Monday, March 9, 2020

Carnet de voyage (Berlinale 2020)

4. Berlin Bound                                                                                 Thursday, February 20
            I got to Orly in Paris without any problems, which is the first stop on my way to Germany, but after arriving in Berlin there’s the initial culture shock of being in a country where you can’t speak or understand the language: it’s hard to talk to people and to know exactly where you’re going. But things have a way of working out and I eventually get to my hostel Singer109 (which is close to Jannowitzbrücke) without any problems. The place is tidy and clean. I’ll be sharing a room with seven other people – something I’m not looking forward to – but I’ll probably just be there to sleep, anyways.
            Then off Potsdamer Platz to pick up the accreditation badge. I hang around the Grand Hyatt, which is the headquarters for press, and surprisingly and which is quite nice, I run into a few friends that are there for the festival. There’s quite a few Canadians in Berlin: critics, programmers and directors. The Berlinale really changed this year as there’s new artistic directors and programmers that have created more cohesion between the different programs. On paper the selection looks really strong. (Jordan Cronk has a good piece on these changes over at Film Comment). It’s charming being in Berlin – the city of Siegfried Kacauer and Fritz Lang, Walter Benjamin and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – and people seem to be in a good mood.
            Ended up hanging out with Ariel, Mathieu and Olivier from Panorama-cinéma (a Montreal-based online film magazine) and later Pearl. After a long touristic stroll throughout the city – a polite way to say we got lost and wandered around –, which included some really great conversations, we ended up at the bar Anna Koschke. It was nice to start the festival catching up with some friends and hearing how they’re doing. After a couple of drinks and some charcuterie we all made our way home. I had trouble sleeping.

5. First Day                                                                                        Friday, February 21
            I had trouble getting into a couple of films… But eventually got to see Natalia Meta’s The Intruder in the Berlinale Palast. It’s the story of Inés, an Argentinian singer and voice actress, who slowly descends into madness either due to medication, childhood trauma or supernatural causes. It’s meant to be ambiguous. The Intruder progresses through cycles of scenes of Inés struggling with her voice, having it examined, seeing a romantic interest and then hallucinating. But something doesn’t work and it quickly becomes monotonous. The actress Erica Rivas is good but The Intruder progresses through scenes of humiliation, having no agency, being forced-fed pills. It becomes pathetic. If there’s a critique of toxic masculinity or repercussions of trauma, it becomes so watered down to fit the mold of the art-house horror film. Similar to my critique of the Uruguayan film The Moneychanger, its characters are so uninteresting and unlikeable that there’s no interest to want to follow or to see what happens to them. I always wonder about the motivation behind these types of films: why bathe in misery when you can look at the world for inspiration?
This is in contrast to the charisma and charm, intensity and melancholy of films like The Irishman or The Farewell where there are stakes and motivations in following its characters. By pushing The Intruder towards the giallo genre (you can tell that Argento is an influence) but not far enough, Natalia Meta creates a mood that’s only remotely eerie. So it doesn’t have the aesthetic effect of awe and mystery, but only of boredom and irritation. For a great Spanish art-house horror film that mixes violence and eros, I’d recommend Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis, which is already 24 years old.

            Tommaso. Now that felt good. It was surprising to see it play in six different cinemas in Berlin while it was only playing in one in Paris and it’s never been shown in Canada. 
Partly on my way to Moviemento to see it the subway stopped four stops earlier. It was hectic. I ended up having to jog forty-minutes to get there. Moviemento is a hole-in-the-wall cinema and one of the oldest in Germany. I ended up being one of only two other people there to watch it and it felt appropriate watching this grungy film in this grungy cinema. Tommaso’s images are rough and dirty. Its rawness comes from its non-industrial early digital video aesthetic.
Tommaso is really delicate, and like Philippe Garrel or Hong sang-soo, Abel Ferrara breaks away any interval between his life and art. Willem Dafoe stars in it as surrogate for the director who now teaches acting classes in Rome while spending time with his family, taking Italian classes, writing a script and going to narcotics anonymous meetings. It feels like a late Rembrandt painting as Ferrara captures the weariness of a heavy life. There’s a new start for him – Ferrara’s in a new country, with his wife and daughter – but its burdened by regret and disappointment. It’s filmed in heavy shadows and in darkness. Ferrara seems inspired by the great Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini. He creates a hybrid work that’s part documentary – filming the surroundings, people and atmosphere – and fiction – he injects Dafoe and his family to propel the story. Dafoe is the intense force that propels Tommaso and the improvisational quality of his performance feels like a return to his early underground theater beginning. There are imaginary scenes that intensify his emotional character arc. There’s a rawness to it that’s closer to 4:44 Last Day on Earth but without the artificiality of the apocalypse film genre.
Throughout Tommaso there are insert shots of older musicians playing folkloric instruments. This is Ferrara’s late style and it’s so great to see him be so intimate and personal. It ends with a home-video scene of his three-year-old daughter dancing to music so awkwardly. In Tommaso beauty is everywhere, but there’s also a violent passion, and Ferrara knows brilliantly how to present both of these qualities together. 

            Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo: Not sure how I feel about this one. It’s not at all like the other Martin films of his that I’ve seen, which isn’t many to be honest, though I’ve really like Buenas noches, España with its experimental style and shifting film stock, and La última película, of course. Death of Nintendo is a lot more mainstream – and at the Berlinale it was in the children-themed Generation section – and it’s about a group of three boys (and one sister) who really want to get circumcised (a cultural reference that I don’t get). There’s a pop filmmaking style that recalls Linklater, Stranger Things and maybe Araki (though not as traumatic or taboo). I’m not really sure how to judge “children films” – or at least this one – since they rest upon a nostalgia – the film takes place in the eighties and is set around lazy weekends and Nintendo video games – and has an innocence and naïve quality, which isn’t how the world really works. 

            I ended the night getting invited to the Malmkrog party by some new friends Christopher, Linda, Flavia, Pedro and Sofie. It was fun.

6. Bovine Cinema                                                                              Saturday, February 22
Started the day with the new Pixar film Onward by Dan Scanlon (the director of the great Monster Academy), which at first I thought was somewhat ridiculous, both for the fact that I was seeing it at the Berlinale (especially since it opens in a week) and that it’s a silly animated film set in a mythical world populated by folkloric creatures. But I ended up really getting into it and found it to be really strong. If Death of Nintendo is a mother-and-son childhood film – I forgot to mention a fantastic scene of the two sitting outdoors as a volcano is erupting with ash falling everywhere, which is as poetic as anything by Apichatpong – Onwards, on the other hand, is a film about brothers. I really identified with its protagonist, this little teen Ian, and his love-hate relationship with his brother Barley. On one of Ian’s adolescent birthdays they uncover a magical history hidden throughout the land (this is the cutesy child’s business that’s kind of ridiculous) and they spend a couple of days trying to uncover its secrets to try to relive a moment with their deceased father. I found it extremely touching and its emotions of sibling rivalry and resentment, bonding and respect to be quite precise. There’s a pop and a snap to its adventure storytelling and it has some fun references to Spielberg (Raiders, Ready Player One). 

            The first major event of the festival is Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. I published a Twitter thread about why I like it so much but unlike Meek’s Cutoff, where Reichardt revisits the western genre but with a critical perspective on gender issues and colonialism that is purposely unpleasurable, here in First Cow those themes are pushed towards the background as it instead focuses on two westerners, a scavenger and a Chinese immigrant trader, and their comradery and struggle within a hostile landscape. First Cow is about the first cow that arrives in Oregon in the eighteen-hundreds and how these two outsiders end up stealing its milk to make and sell doughnuts. It takes this premise to experiment with ideas of mise-en-scène to create hypnotizing scenes of what it’s meant to live, spend time with someone else and to live in the the woods. First Cow is up there with Rio Bravo as one of the most beautiful cabin westerns about friendship. And like how the opening scene illustrates, First Cow shows the United States as being full of unmarked graves of those who have been defeated. It has a tragic history hidden in plain sight.

            What is there to say about the new Philippe Garrel film Le sel des larmes? First off, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers and has made some of my favorite films: L’enfant secret, J'entends plus la guitare, Le vent de la nuit and I really liked his recent films too. 
Le sel des larmes has everything that I would have liked about a Philippe Garrel film – a tragic love story, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, and this time starting off in Montreuil – but it doesn’t work: there isn’t any chemistry between the actors, the dialogue doesn’t ring true and the plot doesn’t flow. It plays like a variation of his usual material: There’s a carpenter Luc in his thirties who has a few affairs as he shares his time between his father’s home in the country and his classes in Paris. But its vision of youth comes off as passé as there’s an incongruity between the millennial generation presented and their behaviour (one scene, for example, revolves around prostitutes which doesn’t fit its surrounding context). But there’s still something devastating to Le sel des larmes: its story is still tragic as when Luc finally lies to his father and finally finds love away from him for the first time, it’s the start of his downfall that will lead him to be all alone. There’s still a melancholy and sadness that Garrel does so well and which really suits its title, The salt of tears.
            This was my first Berlinale Palace premiere and everything about the ceremony made up for the disappointment of the film. There was a projection of the cast and crew walking up the stairs and into the theatre that was projected onto the main screen (and I was sitting in the first row). That it was Garrel made it even better. 
It’s pretty amazing how accessible and relatively easy going everything at the Berlinale is especially in contrast to Cannes and other festivals I’ve attended. I’ve never had this kind of access, pleasure and smoothness at a film festival. I think that I’ll have to come back.

            I saw the new film by Nobuhiro Suwa, whose previous H Story I really liked, even though I found Voices in the Wind to be disappointing. The subject is just so heavy that regardless of its treatment it just comes off as inadequate and clunky. It’s about a young woman’s journey to deal with the grief of her family’s death due to a disastrous tsunami some years earlier. Mourning is the catalyst for her exploring the countryside of Japan and everyone she meets shares their stories that form this tapestry of trauma. There’s a heaviness to Voices in the Wind and an accountability to the losses that burdens the films and creates a repetition of loss. It doesn’t know how to deal with the weight of the country’s history, so it stubbornly gets bogged down in it and its young protagonist Haru (Serena Motola) uncaringly isolates herself from others.  

7. Down in the Water                                                                       Sunday, February 22
            The new Christian Petzold film Undine features an industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski). It’s not until you see him go underwater that you realize how vastly underused the bottom of a river has been used as a cinematic setting. The depth and endlessness of underwater exploration has almost a science-fiction quality as you get to see parts of the world that for the most part remains largely unseen: the landscapes are strange, the marine life bizarre and even the interplay between light and darkness appears uncanny. There are so many gorgeous shades of blue down there. Underwater there’s a transcendental quality of elusiveness and mystery where rationality seems to float away. This well suits the undine myth, the imaginary water nymph of folklore, that Petzold wants to explore. And that’s without saying anything about Günter, a legendary immense catfish, that causes inexplicable activity to occur.

Undine (Paula Beer) is an architecture tour guide in Berlin and after a bad break up she finds love with the more child-like Chistoph. At first Undine comes off as lighter than Petzold’s more recent historically fraught films as it’s part romantic-drama and fairy tale. The scenes of Undine’s speeches on the city’s history and architecture are impressive – especially for a tourist in the city – as it explains the urban planning and underlining theory in a sophisticated and funny manner. The chemistry between Undine and Christoph is touching and, along with the Garrel from last night, it’s nice to see loving couples populate the films at the Berlinale. There’s something inspiring about the couple’s beauty, fragility and tenderness. But Undine gets darker as her ex-boyfriend slowly becomes more persistent towards her, which leads to conflict and trouble at her work. I won’t say any more except there’s a mysterious quality to Undine and it’s nice to see Petzold having fun with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski. Petzold’s equally great at doing more off-beat mystical and stylistic films: Undine is like a hybrid between Oncle Boonme and Under the Skin.            

It’s pouring rain outside and windy today. I’m cold and wet. Ended up going to McDonalds for lunch, which I could have easily foreseen being a mistake. 
I had a meeting with Michel Ciment to interview him on the subject of Parisian film culture. I hadn’t known he’s been experiencing health problems… But he seemed more welcoming and graceful than I had remembered. I got to interview him for thirty minutes. I think I’ll use it as a post-script for my dissertation.

            The featured retrospective director of this year’s Berlinale is King Vidor. The full retrospective includes many rare prints and the Berlinale published a luxurious catalogue on Vidor. It’s nice to see this type of full career retrospective at a film festival where the work of the present is put in conversation with masterpieces of the past. I got to see Vidor’s silent film La Bohème (1926) with a piano accompaniment. I hadn’t realized Vidor had been such an accomplished silent film director as at almost two hours his adaptation of the Puccini’s opera still feels modern and even though there’s a theatrical stylization to Lillian Gish and John Gilbert their emotional scenes still resonate without feeling overplayed. 
I think I’ll try to attend the Locarno party tonight.

8. The Edge                                                                                        Monday, February 23
A great day so far with My Little Sister and Siberia
            The German film was a surprise. I knew nothing about it, but it starts off with a good premise: an acclaimed Berlin thespian (Lars Eidinger) is diagnosed with cancer and his whole life goes up in smoke. I like how it asks what it’s like to give your life to the arts (his Hamlet monologue is striking) and what it means when this is cut short: what truly can you say that you’ve left behind?
His twin sister (Nina Hoss) is there take care of him. Hoss is a lot better here than she was in The Audition where she plays a severe piano instructor, though playing a variation of the type as she now she teaches poetry at a private school.
What I really liked about My Little Sister, as unlike other German films that I’ve seen (Fassbinder comes to mind, but there’s many others) where folks are usually cruel and are always yelling at each other, set in world that strongly revolve around guilt, here, on the other hand, there’s something very human: it shows its characters to be very light and frivolous, caring and funny. It’s quite the positive vision of humanity. 
The title of the film, which comes at the end, makes the struggle even more touching as it suggests the story is from the brother’s perspective, emphasising his love for his sister.
            After the mother-and-son (Martin), father-and-son (Garrel), two brothers (Pixar), now here’s a film that focuses on the brother-sister relationship. Family and sibling bonds are reoccurring subjects of many films at the Berlinale. It is this emotional grounding, experiences and history which is the theme of many films that I’ve seen and it’s nice to see because it is something so human and important. 

            Since the screenwriter Nicholas St. John left Abel Ferrara after The Funeral (1996) and Ferrara has been making these smaller more experimental films, I’ve found that the dialogue in his films has been lacking: the way people speak lack feeling or nuance and it’s somewhat distracting. Same problem here but Siberia still works. It’s similar to Claire Denis’ High Life or Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built as they are all nightmarish works of end of the life visions. There’s a real pleasure to see these directors exorcise their demons and showing their dark visions of humanity at the end of the world. Willem Dafoe is in a deserted cabin in a snow-ridden Siberia where he experiences and relives twisted moments that defy logic and time. He’s haunted by personal memories that give him angst as he’s metaphorically getting closer to the end of his life. It’s full of such bizarre imagery and stories: there’s an anecdote about fishing in Canada, a pregnant woman that gives birth in his cabin, his mother confronting him on their relationship, and that fish! The film is full of regret and sadness, which seems new for Ferrara. Siberia might be one of my favorite films of the competition so far. This is what film festivals are for.

            The Ross brothers Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is like that Nathan For You episode “Smokers Allowed”: It’s a hybrid “recreation” of a typical day at a run-down American bar. This one is in outskirts of Las Vegas and it’s “casted” with twenty participants that represent the diversity of Americana. Everyone has a distinct way to expresses themselves and behave and their lives and personas take on a narrative dimension. You can’t create characters as richly dense as this in fiction. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets has a beautiful visual texture: there’s an old saloon quality to the bar and its filmed as if John Ford and John Cassavetes were still around. The Ross’s have this Americana quality, heirs to Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twin, by finding nonconforming language and behaviours, people and a community where there’s something that’s happening. Bloody Nose, Empty Pocket felt a lot more like the Ross brothers than their last two films (Western, Contemporary Color) and closer to their best work (River, Tchoupitoulas).

9. Au Revoir                                                                                      Tuesday, February 24
            I’m ending my report of the Berlinale on bittersweet tone. I don’t want to leave. I was so well received here and had a great time: The films were good, met some cool folks and the city was beautiful. 
I’ve only seen one film today: Hong Sang-Soo’s The Woman who Ran. I don’t know how Hong does it, but I’ve loved every one of his films that I’ve seen since discovering him ten years ago. There’s an aperitif quality to Hong’s cinema as it’s light and refreshing. His films have a way to cleanse the palette especially in a film festival context where the films are usually heavy. Hong’s films are ones that you live with, discover at such-and-such festival and on different screens and in different cities. Their stories are usually similar to each other (e.g. an artist struggling with their career, a young woman at a crossroads) but it’s their variations and how Hong earnestly communicates news about himself and how he’s feeling that gives them their lightness and personal quality. With The Woman who Ran it seems like Hong’s doing well, especially in contrast to some of his previous depression films like Haewon or the Hill of Freedom.
The Woman who Ran starts off with a coop of chickens and some gardening. It starts off with this slow and unusual rhythm and tone, which is really funny too. It’s the story of a young woman (played, as usual, by the excellent Kim Min-hee) who when her husband is out of town for a weekend goes to visit three different friends. There isn’t really too much more than that aside from the different conversations she has with all of them and the description of how they’re doing and how they’ve changed since they’ve last seen each other. But there’s something relaxing and calming about it. There are discussions of vegetarianism, relationship problems and cinema. And after the great dog in Claire’s CameraThe Woman who Ran might feature the best cat appearance in all of Hong’s films (the one particular scene sparked a mass applause at the press screening, something that I’ve never seen before).

            Afterwards, I had a relatively lazy day. I didn’t want this trip to come to a close. I went to the press conference for The Woman who Ran (just like I did for the Ferrara and Reichardt), which is something I definitively suggest journalist do more at festivals, especially to see admired directors.
            And then I had another Cahiers-related interview and then went on a stroll to the German history museum. I finally made my way to see one my instructors for a small get together. It was a great way to end my time at the Berlinale.