Berlin Film Festival report: part 2

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More highs and lows from the 2008 Berlin Film Festival courtesy of Geoff Andrew

Subsequent to the movies reviewed in Dave Calhoun’s report, the Competition at the 58th Berlin Film Festival continued oh so slowly, with slight improvement on the various disappointments of the earlier days. While there was nothing, finally, that I caught which could quite match the delights of Mike Leigh’s ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, at least I was spared a repetition of the horrors – think ‘Gardens of the Night’, ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ and ‘Elegy’ if you want pretentious Western garbage, or ‘The Sparrow’ if you prefer the Asian variety – which made much of the Festival’s first half feel like hard work.

True, Robert Guédiguian’s ‘Lady Jane’, which finds his regular troupe (Ariane Ascaride, Jean Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan et al) caught up in a complex criminal intrigue making for a muddled study of love, loyalty and betrayal, is an extremely awkward blending of crime-movie motifs and social concerns. Isolated scenes work well enough, but overall it’s clear that Guédiguian is considerably less skilled with genre trappings than with evoking the everyday details of life in the Marseilles area; he has spoken of his fondness for old Gabin gangster movies, but next to Becker’s elegant ‘Grisbi’, let alone the many beauties made by Melville, this seems a very plain Jane indeed.

Also from France, Philippe Claudel’s ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’ takes another subject that one might imagine Becker having had a stab at: the troubled release back into society of a female prisoner. It’s unlikely, however, that even that most Renoir-esque of directors would have been able to show much sympathy for a protagonist guilty of killing her own six-year-old son.

Times have changed, though, and Claudel asks us to side with Juliette as she slowly tries to take her place in society again after moving in with her long-estranged sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and the latter’s understandably wary husband and their two adopted young daughters. It’s a project full of potential sentimental pitfalls, but thanks to a terrific lead performance from Kristin Scott Thomas, Claudel manages to provide an engrossing and affecting drama, notwithstanding some pedestrian direction. Pity about the jangly guitar music, though, which lends the movie the unfortunate feel of a Sundance-style indie.

Though the Japanese veteran Yoji Yamada’s ‘Our Mother’ is very different in subject from swordsman pictures like ‘The Twilight Samurai’, it displays the same somewhat enervating concern with ‘sensitive’ restraint – which once again barely conceals great sentimentality. There are points of interest in this tale of the ordeals a family undergoes during the '40s after the father – an academic and writer deemed anti-Japanese by the Imperial authorities – is imprisoned, but once one gets beyond the portrait of a militaristic, oppressive society, the pickings are fairly slim, resulting in dull melodrama.

To some extent, the same is true of ‘Heart of Fire’, the first fiction feature by documentarist Luigi Falorni, who co-directed ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel’. Chronicling the progress of a young Eritrean girl from an orphanage to becoming a child-soldier for one of the rebel armies seeking independence from Ethiopia in the early 1980s, the film makes for sometimes stirring but mostly all-too-predictable viewing, weakened by implausible plot details and made watchable primarily thanks to an extraordinarily persuasive performance by little Letekidan Micael.

For me at any rate, the finest of the later Competition entries was ‘Quiet Chaos’, directed by Antonello Grimaldi and co-written by and starring Nanni Moretti. In some respects the film might almost be seen as ‘The Son’s Room’-lite, in that its study of a man coming to terms with the sudden death of his wife is both partly comic and, in the end, ‘heart-warming’. But such a description doesn’t quite do justice to the various dramatic and psychological subtleties of a film which finds the protagonist choosing to ignore his high-powered work almost entirely in order to make sure that his young daughter doesn’t feel let down; that said, his decision to hang out in the square outside her school all day is just as likely to be about dealing with his own confusion as with protecting his child. There are flaws, certainly – the intrigues concerning the merger of the company he works for remain mostly obscure – but elegant direction, deft writing, and excellent playing from both Moretti and young Blu Yoshimi make for a witty, intelligent and finally very touching film.

But let’s be frank – nothing I caught in the Competition matched the opening night film of the Forum: namely, Guy Maddin’s ‘My Winnipeg’. Purportedly a documentary – though the writer-director himself describes it as a ‘travelogue’ – the film is also in part autobiography, albeit (as Maddin fans will expect) of the most deliciously and deliriously weird variety. The film is a crazed trip down memory lane to a Winnipeg that probably never quite was – are we really meant to believe the assertion that the snow-bound city’s number of sleepwalkers is ten times the national average? – and probably never will be, as his anger at the authorities’ penchant for demolition makes all too painfully clear.

But there is truth in here as well, amid all the gags, innuendoes, absurdities and parodies of silent classics, B-movies, lurid melodrama and terrible daytime TV; a truth manifest in the poetry of the images, the rhythmic editing, and the extraordinarily lovely writing of Maddin’s monologue – expertly delivered live on-stage for the opening night, but also highly effective in all sorts of incantatory and hilarious ways on the soundtrack, which is how the movie will play upon its UK release later this year. In short, it’s Maddin’s finest film to date, quite unlike anything else you’re likely to have seen, and a masterpiece of sorts.


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