AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
WHO BEARS WINS
54th INTERNATIONALE FILMFESTSPIELE –
by Harlan Kennedy
“Strange, the things we remember and the things we forget.”
What was going on? Well, philosophical issues, questions and conundrums were having their blue touch-paper lit in our brains. The main theme this year was memory. How much should we remember? How much DO we remember? Is memory loss ever an advantage? (Yes, we’ll list the movies later). And is remembering – and perhaps this is the point and prescript of art, culture and festivals – the necessary tribute paid by the present to the past? Are you still there?
Such things, I repeat, had to be asked at the 54th
It is a decade
since South Africa’s liberation from apartheid, so documentaries on that
theme were practically uncountable, plus John Boorman’s
competition feature THE COUNTRY OF MY SKULL, starring Juliette
Binoche and Sam Jackson as colour-contrasted news hacks covering the 1994
‘truth and reconciliation’ hearings. It was the 50th anniversary
of Che Guevara’s motorbike field trip round South
America, so we had travelling companion Alberto Granados’s
docu-diary of this famous field trip, also just
dramatised for the Walter Salles feature THE
MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (opening soon). Granados and Che’s
son Ernesto were both in
there was a retrospective of
And even these
sideshows were left in the shade, in the Theme and Variations on
Retrospection at this Berlinale, by the fest’s top
audience hit, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia-radiant
BEFORE SUNSET. Imagine the odds against a sequel to Linklater’s
borderline winsome rom-com BEFORE
Why does this work? Because walk and talk are all we want from a movie, provided they are good, and here is walk-and-talk to dream of. Fizzingly written by all three perpetrators – Linklater, Hawke, Delpy – BEFORE SUNSET is a crime against cinematic probability and against the rule that sequels are flat, stale and cynically profitable. This has charm, acuity and vitality. It was also made in two weeks on a dime. Like any serious crime it should get long sentences for all involved: from admiring and loquacious critics.
Ah remembrance. Other American pics, Ron Howard’s THE MISSING and Patty Jenkins’s MONSTER, were about the grislier power of human recall, when dreadful deeds must be remembered in order to be exorcised. Howard’s retread of THE SEARCHERS had a big-screen scenic wallop that Patty Jenkins’s singles version of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, about multiple killer Aileen Wuornos, didn’t even try for. But both refract past cruelties through the present’s prism, movie homage itself being part of the jewelled fracturing. And Charlize Theron’s cosmetic and behavioural makeover as a plug-ugly lesbian with aggression issues really is as good as the Oscar buzz suggests.
Add German director Hans Petter Moland’s elegaic BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY, all backstory re-beautified as its hero, a Vietnamese boatperson (Damien Nguyen), remembers his epic trip across the world to find his Texan dad (Nick Nolte); and Matteo Garone’s PRIMO AMORE from Italy, a sly weave of spoken memory and gothic foreboding as a Pygmalion goldsmith shapes a luckless bride into anorexic shapes; and Catherine Breillat’s latest fleshfest ANATOMY OF HELL, with the director’s own voice transexually narrating Rocco Siffredi’s thoughts as he plays cacher le salami with Breillat’s latest programmed cockteaser; and Lebanese-American newcomer Omar Naim’s Hollywood writing-directing debut which stirs Robin Williams into a sci-fi scarer about memory implants – add all these and Berlin 2004 sometimes resembled a Ouija session masquerading as a movie junket.
Then a film so new,
so fresh, so unclassifiable came along that we forgot all about the past
paying tribute to the present or vice versa. (There goes the thesis).
L’ESQUIVE is the present: pulsing, funny, dynamic and full of east-west
promise as its French-Muslim teenagers quarrel about
love, honour and homerta – or whatever is its
French-Muslim equivalent – in a suburban
First-time featuremaker Abdelatif Kechiche should go straight to the European A-list without passing ‘Go’. A street Rohmer, he gives his characters a scatter-gun articulacy that knocks us backwards in delight and a woebegone bluster that dazzles. Handsome but tongue-tied Kimo (Osman Elkharraz) falls for beautiful Lydia (Sara Forestier) and woos her – hopelessly at first – by grabbing a role opposite her in the school play (Marivaux’s ‘A Game of Love and Chance’). He can’t act; he goes to pieces; his pals gang up on Lydia’s pals; an outbreak of puppy love becomes a major political incident, leading to summits, talks about talks, and shouting matches about shouting matches. Very funny, very touching, truthful to the core. This is one of the best French debuts since memories began.
The French have a special aptitude for filmmaking. Wasn’t it Nicholas Ray who said, “Le cinema, c’est Jean-Luc Godard”? France may be the only nation that regularly transforms leaden scripts into golden movies, as if what people say – or even what people do – has no bearing whatever on the heart of the art. (Any more than a poem or painting’s subject has anything to do with its greatness. Cezanne’s apples are as momentous as a Giotto’s apostles). So Cedric Kahn’s FEUX ROUGES (RED LIGHTS) takes a Simenon-based plot about a quarrelsome married couple (Carole Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who set out to drive through the night to collect kids from summer camp but divide before dawn – she leaves to take a train, only for an escaped convict to dish out grim fates to both her and hubby – and produces a purring piece of perfect style. Very scary; insidiously rhythmed to lull and then terrify; with Debussy’s ‘Nuages’ the last music you would want or expect as thriller accompaniment – until you hear it. FEUX ROUGES is about the fragility of love and marriage. Don’t mess with them or they will sure as hell mess you back.
For those in need of light relief at a European film festival gusted by snow and subtitles, “le cinema, c’est Robin Williams.” Or at least, le presse conference, c’etait lui. What a joy to welcome the archangel of ad-libbers. The bicentennial man was supposed to be puffing THE FINAL CUT. He was actually poking fun wherever it could be poked, starting with helpful advice about a loud breakdown noises from the conference room loudspeakers (“Please stay with your group”), moving on to the rewards and challenges of playing pychopaths (“You get different fan mail and it’s usually from prison”), pillorying America’s Iraq adventure (“Bush talks about a failure of intelligence, isn’t that kind of redundant?”) and peaking with thoughts on Mel Gibson’s upcoming THE PASSION. “I can’t wait till they do the McDonalds promotion. ‘Mummy, my Coke’s turning into wine…’”.
So there is life
after movies, or some movies. My own escapes in
But THE MASTERSINGERS is
The Germans even
had the honest, cranky boldness to boo their own worst competition entry: Romuald Karamakar’s NIGHTSONGS,
a gaga marital breakup drama like a cross between
Strindberg and tellysoap. The host country’s best
shot at Golden Bear –
let’s give the game away now and reveal that it won – was
HEAD-ON. Fatih Akin’s
film is fiery and funny in its tale of two Turkish immigrants meeting
wrong that can do, first comically with Cahit’s
horror at his once lovably dishevelled flat’s post-nuptial orderliness (“It
looks as if a chick-bomb has exploded here”), then catastrophically with
jealousy, murder and jail. The coda in
The new film is beautiful as ever, hauling us Homerically through an extended family’s uprooting from Odessa, its return to Greece, its dynastic squabbles when adopted Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) runs off with son Alexis, leaving at the altar A’s dad whom E was about to marry, and finally the mid-century’s grim riot of wars, civil and international, which sunder not just the hero and heroine but their twin sons, fighting on opposite sides as Greece tears itself in two. The fresco is massive, but this time the heart beating beneath is a touch frail and underdeveloped. Eleni and Alexis remain decorative ciphers while the scenery and epic visual effects – a funeral armada gaunt with crow-black flags and sails, a peasant village sinking beneath floodwaters almost as we watch – provide the emotional wallop we should have had, at least to equal degree, from the characters.
So the big names sailed in in final days. The farewell twosome were Rohmer and Loach, with Eric quickly sailing out again, in the reckoning of Golden Bear experts, with his bizarrely lubberly spy drama THE TRIPLE AGENT. A White Russian exile in Paris and his painter wife become ensnared in World War Two espionage, though Rohmer’s tiresomely teasing dialogue and elliptical storytelling preclude any possibility of knowing which side the hero is on – or frankly caring – until the end. Even then we can’t be sure, though we might have tried to guess if we hadn’t been distracted for two hours by wondering why on earth a great French director felt the need to pad obsequiously in the footsteps of John Le Carre.
was lovable by comparison, or even without comparison. Set in
doesn’t just exist, obviously, in
Sadly, AE FOND KISS didn’t win ae fond prize, apart from the Ecumenical Jury Award. By blessing the movie, these religionists clearly wanted to tell the world that the Church was not populated exclusively by intolerant crazies fulminating about sex outside wedlock. This was news.
The main Film
Festival Jury was presided over by Frances McDormand
Nope, the runner-up Grand Jury Prize was bestowed on Argentinas’s well-made but minor LOST EMBRACE, Daniel Burman’s tale of a young man (Daniel Hendler, named Best Actor) seeking his ancestral identity in a Polish-Jewish family history and a dad missing-presumed-self-exiled in Israel. Kim Ki-Duc’s SAMARITAN GIRL from Korea, a tawdry sex drama with surrealist trimmings, secured the Best Director prize.
As Shakespeare said, it’s a funny old world. If they let me appoint the jury next year I promise to be back. Marge Gunderson can take maternity leave, and other excuses can be found to ban this year’s other jurors from Berlin 2005. Summon my sled. Call the huskies. I shall begin my journey now.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.