Queen of the Desert
Queen of the Desert

By Zhuo-Ning Su.

The Berlin International Film Festival—or the “Berlinale”—celebrated its 65th edition earlier this year (Feb. 5- 15). Locked in bitter, continental weather with little sunshine and no palm trees, Berlin is no match for Cannes both in terms of glamour and prestige. In the past decade, the growing presence of the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place merely days in advance, also threatened to steal the thunder away from the German capital. The challenge for festival director Dieter Kosslick to put together an exciting, unexpected, important selection is thus understandably huge. So it should be reported with a sigh of relief that, despite the inevitable bombs, the first A-list European film festival of the year is still going strong and its crop of premieres should be more than enough to jolt cineasts everywhere awake, probably even shape the rest of the festival-year.

There’s no shortage of seasoned masters in the competition lineup. British provocateur Peter Greenaway returns with “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, an unconventional biopic of famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Focusing on the last days of his year-long stay in Mexico during the early 1930’s, the comedic drama is as much biographical as it is fantastical. With split screens, swirling camera, interjecting shots of wildlife, illustrations, historical photographs, archive footage, images fading in and out of color, sped up and slowed back down, the entire first half of the movie bursts at the seams in terms of style and directorial whims. It’s a welcome feast of stimuli that culminates in the bound-to-become infamous deflowering scene which depicts—at length and in great detail— Eisenstein’s sexual initiation through expert seducer Palomino Cañedo. Both breathlessly graphic and hilariously allegorical, it’s a sparsely but boldly staged centerpiece that juxtaposes the movie’s themes of carnality, mortality and liberty to uproarious effect. Maybe that kind of intensity just can’t be sustained though, as the movie’s manically talky second half, in which the two exuberant, committed leads Elmer Bäck and Luis Alberti struggle to keep up, slowly dwindles down to uninvolving eccentricities.

Also uneven is legendary German director Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. Starring Nicole Kidman as British explorer/anthropologist Gertrude Bell, the decades-spanning biopic is surprising only in how thoroughly unsurprising everything about it is. Sprawling, straightforward, sentimental, it’s a throwback to earlier times when linear narrative was embraced and unabashed romanticism considered cool. Of course the roughened and proudly indie-minded critics and bloggers today don’t see things that way. So professions of eternal love and panoramic shots of the heroine locked in passionate kiss with an earnest-faced James Franco, for example, didn’t go down well with the press to put it mildly. At the risk of sounding defensive of a stuffy, needlessly exhaustive movie that’s too conservative for its own good, the acting and technical details are actually solid here. Exquisite production design, especially of the posh residences and bustling bazaars, is easy on the eyes. Kidman is very much in full command of her expressive faculties, scoring with the textbook “breaking-down-while-getting-bad-news” scene and compelling with her deep-voiced, oceanically calm narration. Ultimately uninspired, this grand, by Herzog’s standard curiously sane film could nonetheless please fans of old-fashioned storytelling or squarely educational cinema.

Everything Will Be Fine
Everything Will Be Fine

Kind words can’t be found, however, for French veteran Benoît Jacquot’s Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid) or German maestro Wim Wender’s Every Thing Will Be Fine. The latest Mirbeau adaptation starring Léa Seydoux as the feisty, scheming house servant Célestine is a fragmented, ineloquent, tonally schizophrenic mix of drama, comedy, satire and everything in between. Based on anecdotes recollected from the protagonist’s life which are so bafflingly assembled as to defy any sense of coherence, what vaguely feels like an early twentieth-century class observation with a whiff of feminist protest functions as neither. Seydoux is reliably sharp but those sparks she and Jacquot sent flying in their last collaboration Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen, 2012) are nowhere to be seen. Everything is also definitely not fine in Wenders’ first narrative feature in seven years, a New England-set relationship drama. After a promising start, where the catalyst that sets the whole guilt-themed story in motion is expertly encapsulated in a wide, static shot, the clearly misguided plot dissolves into sappy episodes depicting the lives of those connected by the tragedy. Banally and formulaically written, the film never probes beyond any superficial level of pain. The only curve ball in the script comes near the end, where things take an unnatural turn to morph into a home-invasion thriller. But by that point this feels more than anything like a desperate attempt to raise the non-existent stakes. Considering also the largely unjustified use of 3D photography and the sluggish editing marked by a parade of title cards awkwardly announcing the passage of time, it’s hard to think of veritable arguments for the film’s inclusion in the competition lineup (albeit screening out of competition) except to coincide with the lifetime achievement award bestowed upon the iconic filmmaker at this year’s fest.

Previous Golden Bear winner Terrence Malick, on the other hand, has every reason to be there again with Knight of Cups, a dazzling, majestic contemplation on the many facets of love. Much like his recent work, the film is highly impressionistic, composed of samplings of the various relationships a man’s been in, each taken during a different stage, from courtship to divorce. Characters drift in and out of the story unannounced, unexplained. Neither the causal nor the chronological relation between the segments is apparent. Random photographic interruptions of geological formations or the west coast cityscape further complicate a material, linear understanding. However, compared to “The Tree of Life” (2011) or “To the Wonder” (2012) , both of which did not please this viewer, the strong, seemingly instinctual editing lends the chaos a cadence that transcends literal comprehension and completely captivates. Rhythmic, soothing and ever-building like the fetishistically pondered waves on Malibu Beach, the flow of pictures washes over you in all its variety and the experience is just hypnotic. Though probably too disorderly to rank among DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s best work, here and there individual shots, whether racing like speeding light or serene as an old monk’s face, still stun with their splendor. The commanding presence and charisma of Christian Bale, whose lines are almost exclusively read in voice-over, also help the film achieve its magnetic pull.

Apparently the international jury chaired by Darren Aronofsky wasn’t in the mood to honor old masters though, as none of the films mentioned above went home awarded. Instead, it’s mostly the next generation of filmmakers who won their favor. British writer/director Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his widely acclaimed romance Weekend (2011), another relationship drama which chronicles the unraveling of a decades-long marriage one week before an anniversary celebration, aptly titled 45 Years, won both leads Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling statues. Seeing that it’s a very stripped-back, performance-driven piece about two people discovering each other anew, the fact that its acting gets noticed doesn’t come as a surprise. Especially in the case of Rampling, whose icy stare still cuts through glass but is mellowed here by a touch of insecurity and suppressed panic, the validity of the choice is unquestionable. Courtenay’s work as well as the film as a whole, however, don’t necessarily stand out. Too fixated on the appealing but simplified idea of a freshly defrosted ghost from the past testing and rocking a lifelong bond, the elegantly lean script has believability issues and comes across as petty from time to time. To his credit, Haigh does manage to stage a marvel of an ending shot, which quietly closes in on the dancing hostess while laying bare her doubts and desperation twirl by casual twirl until we’re given such naked access to her inner turmoil it feels revelatory, almost intrusively so.

Under Electric Clouds
Under Electric Clouds

Sharing the silver bear for artistic contribution are German romance-turned-heist thriller Victoria and Russian sci-fi drama Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds), both enormously ambitious undertakings and just the fourth narrative feature of their respective helmers. Although the movies are nothing alike, the achievement in cinematography being lauded is easy to recognize in either one of them, which incidentally both clock in at around 140 minutes. Shot in one single, unbroken take, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria boasts bold and edgy camerawork by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen which, if nothing else, injects a dangerously volatile energy into the proceedings like a live wire (reviewed in detail previously). Under Electric Clouds by Aleksey German, son of German Senior, is a different beast altogether. Told in chapters that bear minimal temporal or contextual relations with one another, it’s a cryptic, fable-like collection of moving images deliberately, moodily photographed by Sergey Mikhalchuk and Evgeniy Privin. As languid and surreal as “Victoria” is immediate and dynamic, the film will arouse the suspicion of pretentiousness and test the patience of many with its dizzyingly nonsensical dialogue (to the extent that disconnected monologues addressed at each other can be called dialogue). When viewed as a piece of visual tapestry, however, the merit of its handiwork is indisputable. Aided by superb production design that weaves together elements of the past and the future, the daringly framed, enigmatically lit pictures work up a proper sense of sophisticated nihilism. So whether one is history-savvy enough to appreciate its veiled reflection on contemporary Russia, it’s hard not to get sucked into this dreamscape of electrified, baffling beauty.

Harder to justify is the other tie on the winner’s list, the awardage of the best director prize to Radu Jude for his b&w western/historical satire Aferim! and Malgorzata Szumowska for her spiritualistic drama Body. While both films are quite innovative in their approach, they also come with more evident lackings. Chronicling the journey of a father-son duo to catch and bring back a runaway gypsy slave to his master in 19th century Wallachia, Aferim! is colorful in every sense but one. Loud, physical, featuring tortuous acts and politically incorrect expletives of every kind, it depicts the matter-of-course practice of slavery in such a broadly theatrical manner you don’t know if you should be offended or amused. While atrocious wrongs are being committed on screen, Jude opts to capture it all through a documentarian’s keen but level stare suggesting some innocent cultural observation. This stark contrast, betraying neither a straight condemnation nor an outright parody, is disorienting. It leaves you with the impression of having seen something ostensibly crude yet secretly coded, and for that heady trick the direction should be applauded. However, the formally venturesome film meanders for a considerable amount of time in its mid-section. At several points amidst the hateful speeches and violent encounters, the excessive hysteria threatens to drown out all context and turn the whole thing into a costumed farce. Also showing promise but failing to deliver is the largely dismissed Body. The movie features three vividly drawn main characters- a prosecutor mourning the death of his wife, his estranged, anorexic daughter and her rehab supervisor who also happens to be a medium. Szumowska does a remarkable job acquainting us with these lonely souls drifting in the cold belly of modern-day Warsaw. Through anecdotes and smart, optical suggestion we get inside their heads to experience the empty drive that steels a man against the most heinous crimes, the dry retch that takes hold of someone crippled by the sight of food, the desperate need for company that reaches beyond the boundary of rationality. And by constantly shifting the focus between the three while pursuing the dual themes of body image and bodies as vessels for spiritual contact, she comes up with a blend of relationship drama and supernatural thriller that’s uniquely suspenseful. It’s too bad, then, that the film falters in its second half as the parallel narratives, despite running tantalizingly close to each other, never find a perfect place to meet. Costing it even more goodwill is the unwarranted shot of sentimentalism towards the end.

The fact that the Berlinale has been a champion of Szumowska’s career (invited three times in the past five years, twice in competition and once opening the sidebar section Panorama with Elles (2011) may have tipped the scales in her favor somehow. Same goes for another female filmmaker who has long got the festival’s endorsement, Isabel Coixet, whose latest effort Nobody Wants the Night technically didn’t win any award but was given the honor of opening this year’s festivities. Also widely, maybe even more vocally jeered by the press, the dramatization of an unlikely and treacherous journey to the North Pole by Josephine Peary in search of her husband- famed British expeditionist Robert- actually fares pretty well up to its halfway mark. The heroine, portrayed by Juliette Binoche, is a confident, educated woman who, at the beginning of the 20th century, can easily hold her own in a room of gentlemen. Her exceptional combination of intellect, elegance, ambition and less-than-clarified motives for tracking down her spouse lays the groundwork for an interesting character study. Gorgeous cinematography showcasing textured sets and costumes drenched in honey-colored sunbeam or endless, ruthless terrain covered in fifty shades of white certainly doesn’t hurt either. But the last hour of the film is fatally reduced to the story of Josephine and an Inuit girl she befriends in the wilderness, played by an off-form Rinko Kikuchi. Spatially cramped and emotionally gratuitous, the protracted, clunkily described process of the two women’s mutual cultural acclimation unfortunately seals the fate of an otherwise respectable piece of work.

ixcanulEchoing the strong presence of Latin American cinema at the Berlinale this year, two of the top prizes eventually went to Spanish-language productions from that continent and they are both more than deserved. Guatemalan writer/director Jayro Bustamante took home the Alfred Bauer Prize for his feature film debut Ixcanul, a tender familial drama/coming-of-age tale about a 17-year-old Mayan girl rebelling against her predestined path for a chance to see the world outside. The starting point of the story is a familiar one: marriage by arrangement to an older man with the guarantee of financial security or elope with the young, good-looking farmhand who doesn’t have a penny to his name? The choice might be obvious, but what happens after the heart has had its way is told through a series of unexpected plot twists that inform us so much about young Maria, her family, and the daily struggles they face. In addition to the compact, perceptive script, Bustamante’s direction and the performances by his non-professional cast evoke a richly indigenous fragrance that permeates the whole film, successfully overcoming the unevenness of its visual realization. Opening and closing with the blank visage of a bride silently getting prepped, this heartfelt, gently affecting film breathes and pulsates just like the Ixcanul Volcano looming in the background, a constant reminder of all things impermanent, unknowable. On the other end of the scale for gentleness is the Grand Jury Prize winner El Club (The Club) by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, a scathing, ruthlessly comical indictment of the Catholic Church. Brilliantly plotted, paced and performed, it’s also inarguably one of the highlights at this year’s fest (reviewed in detail previously).

Finally, after travelling to Arabian deserts and British countryside, Romania’s past and Russia’s future, we land in a cab on the streets of present-day Teheran. Looking out through a featureless windshield via an ordinary, grainy POV shot, the ride in Iranian writer/director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi begins on a mute note. In the course of the next 81 minutes, during which the driver picks up, chats with and sends off customers, this leisurely, quotidian look and feel would persist, making it all the more delightful when the movie ends up delivering such an eloquent, resounding discourse on justice, integrity, freedom of expression and the place of the arts in an authoritarian society. Episodically structured with intricate links built in to ensure consistency and momentum, the screenplay is a masterful construction. On one level, the deceptively simple, banter-like conversations add up to a kaleidoscopic montage of everyday life that reflects the changes, dilemmas, and a general lack of consensus Iranian citizens today have to contend with. And as per usual now, Panahi creates another level of perception by consciously blurring the line between reality and fiction. Playing the role of the taxi driver himself as himself, a famous filmmaker forced to earn his living elsewhere after being banned from filmmaking, his well-publicized predicament feeds back into the story, teasing with the immediacy of fact and the distance of representation. This formal inventiveness not only invigorates a logistically restricted narrative but also gives off a good-natured playfulness that softens the accusatory tone which might otherwise be too pointedly political. Just as extraordinary is Panahi’s direction. The economy of his compositions, the skill and fluidity with which he switches between perspectives, his impeccable timing that allows the peripheral elements in a scene to speak, all contribute to an ending that’s the epitomy of modesty but so precisely staged it pulls various thematic threads together and drives them to a transcendent, ironic close. Addressing difficult, fundamental issues with intelligence, compassion and a miraculously light touch, Taxi is funny, poignant, and the rightful winner of the Golden Bear.

When all is said and done, Berlin has put up a more than worthy lineup featuring established names and new voices, artistic achievements and humanistic statements. Although the film selection is altogether a tad less accessible than last year and might not see any of its picks fly as high as Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel, it remains an interesting, provocative, vitally eclectic one. So now the pressure is on the Croisette and the Lido to hold up their end of the European trifecta in the coming months.

Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.

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