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Berlinale Dispatch: Back to the Future

New films by Claire Denis, James Benning, and Hong Sang-soo were among the stand-outs at this year's Berlin International Film Festival.
Jordan Cronk
Fire
Following a successful but necessarily impersonal virtual edition in 2021, the Berlin International Film Festival returned to in-person activities this year, drawing skepticism in some quarters but ultimately quieting the naysayers with a safe and efficient event that put the movies back where they belong: on the big screen. With mandatory daily COVID tests, 2G plus vaccination protocols, ticket reservations, assigned seating, and half-capacity venues, the Berlinale’s typically convivial vibe was sterilized and regimented in a way that’s already become familiar in an era of masks and social distancing. But no matter: the program, overseen by Carlo Chatrian in his third year as artistic director, while never quite reaching the skyscraping heights of recent editions (in which films like Days and What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? confirmed the new regime’s dedication to auteur-driven art cinema), provided a deep and rewarding wellspring of work from a diverse cross-section of filmmakers.
Among the many knotty and thought-provoking films comprising this year’s competition, the relatively safe and fleeting pleasures of Carla Simón’s sprawling family portrait Alcarràs, winner of the Golden Bear for best film, stood out as something of an anomaly. Well shot and performed (particularly by its large cast of young people) but staid to the point of feeling unmoored, the film—modeled in part on the 35 year-old Spanish director’s youth spent in a remote Catalan village and her family’s orchard that was once threatened by land redevelopment plans—sits comfortably alongside similarly personal tales of provincial life by Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro) and Jonas Carpignano (Mediterranea, A Ciambra), but ultimately lacks both the fantastical storytelling sense and the socio-historic breadth of those filmmakers’s formative work.
Judging by the secondary awards, the M. Night Shyamalan-led jury may have been split, leading to a consensus pick for the top prize, while more idiosyncratic choices could be made elsewhere. Certainly a long-overdue major festival prize for Claire Denis, who picked up the Best Director award for the intoxicating infidelity melodrama Both Sides of the Blade (also known as Fire), was welcome, if not still somewhat surprising for a film of such hothouse fury and unkempt emotion. With its lurid nocturnal energy and feverish performance style (courtesy of Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon in their first onscreen pairing), the film pushes Denis’s recent interest in classicism further than ever. And while Natalia López Gallardo’s Robe of Gems, winner of the Silver Bear Jury Prize, rubbed me the wrong way, its unapologetically bleak account of the violence permeating modern day Mexico would have been a bold choice for an even loftier prize—as would have Michael Koch’s A Piece of Sky, a Swiss-German film whose strange mix of Dumontian deadpan and wide-eyed Alpine wonder was worthy of more than a Special Mention.
The best film in competition not to win a prize came from Denis Côté, whose That Kind of Summer affirms an artistic rejuvenation began with last year’s conceptual comedy Social Hygiene. Another left turn from the prolific Québecois director, That Kind of Summer centers on three women on a month-long sexual therapy retreat. Context is kept at a minimum: each woman, we’re told, is there of their own volition, but each expresses different levels of interest in working through their hypersexual impulses. Eugénie (Laure Giappiconi), a former sex worker, is a sketch artist who breaks only for some midday masturbation; Léonie (Larissa Corriveau), a victim of incest, has a proclivity for bondage and an urge to push her body to extremes; while Geisha (Aude Mathieu), the youngest and most freewheeling of the group, sees her sexual appetite as a badge of honor, and quickly takes to seducing one of the social workers (Samir Guesmi) tasked with monitoring the women’s behavior. (In one of the film’s more humorous set pieces, Geisha skips out to service an entire soccer team when her advances are rebuffed.) In nonjudgmental fashion, Côté (who enlisted a screenplay advisor to help with such delicate subject matter) sensitively captures these women in moments of unguarded intimacy and painful self-recrimination. A chamber piece that verges on the psychodramatic, the film—shot on dreamy Super 16mm by cinematographer François Messier-Rheault—looks and operates something like the postmodern portraits of female trauma pioneered by Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman, but with a distinctly contemporary eye and ear for the language and depiction of abuse and victimhood.
The United States of America
For the first time in the three years since the introduction of the Encounters section for “aesthetically and structurally daring works,” the Berlinale’s longstanding Forum program for artists’s cinema of a similar constitution, felt like a crucial and uncompromised assemblage of strange objects and singular voices distinct from that of the larger festival. Replete with the kind of modest but adventurous work that willfully defies notions of genre and storytelling (see in particular Jorge Jácome’s delicate sensorial essay Super Natural and Éric Baudelaire’s intricately nested docufiction A Flower in the Mouth), this year’s Forum featured a pair of standout films that spoke quietly but unequivocally to the necessity of the theatrical viewing environment as debates continue as to the future of physical festivals and in-person moviegoing more broadly.
In Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, the Serbian filmmaker’s follow-up to the revelatory All the Cities of the North (2016), story cedes to sensation as a young couple decamps from the halls of academia to a lakeside clearing outside Berlin where, as they read to each other in poetic soliloquies, they’re slowly joined by a number of anonymous figures who appear to arrive from adjoining bodies of water that may or may not link disparate dimensions. Told in a combination of appropriated dialogues, disembodied subtitles, and multilingual voiceover—much of it inspired by the aquatic ecostudies of British scholar G. E. Hutchinson—the film unfolds in an appropriately fluid manner in which the bounds of space and time are set adrift and the material essence of the medium is heightened through a slippery hybrid of high-definition digital, celluloid, and analogue video formats.
For pure observational elegance, Afterwater’s only match in the Forum was James Benning’s The United States of America, a quasi-remake of his and Bette Gordon’s co-directed short of the same name from 1975. Pairing individual static shots of each state in the Union (plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, all presented in alphabetical order and at semi-regular intervals) with politically-oriented radio transmissions and excerpts from the folk-pop cannon, Benning alights at once upon the idiosyncrasies and similarities of the American landscape and the socio-historic crosscurrents of a nation that continues to evolve laterally despite ever-increasing gestures toward progress. That the film ends with a sly upheaval of the viewer’s understanding of the previous 95 minutes is but the latest example of the veteran experimentalist’s long underestimated way with a joke.
Over in Encounters, things were hardly less unorthodox. With its heterogeneous array of styles and sensibilities, the section—which slots up-and-coming talents right alongside established masters—refuses to be pigeonholed. Among the younger crop, both Nova Scotia’s Ashley McKenzie, whose Queens of the Qing Dynasty was one of the program’s more determinedly offbeat offerings, and Switzerland’s Cyril Schäublin, who won the section’s directing prize for the suitably precise historical watchmaker drama Unrest, made good on their noted debuts with second features several times more ambitious. So too did Gastón Solnicki, the Argentine writer-director of the operatic Béla Bartók adaptation Kékszakállú (2016). For his second narrative feature, A Little Love Package, Solnicki traveled to Vienna, where an indoor smoking ban was recently passed. From this simple setup, outlined in a lovingly filmed prologue of smoked-filled Viennese cafes, a narrative emerges in which a woman named Angeliki (Angeliki Papoulia) searches for an apartment with her interior designer, Carman (Carmen Chaplin). Angeliki is hard to please, and Carman is fed up. The two argue and eventually part ways, as does the narrative, moving from the Austrian capital to Carman’s family estate in Andalusia. Solnicki, less interested in cause-and-effect storytelling than gestures, glances, and moments of unassuming beauty, slowly turns this character study into an abstract reflection on intimacy and the idea of home.
The Novelist's Film
Arguably the two best films in Encounters came from known names. Ruth Beckermann won the section’s top prize for Mutzenbacher, an alternately humorous and distressing work that sees the veteran Austrian documentarian using an open casting call to recruit a group of men aged 16 to 99 to read passages from the notorious 1906 pornographic novel Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, an anonymously published text often attributed to Bambi author Felix Salten in which an aging woman looks back on her life as a teenage sex worker. Seated on a floral print pink couch in the middle of an empty warehouse, the men deliver the book’s graphically detailed stories of sex and seduction, sodomy and sadomasochism in a variety of tones, often moving from bemused enjoyment to discomfort in the space of a single sentence. (Never before have “teats” and “members” and “orifices” been the source of so much descriptive power in cinema.) Where the film takes on an additional dimension, however, is in the downtime between these readings, when the men are asked for their thoughts on the text. Many are disturbed by its frank tales of underage sex; some are inspired to share their own stories of abuse; while others still reveal alarming interests and justifications for behavior that only speaks to the continued relevance of a book that was banned its home country for more than a half century.
Certain of Mutzenbacher’s more hallucinogenic passages brought to mind Bertrand Bonello’s 2011 feature House of Tolerance, a dream-like drama set in an early 20th century Parisian brothel. Bonello’s latest, Coma, was the UFO of this year’s Encounters selection and a film unlike anything the French director has ever made. A product of the pandemic, Coma takes the circumstances of the past two years as a jumping off point to explore society’s ills in relation to the inner life of the director’s teenage daughter. Opening with an abstract montage of grainy images and voiceover narration from Bonello in which he speaks of his anxieties regarding the world we’ve left to the next generation, the film settles in temporarily as a domestic fiction about a young girl (Louise Labeque, the star of Bonello’s Zombi Child) who spends her time in lockdown video chatting with her friends and watching the latest missives from social media influencer Patricia Coma (Julia Faure). In Coma, screens beget dramas that in turn beget dreams (and occasionally nightmares), and soon enough we witness a soap opera starring the girl’s dolls, homebound musical reveries, and animations that bring the fantastical into communion with reality, to the point where even the most mediated of experiences feel hardly less real than what we’re asked to accept as normal on a daily basis. One of the few COVID-era films to use its limitations to expand the possibilities of storytelling, Coma is the rare product of its time that may very well point to the future.
From the shock of the new to the warmest of comforts: Hong Sang-soo. Hong’s 27th feature, The Novelist’s Film, winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize in the main competition, is as spare and unassuming as one might expect, but new avenues and emotional registers continue to set the best of these otherwise familiar works apart. (Rumors that this was Shyamalan’s first exposure to Hong makes one wonder, among other things, just how alien the South Korean maverick’s threadbare production model must feel to someone just coming to his work.) Starring Lee Hye-young from Hong’s most recent feature, In Front of Your Face, as Junhee, a noted novelist with writer’s block who travels to a small town outside Seoul to reunite with a pair of former colleagues—one a writer turned bookstore owner, the other a film director—in hopes of stoking her creative flame, the film unfolds as a daisy chain narrative in which Junhee eventually crosses paths, by way of the director, with a famous actress, played by Hong’s creative and romantic partner Kim Min-hee. Mutual admiration quickly leads to a suggestion that the two should make a movie together, with Junhee directing, and much of what follows centers on what exactly a novelist’s film is and what it might look like. Shooting in black and white, Hong (who again handles everything from cinematography and editing to sound design and music) sets Junhee’s quest in typically peaceful, unadorned locales, turning storefronts and public parks into sites of awkwardness, acrimony, and the occasional odd insight. Where the narrative eventually arrives—unsurprisingly, at a screening of Junhee’s movie—is less important than where the film ultimately goes, which is a fourth-wall breaking sequence in which the film-within-the-film acts as a conduit to convey something so fragile and intimate about Hong’s relationship with Kim that an abrupt shift to color is the only way to properly express the beauty of the moment. It may be the single most moving sequence in Hong’s filmography, and it’s the one I imagine I’ll always associate with this year’s return to the Berlinale.

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BerlinaleBerlinale 2022Festival CoverageCarla SimónClaire DenisDenis CôtéDane KomljenJames BenningGastón SolnickiBertrand BonelloHong Sang-soo
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