Good erotic films are built on an atmosphere of tension. Maybe it’s repressed desire, or a ticking clock imposed on an affair by external forces, or two people with fundamentally different identities coming together against all odds. Jan Gassmann’s “99 Moons” shoots for all three, and yet the tension hangs limply throughout its nearly two-hour running time.
The Swiss film, opening in theaters Friday, stars Valentina Di Pace and Dominik Fellmann as Bigna and Frank, characters representing opposites on a spectrum of sexual agency. Bigna, a young scientist trying to advance in her profession by planning a research study in Chile, is controlling to a fault, hooking up with anonymous men in masks to fulfill an elaborate sexual fantasy that the viewer is thrown into during the opening scene. Frank, a loner, weaves his way through hazy nightclubs in search of something that Gassmann never quite articulates. The two meet up through one of Bigna’s contrived escapades, after which Frank immediately bursts into tears. Bigna is confused, and so are we.
What follows is a dull, “When Harry Met Sally”-style narrative in which the protagonists pursue each other, get together, and break up over bizarre misunderstandings, before the film jumps forward in time and the cycle repeats itself. (The film’s title comes from this structure; their time apart is measured pretentiously in “moons.”) Gassmann clearly wants to explore the state of love and sexuality in the 2020s — there are more than a few passing parallels to Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” — but he succeeds only in conveying the pathologies of two people who can’t figure out what they want from each other.
Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters.