When we recently discussed Jacques Tati’s PlayTime as a Movie of the Month selection, we fixated on the film’s iconic restaurant sequence, in which its sterile, icy façade is gradually broken down into a sweaty mess of drunken revelry. It was a pleasure, then, to discover a sloppy-drunk lesbian remix of PlayTime in Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return that seemingly adapts that one restaurant sequence into a feature-length narrative. Self-described as a “portrait of a drunkard”, Ticket of No Return follows an unnamed, mostly silent, seemingly wealthy woman as she deliberately drinks herself into oblivion in Berlin. She’s not as befuddled or as passive as Tati’s signature Monsieur Hulot character. Rather, she’s a self-destructive lush who stumbles through Berlin as a silently obnoxious tourist, determined to guzzle down cognac & cocktails by the gallon on every barstool in the city. The film also chooses an entirely different political target than Tati’s screed against the nearing homogenized monoculture of a tech-obsessed future, focusing instead on the ways in which publicly misbehaving women are socially treated as repulsive beasts, while men are afforded much more leeway in their own libertinism. Still, Ottinger extrapolates a lot of her narrative’s sweatiest, most debaucherous impulses from the drunken restaurant breakdown sequence in PlayTime, converting the best scene from a well-loved movie into its own self-contained world of degeneracy & despair.
One of the more curious dynamics of Ticket of No Return is the film’s balance between subtlety & on-the-nose political commentary. Ottinger directly inserts her own voice into the picture as a narrator in the opening scene, a lengthy introduction to the unnamed protagonist’s sole function as a self-destructive alcoholic. Without that preface, it might have taken a while for her behavior to seem out of the ordinary, as excessive alcohol consumption is so socially encouraged that it doesn’t initially register as being especially unhealthy. Ottinger even deploys a literal Greek chorus to state as much in-dialogue, casting three characters as Social Question, Common Sense, and Accurate Statistics – morally uptight women who only speak in plain facts relating to their absurdist namesakes. However, even with all this blatant commentary on our gendered societal relationship with alcoholism, the film somehow comes across as a cryptic, esoteric art piece that cannot be fully understood, at least not on a first watch. As our “sightseeing” boozer protagonist becomes increasingly plastered in her dizzied tour of Berlin, the film exponentially obscures its messaging & intent in an absurdist fashion. It’s simultaneously an on-the-surface political statement that discusses its gender theory & alcoholism themes in plain academic terms and an enigmatic gaze into a drunken abyss that’s just as mysterious as it is playfully meaningless. It’s a fascinating internal conflict that will likely confound & alienate some audiences just as much as it delights the cheeky art school lushes who find themselves on its wavelength.
There’s a listless repetition to Ticket of No Return that will test a lot of audiences’ patience. After the narrator announces that our unnamed protagonist has purchased a one-way ticket to Berlin with Leaving Las Vegas-style intent, there’s not much that changes from scene to scene. She simply stumbles from bar to bar, drinking gallons of booze and swatting away sexual advances from both men & women while reaching for bottles. Often, the biggest excitement in the film is what outrageous outfit she will wear next, as her high-couture wardrobe harshly clashes against the degenerate behavior of her drinking escapades. The movie can be very unaccommodating if you’re not onboard with the most exciting action onscreen being how an asymmetrical primary-color dress is accessorized with dramatic sunglasses, in which case this movie is very much not for you. After it settles into its boozy groove, all that’s left onscreen is a woman engaging in self-destructive behavior while modeling obnoxious, over-the-top fashion pieces. If you’re looking for more grandly staged commotion, Tati’s PlayTime is better suited to dazzle you in its extravagance. Personally, I was much more attracted to this drunken, feminist, low-stakes/high-fashion tale of a bumbling tourist in a strange, overwhelming city. I even found it to be the funnier film of the pair, in its own nihilistic way.