With a jury headed up by Wong Kar Wai, the 63rd Berlin Film Festival rewards Eastern Europe, female protagonists and male directors.
Eastern Promise by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Europe is in crisis. Old news. But with an astonishing array of Eastern European films from Russia, Romania, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kazakhstan forming an unusually large part of the films in competition, and Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose winning the Golden Bear, the Berlin Film Festival is clear in its support to low-budget filmmaking. Child’s Pose, which is centred around a young man who accidentally kills a young boy while driving outside Bucharest and his well-connected mother who pulls out all the stops to save him from jail, is an appropriate winner for this year’s selection, both a portrait of an older woman and hailing from Eastern Europe. Masculinity, womanhood, mental illness and pornography proved popular themes, with a few knocks for the police (corrupt and homophobic), the medical industry (corrupt and uncaring) and the church (corrupt and licentious). And Child’s Pose is not only a strident example of the corrupting power of money and influence, but also, in a stand-out scene with Luminita Gheorghiu (above) humbling herself before the parents of the deceased child, a powerful reminder of the conflicting emotions of motherhood.
Also from the former Eastern Bloc comes the beautiful, yet somewhat grim, Harmony Lessons. Set in the Kazakh countryside, Emir Baigazin’s film is a film of two halves, first a pensive look at the lonely trials and tribulations of adolescence, then a murderous tale of retribution and recrimination, a fascinating trip into the dark mind of a teenager. Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker, which picked up two Silver Bears, follows a Roma family in Bosnia-Herzegovina in which the mother is refused a life-saving operation following a miscarriage due to a lack of necessary funds or health insurance. It follows a real family recreating their own experiences, part way between fiction and documentary. The film is beautifully shot, even if it lacks dramatic urgency or immediacy. Russia contributed, among others, Za Marksa in the Forum section and Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long And Happy Life, both examining the searing effects of the financial crisis and capitalism’s oppression of the proletariat. Khlebnikov’s film is a beautiful and well crafted story, but its gun-toting conclusion goes way beyond the limits of its poetic and social realism.
Portraits of women, and in particular older women, were surprising numerous, albeit often framed by male directors. Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria was the stand-out favourite, with Paulina García unsurprisingly winning a Silver Bear for her performance as a fifty-something divorcee on the prowl for a new man and a new life. It’s no doubt indebted to Cassavetes for its intimate study of a woman on the edge of family, love and life, but it’s a funny and beautifully acted celebration of self that left many a Berlinale-goer buzzing. Germany didn’t fare so well this year, with only Thomas Arslan’s Gold in the competition, Nina Hoss turning in a familiar performance of silent suspicion in a period horseback movie crossing Canada’s interior, which culminates in a rather senseless conclusion of female empowerment. Pia Marais’s South African set Layla Fourie was also disappointing. Despite some great performances, its plot of a lie-detector expert covering up her accidental manslaughter of a white farmer is too willingly pushed along by her young son’s haphazard actions. France however continued its recent run of films examining the Catholic church with La Religieuse and Camille Claudel 1915. Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation of Diderot’s novel brings a modern sensibility to its tale of abuse at the hands of nuns that Rivette could barely dream of in 1966. Pauline Etienne’s performance as Simone Simonin is as entrancing as a lamb in a slaughterhouse, but Nicloux’s film is somewhat straitjacketed by an ambivalent fidelity to Diderot’s text.
Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 however, based on the medical reports and letters between the sculptress and her brother, the poet Paul Claudel, is devastating in its portrait of a capable woman imprisoned in an asylum. Filmed in a mental institution with real inhabitants, it makes for uncomfortable viewing, but Juliette Binoche’s performance as the paranoid, desperate inmate is utterly heartbreaking. Another French icon provides the focus for Emanuelle Bercot’s Elle S’en Va, with a role written especially for Catherine Deneuve, as a restaurant doyenne who goes out for cigarettes and ends up on a road trip through France. It’s an entertaining journey of non-sequiturs, and a curious exploration of France, family and womanhood. Sébastien Lifshitz’s Bambi, which won the Teddy Award for best documentary, is a glorious portrait of womanhood at its most acutely feminine. It’s a journey through the life of a transsexual born in Algeria, who escaped to Paris in the 1950s to work at a transvestite cabaret in Pigalle, and who reinvented herself as a teacher and lesbian. With delicious cine-film footage of variété dressing rooms and Sixties Paris, Bambi is a glorious example of striking one’s own path. And with a Nouvelle Vague inspired lightness of touch, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha follows the highs and lows of a twenty-something dancer making it, or not, in New York, Sacramento and Poughkeepsie. With a charming performance from Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s film is joyfully anarchic, steering Frances Ha just the right side of whimsy.
Men on the other hand are, for a change, slightly more complicated. It wouldn’t seem so from David Gordon Green’s Silver Bear winning Prince Avalanche, in which the less fair sex is either a feckless relationship refugee or a sex-obsessed buffoon. A remake of Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s Either Way, Prince Avalanche follows two men repainting the lines of Texas’ burned forest roads, and their attempts at conversation and intimacy. It’s a return to the director’s indie days, Gordon Green conjuring a beautiful melancholia, but with its easy script, the film remains unresolved in its trajectory of men going off the straight path. From one fine bromance to something altogether more physical, Stephan Lacant’s Free Fall is a refreshing look at homosexual at its most masculine, and most desperate. Following the story of a straight police officer, who falls in love with another man at a training academy, Lacant’s film is a powerful look into police homophobia and one man’s slow and painful decision to be his own person. But there’s perhaps no more painful viewing than Jafar Panahi’s Pardé (Closed Curtain). Building on the claustrophobic self-analysis of This Is Not A Film, Closed Curtain is an infuriatingly complex miasma of fiction, documentary and metaphor, filmed in secret on the Caspian Sea. And with a canine performance that merits its own Bear Award. Alongside Wong Kar Wai’s opening film of martial masculinity The Grandmaster, Yariv Horowitz’s Rock The Casbah is a study of male innocence corrupted by war, in its tale of Israeli soldiers protecting the Gaza Strip from a Muslim family’s rooftop. It’s a defence of the behaviour of soldiers battered by the psychological impact of war, and most affecting in its inescapable crush of personality.
Pornography dominated this year’s Berlinale with Lovelace, a fictional examination of the making of Deep Throat, James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar. – a sixty-minute remake of the graphic sex scene excised from William Friedkin’s Cruising, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction, unmaking a man addicted to internet pornography and Beth B’s documentary Exposed, of New York’s neo-burlesque scene on the make. Michael Winterbottom mounted the life and times of Paul Raymond, the king of Soho, in The Look Of Love, a who’s who of British comedy. But low on laughs and hampered by a script giving too much rein to Steve Coogan’s knack for mimicry, it’s a rather disappointing period piece, failing to conjure the vitality of the sex show so easily grasped in Bambi. Souls were laid bare too in battles of the sexes Mes Séances de Lutte, Yesterday Never Ends and Before Midnight. The third of Richard Linklater’s films exploring the joys and woes of Jesse and Celine is wittier and more engrossing than Before Sunset, its script sparkling with psychological insight and hilarious one-liners. Delpy’s performance, as neurotic as ever, is bravely real, but the progression of action and dialogue is surprisingly neat and conventional. Isabel Coixet’s similarly wordy Ayer No Termina Nunca is a futuristic piece of theatre, staging Spain’s impending doom at the hands of the financial crisis. It’s confused in its conflation of economic hardship and its story of a husband and wife who meet after ten years to scrutinise their relationship at their son’s graveside, but with moving performances from both Javier Cámara and Candela Peña, Yesterday Never Ends is a brutalist pas-de-deux.
It was certainly a better year for the up-and-coming, with old hands such as Bille August, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh outclassed by a more inventive younger generation. As much as Fredrik Bond’s The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman wandered into a capricious male fantasy of drugs, naked girls and gangsters, there was a colourful charm to its overshadowed love story. Bille August’s Night Train To Lisbon is a rather leaden look at Portuguese resistance during the Salazar dictatorship with a love story shoehorned into this rather odd europudding in which Germany seems to exhume the skeletons of another country. And then there’s Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, another film of two halves, starting as an attack on the Machiavellian machinations of the pharmaceutical industry, which too easily gives way to a conventional middle-class-white-man-in-peril thriller. Similarly, Gus Van Sant’s exposé against fracking Promised Land loses itself in a dull love story and familiar corporate mudslinging. Only George Sluizer’s Dark Blood broke new ground. Although really that should be old ground, resurrecting River Phoenix’s last performance with the director speaking in the missing uncompleted scenes. Phoenix’s performance and its story of a rich and foolish Hollywood couple touring the Nevada desert in a Bentley provide reviving blasts from the past in Sluizer’s glossy anti-horror confrontation with death.
Felix van Groeningen won the Panorama section with his widely enjoyed The Broken Circle Breakdown, Flemish bluegrass at its finest. But Nicolas Philibert’s La Maison De La Radio also deserves special mention, an intelligent and funny day in the life of Paris’s broadcasting centre, offering an insightful miscellany of newsreaders, editors, interviewees, hip-hoppers and glockenspielers. While James Franco appeared again in Carter’s Maladies, a brilliant look at a former soap actor’s mental illness and his female-to-male cross-dressing carer. Maladies treads a fine line, but thanks to Franco and Catherine Keener’s subtle and delicate performances, the film remains quirky while clearing shy of Oscar-angling whimsicality.
It’s perhaps a sign of Hollywood conservatism and Europe’s funding crisis that the best cinema on offer at this year’s Berlinale were low-budget indie fare. Even if Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, with its rapid montage of fleeting one-second scenes, must have cost a pretty penny. But with Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker, shot on a budget of 17,000 Euro, picking up two Silver Bears, the Berlin Film Festival in both its programming and its awards prizes the low-budget austerity of the digital revolution. A democratic festival indeed. And with over 300,000 tickets sold showing no sign of crisis.