Berlin Film Festival 2009 report

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Our verdict on the best and worst new cinema from the 2009 Berlin Film Festival

Very often at the Berlin Film Festival, the most rewarding films are made not by established directors but by new or lesser known names. So it was this year: my most welcome discoveries were both first features: Peter Strickland’s ‘Katalin Varga’ and Adrián Biniez’s ‘Gigante’. Neither has an especially original story: the former, made in Hungarian and Romanian by the Reading-born writer-director, is a Carpathians-set revenge drama not a little reminiscent of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtensk’ or ‘Jenufa’, while the latter, set in Montevideo, tells of a shy, rather large young Uruguayan’s love for a seemingly unattainable workmate.

Both films, however, are notable for their execution: for the near perfect casting of the protagonist (Hilda Péter and Horacio Camandule, respectively), for the meticulous sense of composition and pace and for a bold but unflashy attention to detail. A brief coughing fit suffered by the smitten security officer Jara as he furtively checks out his beloved’s new blind date in a none too spacious bar is both very funny and, in revealing how he responds to the rumpus he’s unintentionally causing, a deft index of character; while Strickland’s remarkably imaginative and subtle use of sound – most particularly birdsong – works wonders in delineating the psychological dimensions of Katalin’s near-mythic odyssey of shame, despair and revenge after she’s ejected from her home by a husband who's discovered he’s not the father of the boy he believed was his son.

Undoubtedly, fine work could be found by big-name veterans. Manoel de Oliveira, in his hundredth year, turned out a typically oddball charmer with ‘Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl’, a wry and characteristically digressive yet simple story of ill-fated love. Claude Chabrol, with ‘Bellamy’, cast Gérard Depardieu as a Simenonian cop investigating a bizarre murder case (involving remarkably unconvincing disguises) while furnishing a pleasingly tender portrait of a marriage and paying passing tribute to the songs of Georges Brassens. And Theo Angelopoulos, in ‘The Dust of Time’ (the second instalment of the trilogy that began with ‘The Weeping Meadow’), deployed the story of a director (Willem Dafoe) making a film about his parents’ troubled marriage while worrying about his own daughter’s future to create an epic, imaginatively audacious and visually striking meditation on twentieth century history, exile, wandering and love.

Especially satisfying was Catherine Breillat’s ‘Blue Beard’, which offers up a characteristically fresh and slyly subversive reading of Perrault’s fairy tale. The beauty-and-the-beast-style parable is played out with an impressive but never over-insistent attention to historical detail in terms of costume, customs, architecture and decor, and punctuated by a delightful commentary on its progress and meaning by two young sisters reading the book in the 1950s (the rather more bolshy and bloodthirsty one named, of course, Catherine). A funny, touching, wholly unsentimental study of feminine fear, courage and desire, it proves once and for all that Breillat’s brilliance has always lain not in her readiness to be graphically explicit (this film is never remotely controversial in that regard) but in her ideas.

Sadly, few younger directors (other than the aforementioned first-timers) managed to come up with anything to match these quietly confident works. Lone Scherfig’s Sundance hit ‘An Education’, scripted by Nick Hornby from a Lynn Barber memoir about a smart Twickenham schoolgirl in the early ’60s being distracted from her Oxford entrance ambitions by the attentions of a seemingly wealthy and sophisticated older man, has its good points. Most notable among them are Carey Mulligan’s lead performance, and an awareness of the story’s relevance to today’s socially immobile, celebrity and fashion-obsessed world. But it is also, at times, simplistic, stereotypical and patronising.

Maren Ade’s ‘Everyone Else’, too, has its moments in chronicling the decline of an overly inward-turned relationship, but lacks the clarity of focus and narrative assurance of her earlier 'The Forest for the Trees'. And many of those who admired ‘Times and Winds’ will be seriously disappointed by Reha Erdem’s ‘My Only Sunshine’, about a teenage girl trapped in a miserable life with a feckless fisherman father and a tyrannical invalid grandfather in a hovel on the Bosphorus. The film, predictably, looks beautiful, and its use of repetition and variation in terms of imagery and sound is intelligent and ambitious. But it’s also an aesthetic that requires discipline, and Erdem just lets things drag on for far too long, so that his heroine’s predicament becomes too tedious for us to care about, and her eventual liberation is sadly implausible.

Read out other report from the Berlin Film Festival here

Author: Geoff Andrew



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