The beginning of "Sugarbaby," screening at UC Irvine Friday night, is almost excruciating. All that garish lighting, displaced camera work and slow story development as Percy Adlon sets up his main character, a chubby female mortuary worker looking for love.
But wait. Once the German director gets on with it, concluding the woman's (Marianne Sagebrecht) pursuit of a subway driver (Eisi Gulp), everything finds a weird but pleasant rhythm. As soon as her romantic target has settled in Sagebrecht's ample arms, Adlon exposes us to a very offbeat love story.
Adlon, one of those peculiarly minded filmmakers, is definitely an acquired taste. Not everybody goes for his immersed views on fringe people and the fringe things they do; his best known movie, "Bagdad Cafe" (1988), was dismissed by critic Pauline Kael as a mess of insignificant takes on insignificant characters.
To be sure, Adlon's conceits are trying at times, especially when he refuses to let logic enter his designs. But I enjoyed "Bagdad Cafe" and "Sugarbaby" (1985) for the simplest of reasons: Adlon is surprising and rarely condescending in portraying his unusual characters. He's no visionary, but his small-frame films are honest and personal.
The opulent Sagebrecht, an actress with an almost unshakable deadpan style, figures prominently in Adlon's library. She was at the center of "Bagdad Cafe," and she's the focus of "Sugarbaby." There's easy symbolism in Adlon's choosing Sagebrecht as his muse this time; through her and her obvious imperfections, he's able to both embrace and ironically reflect on our notions of the romantic ideal.
Sagebrecht's character works at the R.I.P. funeral parlor where she washes, dresses and puts makeup on the newly arrived corpses. One day, while going through her absent-minded routine of taking the subway home, she sees the driver and obsession takes over. She pursues him ravenously, eventually discovering that he's in an unsatisfying marriage with a life as uninvolving as her own.
Her attraction to him is obvious--he's good-looking and young--but his to her is less clear. Adlon makes the case that her need to nurture finds a responsive object in the boyish subway driver, but it's not the finest of arguments. What does come through, though, is the sense that love can change everything, at once simplifying and complicating a life.
On the technical side, you do have to put up with Johanna Heer's strange cinematography. He loves the cockeyed angle, the overly bright color, the odd fixation on such mundane things as shiny escalators and dull subway platforms. All that gets annoying, but Adlon does provide payoffs.
One of the best scenes, when fat Sagebrecht and agile Gulp jitterbug while a bunch of bystanders stare in amazement and appreciation, is so queer it's almost surreal. It's also rapturous, a kind of letting go of everything but the liberating feelings they have for each other, and that goes to the heart of what "Sugarbaby," however clumsily, is trying to say.
What: Percy Adlon's "Sugarbaby."
When: Friday, Nov. 8, at 7 and 9 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive to Bridge Road. Take Bridge Road into the campus.
Wherewithal: $2 to $4.
Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.