance to the filthy racist joke from earlier), and that makes it impossible to ignore the fact that this film is, in effect, a fairy tale. For every deliberate tug meant to bring the story back to Earth just as it threatens to fly off into the wild blue, there's at least one eyebrow-raising improbability. (Diego is a park ranger but he lives in stylish house? Romy, having simply decided to stay in America on her tourist visa, has no trouble with immigration hassles or employment issues?)

So it's a fairy tale; that's fine, even given that it's a fairy tale designed in every respect to appeal to an audience that's very much like its protagonist: Female, frustrated, yearning for wide open spaces and a life less crowded with glitzy bullshit, and yearning, too, for some barely imaginable perfect man.

Moreover (and here's another does of magic) she's unfailingly beautiful, even after sleepless nights spent not knowing where her next cup of coffee is going to come from. In cinema, that's a cardinal virtue, and so is the way she manages to attract a decent man with her combination of looks, fearlessness, and vulnerability. Audiences can and do go for this sort of thing. A less generically poetic title, but an equally suitable one, would have been "Sex and the Rural Backwater."

That the movie works for a wider viewership as well is a testament to Berthaub's skill as director and co-writer. That's good news for the men in the crowd, who will probably mostly consist of boyfriends dragged along for the show.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.