WITH ALL THE RAW, animalistic rutting that opens "Antares" (followed by fits of jealousy, betrayal, bigotry, screaming, lying, cursing, attempted suicide, vehicular mayhem, and physical and emotional bullying), there is something eerily calm about this strangely compelling film. Perhaps "calm" is not so much the word as "deadpan." It is the tension, in fact, between matter-of-fact presentation and volcanic emotional content that creates its perverse appeal.
Constructed as three interlocking stories featuring the residents of an Austrian apartment complex -- in which minor characters from one vignette turn up later as major characters in another and vice versa -- writer-director Gotz Spielmann's drama begins with a kind of muted bang, in more ways than one. After a short prologue that ends abruptly when a car slams into a taxicab carrying a man flipping through some dirty photos, "Antares" begins with the tale of Eva (Petra Morze), a married nurse who, while heading home to her family after working the night shift, encounters a taciturn man (Andreas Patton) she may or may not know from somewhere -- although we recognize him from the cab -- waiting for her in the hospital lobby.
Back at his hotel room, after barely three words and a couple of sips of wine, the two wind up naked and in the mood for love. Did I say love? I meant lust. Or maybe not even that. Over the next few days, slipping away repeatedly from her husband and teenage daughter, Eva and Tomasz (so she does know his name) engage in a kind of physical transaction that seems less joyless than sex. What it satisfies, apparently, is not just a kind of ravening, bestial, copulatory hunger, but some weird psychological needs as well. The only time Eva smiles, in fact, is when a maid Tomasz has paid to walk in on them encounters Eva in what the old folks used to call a "compromising position."
As unceremoniously as he arrived, Tomasz departs, precipitating a not entirely unexpected change in Eva's relationship with her family. Spielmann's film, at this point, picks up its second thread, one concerning a grocery clerk named Sonja (Susanne Wuest) and her philandering, immigrant husband, Marco (Dennis Cubic). While the director has spoken of how "Antares" is about "people trying to break out of their loneliness," here that effort manifests itself in Sonja's pretending to be pregnant to hang onto her man. It's not enough, of course -- how could it be? -- but what turns out to be enough, in the end, may surprise you.
The final chapter spins off Sonja and Marco's dysfunctional relationship into the sick dynamic between the woman Marco has been having an affair with (Martina Zinner) and her real estate agent ex-husband, Alex (Andreas Kiendl), a package of damaged goods if ever there was one. Angry with the world (immigrants, his ex, his clients, himself), he's a walking time bomb, or, to pick up the metaphor suggested by the film's title, a star destined to explode as a supernova.
In a way, the bang (which is, at the same time, a whimper) that closes this episode brings the film full circle, tying up its disparate elements -- fear, anger, sadness, hurt, lust, jealousy -- in a single, if not especially tidy bundle. It may not offer any profound insights into human misery except this one: We all, at one point or another, are touched by it.
ANTARES (Unrated, 119 minutes) -- Contains graphic sex scenes, nudity, drug use, obscenity and violence. In German with subtitles. At the AFI Silver Theatre.