by Harlan Kennedy




Some cities, like some people, are always recognizable, however many facelifts they've had. "Glad to be in Berlin again," cry festivalgoers each February, though you'd think they'd pause for bewilderment in a city that since the war, and even more since the Wall, has gone through nonstop architectural surgery, ideological liposuc­tion, and re-mapping of veins, arteries, and festival venues.


Yet the word "Berlin" is still an invocation without equal. We were hit with it daily in this year's movies. In the opener, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates, Nazi Berlin's doomed hand is seen puppeteering the dis­aster of Stalingrad. In Thirteen Days it's Berlin that Khrushchev will wreak revenge on if President Kennedy attacks Cuba. In My Sweet Home, a Greek-German com­edy about a fixed-nation wedding party, Berlin is both setting and main conversational football. In The Tailor of Panama Cold War novelist John le Carre finds a substi­tute Berlin in Central America, while assuring Berliners at the press conference that there will never be a city divided to match this one. (Something like saying "You're still the world's top schizophrenic.")


Meanwhile, the gay hit of the Panorama Section, John Cameron Mitchell's musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, had a Berlin backstory and Berlin-raised writer-director: Mitchell grew up as the son of the American Sector's commander (and now look at him). Even another prodi­gal child who soared to festival fame as the star of a documentary about how to survive drugs, obesity, and Andy Warhol had a name made for the occasion: Brigid Berlin, ex-diva of The Chelsea Girls.


As a film festival Berlin is still out there at the barri­cades, promoting the new and sometimes jaw-dropping. The early attention-grabbers in the Competition were Catherine Breillat's A Ma Soeur! and Patrice Chereau's Intimacy, both taking sexual candor to new lengths/heights/breadths. In the latter everyone got an eyeful of naked Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, bumping uglies as graphically as in any modern feature film. Less arresting, in a tale of anonymous sex that resembles Last Tango in Paris teleported to an ill-defined South London, were the script, plot, handheld camerawork, and Europudding casting. (This is a London teeming with heavy-brogued Scotsmen and impenetrably accented Frenchmen.) The film won the Golden Bear, perhaps for its sexual out-there-ness, plus a Best Actress prize for Fox.


For me A Ma Soeur! outstripped it completely, with Breillat baring far more than her protagonists' bodies. If she cast a cold anatomist's eye on male-female relations in Romance, where the nudity was as cheering as in a mor­tuary, here she combines visual candor with a new warmth and depth. We care about these two sisters on a family vacation, one a fat, ice-cream-guzzling 12-year-old (Anais Reboux), the older a sultry stunner (Roxane Mesquida) carrying her virginity around like a charity donation in search of a taker. The taker turns out to be a handsome Italian drifter who, in two long and brilliantly unnerving bed scenes poised between seduction and date rape, doubly deflowers Mesquida. Redoux looks on through the half-dark, a churning conflation of horror, fascination, and romantic arousal.


Breillat has the unfussiest style in modern European cinema. She's a forensic scientist for whom the only inter­esting compositions are the slides containing clear samples of human pathology that she can fit under her microscope. There are subtle interventions of color (a perfidious Edenic green in contrast to the whites and reds of Romance) and some cleverly skewed narrative rhythms (a menacing climactic motorway sequence that goes on so long we almost know it will end in horror), but mostly A Ma Soeur! seems the more Bazinian movie. You could be looking through a window. You could swear it was two hours of accidentally witnessed reality, even though there is art and sympathetic wit in scenes like the family meals, where summer jollity wars with wintry generational ten­sions, or the funny-poignant swimming pool vignette where we spy on Reboux hugging and murmuring make­believe romantic chat to a wooden diving-board support, and then swimming to the pool's metal ladder to murmur jealousy-making sweet nothings to it.


Love, says the movie, means taking every chance to make someone else feel sorry. (Or jealous.) And sex is a contingent world where guilt and innocence are inter­changeable, where "seduction" can be a polite word for virtual rape, where "rape" – in the extraordinary final scene – can be indistinguishable from mutual fulfill­ment. For a director so obsessed with a clinical fidelity to surface reality, it's amazing that Breillat can step back at the end to reveal an abyss that seems, in hindsight, to have been perfectly planned from the beginning.


Like Germany itself, land of schadenfreude, the Berlin fest has an appetite for the simultaneously fas­cinating and appalling. Several movies laid on agony as art and outrageous behavior as spectator sport, lent extra watchability by ironic protagonists. Don's Plum is the film Leonardo DiCaprio wanted banned from U.S. screens because it was made before he and co-­actor Tobey Maguire were stars and meant only "as an actor's exercise." Hey, America's loss is Europe's gain. Berliners could enjoy R. D. Robb's raw, grainy, obscenity­-spiked movie about kids kibitzing in a midnight bar, where they toss political incorrectness around like Molotov cocktails. DiCaprio is the blond sloucher and chief troublemaker, so sly, limber, foulmouthed, and smashed-of-mien that he could probably have ruined his Titanic audition by showing but a single take. Yet the film proves that a good actor is a good actor, never mind how sink-or­-swim his vehicle.


By contrast, Emma Thompson's actressy (in the worst sense) turn as the cancer sufferer in Mike Nichols' HBO stage-to-screen adaptation Wit does the material no favors. Each of Pulitzer­Prize-winning writer Margaret Edson's self-conscious, bittersweet witticisms, of which there are about a hundred, is sema­phored, while Thompson's bravely shaven head sits oddly with the rosy complexion she wears throughout, even at death's door. Compare the true-life cosmetic tragedy that is Brigid Berlin in Shelley and Vincent Freemont's Pie in the Sky. A drug-ravaged, ice-cream-bloated Warhol diva in the Sixties, this daughter of wealth and privilege – Dad was William Randolph Hearst's business manager – speaks to the camera today as a svelte Upper West Side lady who micromanages her diet and has a dry sassy wit about her past. Both Brigids are irresistible. What she did onscreen with a needle in The Chelsea Girls still makes Kids et al. seem begin­ners' stuff. What she says about those days now, and the funny ways she says it, should make reporters flock to her door as to the Delphic Sibyl's.


Street stories, in the age of new free­dom and cheap cameras, are taking on a new lease on liveliness. At Berlin two were outstanding. After a pedagogic start, Richard Bouchareb's Little Senegal – the tale of an African slavery museum guide who ups to America to trace slave connections in his own genealogy – grows into a movie with an enthrallingly primitive style. The hero meets kinfolk in New York; finds a keener kinship with strangers; learns that in a violent society blood can be thicker than brotherhood. The largely nonprofessional actors bring an expressive innocence that chimes with the Sunday-painting style and the primal but poignant stepping-stones in a simple, resonant narrative.


Beijing Bicycle, which won Berlin's runner-up Grand Jury Prize, is De Sica gone Chinese: a boy (or two boys), a stolen two-wheeler, and the search through an impenetrable city. The differ­ence in Wang Xiaoshusai's vision is that the story of Boy One, up from the coun­try and losing a bike that's also a job lifeline (he's a courier for a dispatch ser­vice), is mirror-reversed in that of citified Boy Two, who innocently buys the stolen vehicle and uses it for recre­ation, peer-group "wheelies," even courtship. (In Beijing a mountain bike is the equivalent of an Alfa Romeo.) The conflict when they meet isn't just about the bike: it's about two kinds of China, two kinds of dreaming. Wang's style fits the split-personality subject, fluctuating between high-velocity verismo – great street chases – and sudden scenes where action freezes into a Fassbinderesque tableau, memorializing a moment.


In a year when Asia has made an unprecedented march into Oscarland with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Berlin demonstrated that one Ang Lee film, never mind a Chinese Grand Jury pleaser, is just the tip of the landmass. Lin Cheng-sheng's Betelnut Beauty took Best Director prize for a post-WWII romance that yokes the best extremes of Taiwanese cinema: its acute and lap­idary period sense and its fluid verite-style human intimism. From Japan, Kaze Shino's Love/Juice, for me the pick of the Young Film-Makers Forum, chronicles a spiteful-sweet les­bian romance in a movie whose long takes and unflinching gaze draw out revelatory moments in performances.


The Competition's standout crowd­pleaser was Denmark's Italian for Beginners. Imagine a comedy from the Dogma 95 crowd. (And we don't mean something saturnine like The Celebra­tion.) Writer-director Lone Scherfig somehow allows a feel-good plot to live and grow amid Dogma's mandatory grunge visuals and handheld camera­work. Six Copenhagenites play musical couples, falling in and out of love and language classes (they're trying to learn Italian). Misunderstandings flourish, and the mood of scatty, woebegone humanism resembles Mike Leigh gone Scandinavian. The International Critics Jury gave it their top prize.


One revelation at Berlin, as days ticked by, was the re-emergence of France as a filmic force. If Chereau and Breillat snatched headlines in the Com­petition, Patrice Leconte's Felix et Lola made it a trio of French-directed Bear contenders about l'amour (Char­lotte Gainsbourg and Philippe Torreton pursue love, revenge, and philosophical chitchat in a fairground). And the Panorama section had Denis Villeneuve's Maelstrom – French­-Canadian but hot on authentic Gallic gloom and absurdism – and a mar­velous, seemingly coincidental diptych about one of provincial France's great causes celebres.


You would have to be over 70 to remember the case of the Papin sis­ters, who worked as maids in a Le Mans household until the day in Feb­ruary 1933 when they brutally slaughtered their mistress and her daughter. Eyes were torn out, legs chopped; one head was crushed to a pulp. Sartre and the Surrealists cooed about actes gratuits; Genet picked up a pen and wrote The Maids. France had experienced no scandal like it since Dreyfus or possibly Bluebeard.


Now comes Jean-Pierre Denis' Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassins), plainly directed but potently acted, with Sylvie Testud eye-poppingly good as the older sister; and better still, Claude Ventura's En Quete des Soeurs Papin, an investigative documentary. What is left to investigate, you ask? One: why the siblings wrought this scarce-thinkable atrocity. (Tearing their victims' eyes out was the first act, not the final one.) Two: whether the younger sister, despite rumors of decease in 1982, is still alive. The films scores an astonishing scoop by tracking her down, alive if not well – certainly not well enough to re-testify – in a far-flung French hospital. The hor­rors we have watched for 90 minutes suddenly accrete in a single face. Yet that face is innocent with age and for­getfulness. It cannot even recognize as an imposter-stalker the interviewer, who plainly conned her way into the room and seems for a brief moment creepier than her quarry.


Few movies could better illustrate cinema's dual identity as a medium of light and an art of darkness, though the festival crashed out with the bitonal splendors of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick pictured the future – or the future as seen from 1968 – as a blend of blinding hospital op-room aesthetics and dark abysses of space, time, and speculation. He would have enjoyed the Berlin Film Festival. It likes these percussive contrasts. It never fears darkness. It has long been accustomed to schism and duality. Even next year, when it loses its boss of 21 years, Moritz de Hadeln, whose good relations with Hollywood brought an annual cargo of Oscar­nominated films, it's unlikely Berlin will lose its unique role as an epicen­ter for the European cine-sensibility.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.