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Verboten love

Aimée & Jaguar's appeal is outstanding performances

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The kind of implausible story that could have been cribbed from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's wild imagination, Aimée & Jaguar is a romance too strange not to be true.

A German film set in 1943 during the Allied bombing of Berlin, Max Färberböck's adaptation of a 1994 German best-seller opens with a chance encounter between Felice (Maria Schrader), an iconoclastic, sophisticated Berliner with the face of a decadence-acquainted Bettie Boop, and Lilly (Juliane Köhler), the quintessence of soft, feminine blonde beauty. Felice spies Lilly stepping out on her soldier husband (who's away at the front) at a Beethoven concert before the hall is blasted with a shower of Allied bombs.

That violent intro sets the pace of a romance just as tempestuous. Entranced by a single glimpse of Lilly, Felice begins besieging her with romantic -- and anonymous -- mash notes and eventually, through a friend who works as Lilly's housekeeper, conspires to meet her.

A lesbian relationship at the height of WWII between a married mother of four (who's been awarded a medal of procreative honor by the German government for turning out four healthy, strapping Aryan boys) and a party-girl lesbian would be scandalous enough. But Felice's object of affection is also a habitual anti-Semite who claims she can "smell a Jew." And Felice is a Jew passing as Aryan, even in a Berlin picked clean of almost every Semite.

Felice has the additional pluck to work at a Nazi propaganda newspaper where she uses her insider status to supply information to the underground. Felice seems to get a charge from living amidst the enemy and from proving by her very presence, the absurdity of some identifying, essential Jewish traits. In a film that often leaves mysteriously vague what first attracts Felice to Lilly, there is the implication that Felice is actually tantalized by Lilly's unsuitability as a love match. The adventurous, danger-courting Felice seems perversely up to the challenge of deflowering the Nazi poster girl.

Two immensely likable actresses, Schrader and Köhler make their two-trains-colliding romantic chemistry wholly believable. Schrader is especially mesmerizing as a woman who follows her own desires, the rest of the world be damned. Sensual and rash, Felice seems to get a perverse delight hanging out at chic Nazi barrooms and making money by posing for pornographic photographs with her Sapphic sisters. Pictures of the sexy Jewesses are, ironically, sent to Nazi soldiers at the front.

Aimée and Jaguar (which takes its name from the lovers' sobriquets Felice christens them with) is the kind of film whose story is far more compelling and imaginative than its exposition, which is a tad expected. Director Max Färberböck is not one for understatement and so makes it clear early on that Lilly's heterosexual couplings are ludicrous and unsatisfying: both with her doddering, neurotic Wehrmacht officer husband, who plays the field while assuming his wife has no sex drive, and with her lovers, like the oafish soldier whose idea of foreplay is having Lilly praise his "enormous tree." It's enough to make any girl go dyke, these scenarios imply.

The story of Lilly and Felice's very verboten romance occurs in flashback as 85-year-old Lilly, recently moved against her will to a retirement home, stumbles upon the friend who first brought Felice and Lilly together. This Titanic bracketing device has some advantages; it offers one of the sauciest moments yet, in mainstream Sapphic cinema, as an elderly, elegantly turned-out Lilly contemplates the pert backside of the fetching blonde twentysomething who escorts her to the nursing home. But beyond introducing the tantalizing question of "What happened to Felice?" the flashback seems a rather pedestrian storytelling gimmick.

The real appeal of Aimée & Jaguar lies in its performances as the seemingly in-control, conservative Lilly becomes unhinged by her love for Felice. A scene of the two making love for the first time is especially electric, as Lilly struggles to control herself, shaking with fear and excitement, gushing, "I feel like I've been born again." It's a sentiment Juliane Köhler makes seem piercingly true. Both Schrader and Köhler won Silver Bears at last year's Berlin International Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. The actresses breathe life into a film bursting at the seams with melodramatic rigmarole, bringing something real and human to what could have been another romance-set-against-wartime drama.

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