Some cities, like
some people, are always recognizable, however many facelifts they've had.
"Glad to be in Berlin again," cry festivalgoers
each February, though you'd think they'd pause for bewilderment in a city
that since the war, and even more since the Wall, has gone through nonstop
architectural surgery, ideological liposuction, and re-mapping of veins,
arteries, and festival venues.
Yet the word "Berlin"
is still an invocation without equal. We were hit with it daily in this
year's movies. In the opener, Jean-Jacques Annaud'sEnemy at the Gates, Nazi Berlin's
doomed hand is seen puppeteering the disaster of Stalingrad.
In Thirteen Days it's Berlin
that Khrushchev will wreak revenge on if President Kennedy attacks Cuba.
In My Sweet Home, a Greek-German
comedy about a fixed-nation wedding party, Berlin
is both setting and main conversational football. In The Tailor of Panama Cold War novelist John le Carre finds a substitute Berlin
in Central America,
while assuring Berliners at the press conference that there will never be a
city divided to match this one. (Something like saying "You're still the
world's top schizophrenic.")
Meanwhile, the gay
hit of the Panorama Section, John Cameron Mitchell's musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, had a Berlinbackstory and Berlin-raised writer-director:
Mitchell grew up as the son of the American Sector's commander (and now look
at him). Even another prodigal child who soared to festival fame as the star
of a documentary about how to survive drugs, obesity, and Andy Warhol had a
name made for the occasion: BrigidBerlin,
ex-diva of The Chelsea Girls.
As a film festival Berlin
is still out there at the barricades, promoting the new and sometimes
jaw-dropping. The early attention-grabbers in the Competition were Catherine Breillat'sA Ma Soeur! and Patrice Chereau'sIntimacy,
both taking sexual candor to new lengths/heights/breadths. In the latter
everyone got an eyeful of naked Mark Rylance and
Kerry Fox, bumping uglies as graphically as in any
modern feature film. Less arresting, in a tale of anonymous sex that
resembles Last Tango in Paris teleported
to an ill-defined South London,
were the script, plot, handheld camerawork, and Europudding
casting. (This is a London
teeming with heavy-brogued Scotsmen and
impenetrably accented Frenchmen.) The film won the Golden Bear, perhaps for
its sexual out-there-ness, plus a Best Actress prize for Fox.
For me A Ma Soeur!outstripped it completely, with Breillat
baring far more than her protagonists' bodies. If she cast a cold anatomist's
eye on male-female relations in Romance,
where the nudity was as cheering as in a mortuary, here she combines visual
candor with a new warmth and depth. We care about these two sisters on a
family vacation, one a fat, ice-cream-guzzling 12-year-old (AnaisReboux), the older a
sultry stunner (RoxaneMesquida)
carrying her virginity around like a charity donation in search of a taker.
The taker turns out to be a handsome Italian drifter who, in two long and
brilliantly unnerving bed scenes poised between seduction and date rape,
doubly deflowers Mesquida. Redoux
looks on through the half-dark, a churning conflation of horror, fascination,
and romantic arousal.
has the unfussiest style in modern European cinema.
She's a forensic scientist for whom the only interesting compositions are
the slides containing clear samples of human pathology that she can fit under
her microscope. There are subtle interventions of color (a perfidious Edenic green in contrast to the whites and reds of Romance) and some cleverly skewed
narrative rhythms (a menacing climactic motorway sequence that goes on so
long we almost know it will end in
horror), but mostly A Ma Soeur! seems the more Bazinian movie. You could be looking through a window.
You could swear it was two hours of accidentally witnessed reality, even
though there is art and sympathetic wit in scenes like the family meals,
where summer jollity wars with wintry generational tensions, or the
funny-poignant swimming pool vignette where we spy on Reboux
hugging and murmuring makebelieve romantic chat to
a wooden diving-board support, and then swimming to the pool's metal ladder
to murmur jealousy-making sweet nothings to it.
Love, says the
movie, means taking every chance to make someone else feel sorry. (Or
jealous.) And sex is a contingent world where guilt and innocence are interchangeable,
where "seduction" can be a polite word for virtual rape, where
"rape" – in the extraordinary final scene – can be
indistinguishable from mutual fulfillment. For a director so obsessed with a
clinical fidelity to surface reality, it's amazing that Breillat
can step back at the end to reveal an abyss that seems, in hindsight, to have
been perfectly planned from the beginning.
itself, land of schadenfreude, the Berlin
fest has an appetite for the simultaneously fascinating and appalling.
Several movies laid on agony as art and outrageous behavior as spectator
sport, lent extra watchability by ironic
protagonists. Don's Plum is the
film Leonardo DiCaprio wanted banned from U.S.
screens because it was made before he and co-actor Tobey
Maguire were stars and meant only "as an actor's exercise." Hey, America's
loss is Europe's
gain. Berliners could enjoy R. D. Robb's raw, grainy, obscenity-spiked movie
about kids kibitzing in a
bar, where they toss political incorrectness around like Molotov cocktails. DiCaprio is the blond sloucher
and chief troublemaker, so sly, limber, foulmouthed, and smashed-of-mien that
he could probably have ruined his Titanic audition by showing but a single
take. Yet the film proves that a good actor is a good actor, never mind how
sink-or-swim his vehicle.
By contrast, Emma
Thompson's actressy (in the worst sense) turn as
the cancer sufferer in Mike Nichols' HBO stage-to-screen adaptation Wit does the material no favors. Each
of PulitzerPrize-winning writer
Margaret Edson's self-conscious, bittersweet
witticisms, of which there are about a hundred, is semaphored, while
Thompson's bravely shaven head sits oddly with the rosy complexion she wears
throughout, even at death's door. Compare the true-life cosmetic tragedy that
in Shelley and Vincent Freemont's Pie in the Sky. A drug-ravaged,
ice-cream-bloated Warhol diva in the Sixties, this daughter of wealth and
privilege – Dad was William Randolph Hearst's business manager – speaks to
the camera today as a svelte Upper West Side
lady who micromanages her diet and has a dry sassy wit about her past. Both Brigids are irresistible. What she did onscreen with a
needle in The Chelsea Girls still
makes Kids et al. seem beginners'
stuff. What she says about those days now, and the funny ways she says it,
should make reporters flock to her door as to the Delphic Sibyl's.
Street stories, in
the age of new freedom and cheap cameras, are taking on a new lease on
liveliness. At Berlin
two were outstanding. After a pedagogic start, Richard Bouchareb'sLittle Senegal – the tale of an
African slavery museum guide who ups to America
to trace slave connections in his own genealogy – grows into a movie with an
enthrallingly primitive style. The hero meets kinfolk in New
York; finds a keener kinship
with strangers; learns that in a violent society blood can be thicker than
brotherhood. The largely nonprofessional actors bring an expressive innocence
that chimes with the Sunday-painting style and the primal but poignant
stepping-stones in a simple, resonant narrative.
Beijing Bicycle, which won Berlin's
runner-up Grand Jury Prize, is De Sica gone
Chinese: a boy (or two boys), a stolen two-wheeler, and the search through an
impenetrable city. The difference in Wang Xiaoshusai's
vision is that the story of Boy One, up from the country and losing a bike
that's also a job lifeline (he's a courier for a dispatch service), is
mirror-reversed in that of citified Boy Two, who innocently buys the stolen
vehicle and uses it for recreation, peer-group "wheelies," even
courtship. (In Beijing
a mountain bike is the equivalent of an Alfa Romeo.) The conflict when theymeet isn't just about the bike: it's
about two kinds of China,
two kinds of dreaming. Wang's style fits the split-personality subject,
fluctuating between high-velocity verismo – great
street chases – and sudden scenes where action freezes into a Fassbinderesque tableau, memorializing a moment.
In a year when Asia
has made an unprecedented march into Oscarland with
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Berlin
demonstrated that one Ang Lee film, never mind a
Chinese Grand Jury pleaser, is just the tip of the landmass. Lin Cheng-sheng'sBetelnut Beauty
took Best Director prize for a post-WWII romance that yokes the best extremes
of Taiwanese cinema: its acute and lapidary period sense and its fluid verite-style human intimism.
Kaze Shino's Love/Juice,
for me the pick of the Young Film-Makers Forum, chronicles a spiteful-sweet
lesbian romance in a movie whose long takes and unflinching gaze draw out
revelatory moments in performances.
standout crowdpleaser was Denmark's
Italian for Beginners. Imagine a
comedy from the Dogma 95 crowd. (And we don't mean something saturnine like The Celebration.) Writer-director
Lone Scherfig somehow allows a feel-good plot to
live and grow amid Dogma's mandatory grunge visuals and handheld camerawork.
Six Copenhagenites play musical couples,
falling in and out of love and language classes (they're trying to learn
Italian). Misunderstandings flourish, and the mood of scatty,
woebegone humanism resembles Mike Leigh gone Scandinavian. The International
Critics Jury gave it their top prize.
One revelation at Berlin,
as days ticked by, was the re-emergence of France
as a filmic force. If Chereau and Breillat snatched headlines in the Competition, Patrice Leconte'sFelix et
Lola made it a trio of French-directed Bear contenders about l'amour(Charlotte Gainsbourg
and Philippe Torreton pursue love, revenge, and
philosophical chitchat in a fairground). And the Panorama section had Denis Villeneuve'sMaelstrom
– French-Canadian but hot on authentic Gallic gloom and absurdism
– and a marvelous, seemingly coincidental diptych about one of provincial France's
great causes celebres.
You would have to be
over 70 to remember the case of the Papin sisters,
who worked as maids in a Le Mans
household until the day in February 1933 when they brutally slaughtered
their mistress and her daughter. Eyes were torn out, legs chopped; one head
was crushed to a pulp. Sartre and the Surrealists cooed about actesgratuits; Genet
picked up a pen and wrote The Maids. France
had experienced no scandal like it since Dreyfus or possibly Bluebeard.
Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids (Les
Blessures Assassins), plainly directed but
potently acted, with Sylvie Testud eye-poppingly good as the older sister; and better still,
Claude Ventura's En Quete
des SoeursPapin, an
investigative documentary. What is left to investigate, you ask? One: why the
siblings wrought this scarce-thinkable atrocity. (Tearing their victims' eyes
out was the first act, not the final one.) Two: whether the younger sister,
despite rumors of decease in 1982, is still alive. The films scores an
astonishing scoop by tracking her down, alive if not well – certainly not
well enough to re-testify – in a far-flung French hospital. The horrors we
have watched for 90 minutes suddenly accrete in a single face. Yet that face
is innocent with age and forgetfulness. It cannot even recognize as an
imposter-stalker the interviewer, who plainly conned her way into the room
and seems for a brief moment creepier than her quarry.
Few movies could
better illustrate cinema's dual identity as a medium of light and an art of
darkness, though the festival crashed out with the bitonal
splendors of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick pictured the future – or the future as seen from
1968 – as a blend of blinding hospital op-room aesthetics and dark abysses of
space, time, and speculation. He would have enjoyed the Berlin
Film Festival. It likes these percussive contrasts. It never fears darkness.
It has long been accustomed to schism and duality. Even next year, when it
loses its boss of 21 years, Moritz de Hadeln, whose
good relations with Hollywood brought an annual cargo of Oscarnominated
films, it's unlikely Berlin will lose its unique role as an epicenter for
the European cine-sensibility.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 2001 ISSUE OF