Berlin Film Festival 2009 (part 2) report

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Dave Calhoun reports from the screening rooms of the fifty-ninth Berlin Film Festival

This writer’s first screening in Berlin was a shocker in every sense. Versatile French director François Ozon (‘Swimming Pool’, ‘5x2’) isn’t known for repeating himself, but with ‘Ricky’ – a loopy experiment that inserts an allegory into the greyest of real worlds – he gives us a tough film to pin down. Starting as sloppy social realism about a factory-working single mother, Katie (Alexandra Lamy), and her daughter, it takes an odd turn when she has a baby with boyfriend and co-worker Paco (Sergi López). I say odd because the baby, Ricky, sprouts wings from his back that mutate from scraggy stumps of the sort you might find in a discarded KFC box into huge feathery numbers. This cute bird-child spends the rest of the film eliciting giggles. Sadly, the laughs drown out any messages about motherhood and fleeing the nest.

From flying babies to submarine kids in ‘The Fish Child’, the second film from Argentine Lucía Puenzo, whose tender transgender drama ‘XXY’ was in our cinemas last year. Now the 35 year old has adapted her novel about Lala (Inés Efron), the teenage daughter of an Argentine judge who enjoys a close relationship with Ailin (Mariela Vitale), the family’s Paraguayan maid. They share fantasies of leaving their home and together discuss the legend of an underwater child. The film is rich in sensuality and good on the obstinacy of class differences even among close allies.

Social strictures loom large in ‘About Elly’ from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, a film that defies prejudices in its early scenes of lively young Iranians leaving Tehran for a holiday by the sea. Tagging along is Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), a teacher whom one of the women, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), has invited in the hope that she’ll hit it off with divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). If it all sounds too modern to be true, it is: things go wrong when one of the party has an accident and this group’s comfortable bubble – their loud hysterics annoy at times – is burst. The writing and direction lean towards the obvious, but there’s lots to chew on regarding tradition and progress and the power of the white lie. The film’s energy may surprise those whose diet of Iranian film has been served solely by the European art house.

Sally Potter’s new film, ‘Rage’, is an irritating experiment in form that defies all reason. Filmed against a screen of various vivid colours, this empty dig at the shallowness of the fashion industry (no shit) is a series of talking-heads pieces from characters who live and work within the orbit of New York fashion designer Michelangelo (Simon Abkarian). This string of confessionals, supposedly delivered to an intern’s mobile phone, continues even when two deaths occur, raising eyebrows. As satire, it has all the bite of a worm; as an experiment in form, it fails by refusing to set or obey any rules. The actors, including Jude Law as a trannie and Judi Dench as a pot-smoking critic, flap around with no unity of purpose.

There’s nothing more irritating than a filmmaker who shoots from the pulpit, and Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (‘Together’, ‘Lilya 4-ever’) wags his finger at us in ‘Mammoth’, his return to narrative filmmaking after a stint in the lab. This globe-trotting tragedy begins and ends with images of a happy family unit: Ellen (Michelle Williams), Leo (Gael García Bernal) and their seven-year-old daughter live in a cavernous Manhattan apartment, a sign of the wealth earned from her career as a surgeon and his as a dotcom wizard. They may smile, but you know that Moodysson would rather they burst into flames. In between, plots emerge involving the family’s Filipino nanny and Leo’s trip to Thailand. The film slates inequality and the soulless behaviour of the film’s characters while preaching on high. It’s as woolly and unsubtle as its namesake.

Two impressive documentaries saddened the heart. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross have filmed Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, which outlines the influence of Milton Friedman’s radical capitalist theories in states from Chile in the 1970s to Iraq today. Simone Bitton’s ‘Rachel’ casts a calm, forensic eye over the death in Gaza of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old activist, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

Two wry exercises in restraint caught the eye, both debuts. In ‘Gigante’, from Uruguay, we watch a hefty supermarket guard as he follows – stalks? – a young co-worker. And Romania’s delightful ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ depicts a stony-faced teen repeating the same line for a fruit-drink ad for television: she won a car in a contest but in return must promote the brand on screen.

The French exchange is alive and well. Stephen Frears went to Paris for ‘Chéri’, a good-looking adaptation of Colette’s novel that sees Michelle Pfeiffer as a courtesan in Paris at the turn of the last century. Beautifully crafted, variably acted, it just operates on the right side of confection. Meanwhile, Rachid Bouchareb, the French Algerian director of ‘Days of Glory’, has made ‘London River’, a drama about two worried parents – one British, one West African – who meet in London during the search for their children after the 2005 bombings. It’s interesting to follow a fresh eye in our city, but the writing is schematic, Brenda Blethyn is uncontrolled and Bouchareb is negligent with the film’s sense of time and place.

Read our other report from the Berlin Film Festival here

Author: Dave Calhoun



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