61st BERLINALE 2011

20 February 2011


Golden Bear for Best Film
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (Nader And Simin, A Separation)
by Asghar Farhadi

Silver Bear - The Jury Grand Prix
A torinói ló (The Turin Horse)
by Béla Tarr

Silver Bear - Best Director
Ulrich Köhler
for Schlafkrankheit (Sleeping Sickness)

Silver Bear - Best Actress
to the actress-ensemble in
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (Nader And Simin, A Separation)
by Asghar Farhadi

Silver Bear - Best Actor
to the actor-ensemble in
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (Nader And Simin, A Separation)
by Asghar Farhadi

Silver Bear - Outstanding Artistic Achievement
Wojciech Staron for the camera in
El premio (The Prize)
by Paula Markovitch

ex aequo

Barbara Enriquez for the production design in
El premio (The Prize)
by Paula Markovitch

Silver Bear - Best Script
Joshua Marston and
Andamion Murataj for
The Forgiveness Of Blood (The Forgiveness Of Blood)

Alfred Bauer Prize, for a work of particular innovation.

Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who)
by Andres Veiel

The Jury was headed by Isabella Rossellini and included the Canadian avant-garde film maker Guy Maddin and the British costume designer Sandy Powel,l who began her career with Derek Jarman and other British independent film makers, and has gone on to win three Oscars and eight nominations in the past decade. The Jury’s number was reduced to six by the absence of Jafar Panahi, now undergoing a six year prison sentence and twenty year ban from film-making in his native Iran: his place on the Jury was kept open as a demonstration of support and solidarity.

The Festival’s Golden Bear, as well as both acting prizes (for the female and male ensembles) went to the Iranian NADER AND SIMIN, A SEPARATION, directed by Asghar Farhadi, who took the direction prize at the 2009 Berlinale with ABOUT ELLY. Certainly no other film in this year’s competition approached the universal acclaim of NADER AND SIMIN. The film’s overall qualities of conception and execution made the elements of contrivance acceptable or irrelevant. The story begins with the divorce appeal – rejected – of Simin, who wants to emigrate (for reasons which are hinted, rather than stated). Nader refuses to emigrate, because he will not abandon his severely senile old father. The pawn in this game is their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi’s daughter, whose intellectual and moral sophistication is one of the toughest factors to credit in the film). Each parent hopes for her support, but each is too civilized consciously to manipulate her.

Simin leaves the marital home to stay with her parents, but hires Razieh, accompanied by her 4-year-old daughter, to come daily to take care of the old man. Nader and Simin are comfortable bourgeois, not overly constrained by religion; Razeh and her workless husband are poor, and piously dedicated to their religious ethics.
One day Nader returns home, to find his father abandoned, unconscious and tied to his bed. When Razeh returns he roughly ejects her from the apartment. When Razeh subsequently miscarries he finds himself charged with the murder of the unborn child. The film now moves into the process of the investigation and the shifting positions of the various antagonists, turning into a fascinating and absorbing disquisition on personal and religious ethics, the nature and flexibility of truth and of gender and class in Iranian society. Finally the focus of moral dilemma is 11-year-old Termeh. We have seen her compromised; but at the end we are left to guess which of her now-flawed parents she will choose.
The film also received the Ecumenical Jury Prize, whose citation rather justly specified that it “addresses its subject-matter with equality, respect, and sincerity. Its themes include parent-child relationships, separation, ethical decision-making, justice, and religious commitment. . . The film communicates different moral viewpoints effectively in a realistic, and culturally sensitive way”.

Both the Jury Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI competition prize went to festival-favourite Béla Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE. The title is derived (as the film explains in a voice-over introduction) from the trauma that struck Nietsche on 3 January 1889, when he stepped out of his lodgings in piazza Carlo Alberto, Turin, to see a cabbie brutally beating his horse. Nietsche flung his arms protectively around the animal, but then collapsed and declined into dementia from which he never recovered: he died in 1900. After the introduction there is no apparent connection between the Turin horse and the Tarr horse, which belongs to a poor peasant and his daughter, surviving in the same bleak Hungarian countryside as SATANTANGO. In 149 minutes and no more than 30 shots, Tarr follows the ritualistic monotony of their daily life, of the peasant and his daughter, broken only by the visit of a grouchy neighbour in quest of palinka and the passage of some gypsies. Tarr – who has announced that this will be his last film - is a director whose work you either love or leave.

Two of the festival’s outstanding films were out of competition, though Yasemin Samdrelli’s ALMANYA – WILKOMMEN IN DEUTSCHLAND could readily have jostled for several awards. The narrative moves easily back and forward in time, between the arrival in 1964 of Germany’s million-and-first gastarbeiter from Turkey (the millionth had turned out to be less moviegenic) and the same man, Huseyin’s old age, as patient, loving husband and paterfamilias to a large brood, all still entrapped to a greater or less degree in the process of integration. Almost half a century after the migration, Huseyin’s 6-year-old grandson Cenk finds himself accepted neither by the German nor the Turkish infant school football team.
The film starts as a robust comedy with alien-culture gags (mistrust of foreign toilets; a child’s nightmares at the horror-image of the crucifixion) that indicate the debutante feature director’s apprenticeship in tv comedy series. As the film progresses, and the forceful old patriarch takes his unwilling brood back to their roots in Anatolya, with a mixed onset of shocks, memories, divisions and reconciliations, the mood grows darker and deeper, with probing reflections on identity, race and place. Starting easily and seductively, it develops into a film of great charm and wisdom.
Response to Wim Wenders’ PINA depends wholly on one’s response to Pina Bausch’s provocative dance creations with their choreographies of collapse, collision and inner angst which already have a period air (it is almost four decades since Chantal Akerman’s documentary on the company). Wenders had long planned to collaborate with Bausch on a film, but only felt he had the right resource for a dance film with new stereographic technology. Bausch’s sudden death in 2009, when the production was first under way, changed his concept from a documentary to a memorial tribute. Now the film consists mostly of dancing, using Bausch’s preferred works, Café Müller, Le Sacre du printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof. Sometimes the filming seems to be in rehearsal rooms; sometimes before a barely-glimpsed audience. Other dance sequences are filmed in the bleak industrial streets, parks, a school and a swimming pool in Wuppertal, the home of Bausch’s Tanztheater. Between times her dancers – some rather elderly though still game – pay their tributes to their late mentor, though all find it difficult to convey the particular nature of her inspiration. The film is not totally persuasive of Wenders’ view that 3D is the ultimate and only satisfactory way of recording dance. Many photographers have effectively captured the patterns of dance on the two-dimensional screen, while 3D, even in Wenders’ careful hands, can seem to distort the stage picture into disparate planes.

In CORIOLANUS, actor-director Ralph Fiennes takes his chance on the old adventure of transposing Shakespeare to a contemporary setting. In the theatre Henry V has been updated to present-day Iraq and Macbeth to Stalin’s Russia, while Baz Luhrman has set Romeo and Juliet on 20th century Verona Beach, all with varied effect. Fiennes updates the ever-problematic CORIOLANUS to a modern fantasy place called Rome but looking like the sadder outskirts of an East European city (it is in fact Belgrade), inhabited by a supporting cast speaking English in many accents. Sometimes the contemporary dress fits the old text quite snugly - mainly in the dialogue of scheming politicians. But elsewhere, particularly in scenes involving warfare, the anachronisms are persistently uncomfortable. Modern audiences retain a taste for period films, and the imaginative ability to enter into other worlds; and frankly this story of the warrior who will not bend to seek political favour would probably have been easier for them done in period, without the contemporary trip-ups. The film is retrieved by the central performances, of Fiennes himself as a (persuasively) modern Coriolanus, Brian Cox as a diplomatic Menenius, and Vanessa Redgrave as a magnificent Volumnia, sagely dressed in timeless dresses which do not too much conflict with the archaic sentiment of her ferocious militaristic materialism.

INNOCENT SATURDAY (ON SATURDAY is the literal translation of the Russian title) is the second film as director by Alexander Mindadze, a notable scenarist since the Soviet era; and looks back, in the 25th anniversary year – at the Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986. The reactor explosion however is only a glow in the sky: Mindadze follows the reactions and fortunes of people close to the event, yet still unaware or evasive of its implications. The plant and party officials cover their backs and play down the event (as happened historically: human lives were deemed less important than the coming May Day celebrations). The action focuses on a young party official sworn to secrecy, whose sharper-witted intentions to take a train out of the place are frustrated by his girl-friend’s broken heel, a wedding party, encounters with old music friends who persuade him to take the place of the dead-drunk drummer in the band in which he used to play, and reawakened resentments about his party loyalties. It’s all a case of fiddling while Rome burns.
Perhaps betraying his anxiety as a sexagenarian late-comer to direction, Mindadze strives for a relentlessly hectic style, with ever-racing camera, fast cutting, and quick-sketched, unexplored characters. Anton Shigan, a favoured newcomer to the Soviet screen, is forceful but here perilously unsympathetic.

THE FUTURE. Miranda July is an idol of Sundance, and her film is the epitome of Californian independent. It has an irritating framing commentary in the screechy voice of a terminally ill cat in an animal shelter, who has 30 days to wait for adoption by Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater, an appealing poker-face comedian who turns out to have played Hamlet in repertory). The couple decide to use the thirty days to leave their jobs (dance teacher; computer counselor), forsake the internet, and learn about life. The upshot is that Sophie embarks on a graceless affair with a square married man; Jason is devastated; and the cat, forgotten, expires. The dialogue and playing is cute but inconsequential; and the big walk-out rate from the Berlin press show was no surprise.

Lee Yoon-ki’s SARAGHANDA, SARAGHAJI ANNEUNDA has the English title COME RAIN, COME SHINE, though the Korean title seems literally to mean, “I LOVE YOU, I DON’T LOVE YOU”. To its credit the film has deployed its minuscule budget (three weeks’ shooting; no music score) to achieve a very elegant and stylish surface, but at the price of a fairly excruciating minimalism – starting with a reel-long opening shot from a fixed camera on a car bonnet, observing a duologue through the obscuring wind-screen. The two quite personable principals, en route to drop the wife at the airport, discuss her intention to leave him for another man. The rest of the film is set in their apartment, presumably on their last day together. Besieged by heavy rain, they discuss their situation at length, while the wife packs and maybe experiences second thoughts. A kitten wanders in and its owners come to claim it. This all takes up 105 minutes. The script is based on what must be a very short story by the Japanese Inoue Areno.

In THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD Joshua Marston again demonstrates the rare gift of his first film MARIA FULL OF GRACE in achieving a totally authentic work while working in a foreign culture and a foreign language. MARIA (2004) was set in the world of Colombian drug smugglers. His second film gets right inside a contemporary society where modern technology and primitive ancient custom uncomfortably co-exist. In a remote village in Northern Albania the kids have motorcycles and computers and constantly chat on their mobile phones. 17-year-old Nik dreams of opening the village’s first internet café and his younger sister Rudina plans to go to university.
All dreams are shattered when a neighbour is killed in the course of a property dispute, and Nik’s father and uncle are the prime suspects. The Kanun – the centuries-old Albanian traditional code of laws – dictates that the male members of the family – even Nick’s 6-year-old sibling - must remain confined to their house or risk authorized instant execution by the aggrieved. The family risks becoming prey to shifty and venal professional go-betweens; Rudina must struggle to be bread-winner; as their situation becomes more desperate, Nik risks his life to break the feud.
At all levels it is a very accomplished film (and took the Silver Bear for best script, co-written by Marston and Adamion Murataj). Marston has largely used Albanian talent in every department of the film; and wins wholly convincing performances from the mainly non-professional actors.

UN MUNDO MISTERIOSO. Rodrigo Moreno won the Alfred Bauer prize in 2006 with EL CUSTODIO, but the only mystery here is how his new film made it into the 2011 competition. The agonizingly nondescript protagonist is pushed out (temporarily) by his girl-friend, wanders Buenos Aires, encounters friends, buys a crumbling old Romanian car, grows a beard, trips to Montevideo to visit someone who turns out not to be there. It seems unlikely that the 107 minutes would have been much less tedious even if the screening viewed had not been in some remarkably hazy and washed-out digital format

The Austrian MEIN BESTER FEIND is another film which hardly seemed to merit a place in a major international competition, though Wolfgang Murnburger is a very competent commercial director, with a narrative command that at least commands audience attention. But his aim for a comedy drama misfires in this story of anti-Semitism in post-Anschluss Austria. The story focuses on the son of a rich Jewish gallery owner and his Aryan boyhood friend who opportunistically joins the Nazi party, to become his “best enemy”. The Hitchcockian McGuffin is a precious Michelangelo drawing which acquires diplomatic importance for the Nazis; the “comic” twist is when the two antagonists switch identities and roles (a reminiscence of THE GREAT DICTATOR).

LES CONTES DE LA NUIT. The French master of animation Michel Ocelot uses digital technologies without compromising the distinctive human personality of his silhouettes; though it seems an odd contradiction to use 3D for a form whose whole point is its two-dimensionality: the effect, bizarrely, is only seen in the subtitles which stand proudly forward from the image. The charm is familiar: he breaks no new ground. Six fairy stories, with varied ethnic settings, are linked by the framing conceit of a dilapidated projection room where an old technician helps a boy and girl dress up and disguise themselves as the princesses, peasant boys, werewolves, monarchs, monsters and magic that inhabit these tales told in black silhouette against subtly coloured backgrounds. Is it too optimistic to hope that there are still audiences able to respond to these ravishing images and enchanted tales?

Canadian-born and largely British-educated Israeli director Jonathan Sagall’s ODEM (LIPSTIKKA) has had a troubled history and is likely to have a critical future. Israeli funding was long delayed; and the film’s portrayal of perilously liberated Palestinian women and Israeli soldiers as rapists is not calculated to please everyone. Sadly the film is not accomplished enough in execution to win the sort of critical acclaim that might help overcome nationalist resentments.
The story involves the abrupt and uncomfortable reunion of two former Palestinian friends in London, when the excessive Inam irrupts into the ideal bourgeois home of Lara, where she lives with her unloving husband Michael, big car, small son and a supply of comforting vodka. As Lara copes anxiously with Inam’s eccentric behaviour, past histories emerge – Lara’s former yearning for Inam and stealing of Michael’s affections, and an earlier, more traumatic incident of the young Lara’s witnessing Inam’s rape by an Israeli soldier during the Intifada. Perhaps production difficulties go some way to explain the film’s short-comings – cursory handling that is more TV-style than minimalist; uneasiness with English dialogue by the experienced Clara Khoury and Nataly Attiya (though the debutantes Moran Rosenblatt and Ziv Weiner do better); and a creaky melodrama payoff that undermines all

Renewed curiosity about German radical terrorist movements of the 60s and 70s has already been explored in BAADER (2002) and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). Andres Veiel’s WER WENN NICHT WIR is a more sober investigation of the foundations of the Red Army Faction and some of its leading figures than its predecessors, as befits Andres Veiel’s background as a distinguished documentarist - he covered some of the same ground a decade ago in BLACK BOX BRD. Maybe his documentary background is also something of a handicap in trying to combine careful historical recreation with speculative psychological portrayal of historical figures. This makes for an often disconcerting shifting of focus as the lives of the three main characters frequently drift in different directions, apart and together. Their switch-back political and emotional allegiances do not make for neat dramatic exposition. Based on Gerd Koenen’s triple biography, Vesper, Ensslin, Baader, the film opens with a flash-back to the childhood of Bernwald Vesper, as the son of Will Vesper, a favourite poet of the Nazi era. Later, in his student youth in post-war Germany, Vesper’s eagerness to rehabilitate his father’s literature leads him to found his own publishing house. Here he is joined by Gudrun Ensslin, already fired by disillusion with the new Republic and committed to far-left politics. Their turbulent love affair produces a son. Both inevitably drift to the extreme left, and Gudrun commits herself to the Red Army Faction, embarking on an affair with the charismatic Andreas Baader. Nevertheless, when Gudrun goes on trial, Vesper gives evidence in her defence. Institutionalised with a permanent mental collapse, he nevertheless writes his autobiographical noval Die Reise, which was to be published and acquire classic reputation in 1977, when all the protagonists had met violent ends. (Die Reise was filmed by Markus Imhoof in 1986). As Gudrun, Lena Lauzemis is the film’s strongest asset. August Diehl cannot overcome the chameleon confusions of Vesper; and Veiel seems to intend the brief, dashing performance of Alexander Fehling as Baader to hint at the emotional and intellectually deficient political rationales of the RAF.

Western audiences – but above all Berlin’s – appear reluctant to believe the essential premise of Seyfi Teoman’s film, adapted from a novel by Bizim Büyük, that two middle-aged male former school friends can cohabit in a perfectly platonic mutual affection; and Teoman’s press encounters were consistently confused by this disbelief. However, that is what he and Büyük want to show us: intellectual Ender (Ilker Aksum) and engineer Çetin (Fatih Al) live in cosy domesticity (their bourgeois Ankara apartment is a credit to the film’s designer), with thoughtful visits to the supermarket. The film opens as their fellow school-friend Fikret’s parents are killed in a car accident, and he begs them to take in his student sister Nihal. At first uneasy and even resentful of their ward, in time they warm to the newcomer, and there is even mutual suspicion of burgeoning love – quickly brought to an end by the appearnce of a younger admirer. Making unusually good use of Ankara locations, the film is charming and watchable, though ultimately inconsequential.

UNKNOWN clearly owed its out-of-competition inclusion in the festival to its setting in a wintry Berlin, with the Hotel Adlon as a glamorous contrast to the shelters of illegal immigrants. The film is bound for commercial success, even if the hero and heroine’s repeated unscratched escapes from the roller-coaster car smashes which the director, Jaume Collet-Serra relishes provoked laughter with in Berlin. The story is an over-stretched saga of search for lost identity: Liam Neeson plays a distinguished bio-technologist who turns up in Berlin with his wife for a major international conference (early signaled as a likely location for terrorism). In no time he has been in a car-crash, hospitalized, and on his return to the conference finds himself unrecognized and unacknowledged: another man has completely assumed his identity and both professional and marital roles. In company with an East European taxi driver (Diane Kruger) his quest to solve the mystery finds him on the run from ruthless killers. The film’s only real distinction is the presence of the septuagenarian Bruno Ganz, as a crumbling ex-Stasi agent, still able to call on his old contacts when needs demand.

Shown in the Panorama section of the festival, RUNDKOPF (BULLHEAD) is a notable first feature by Michael J.Roskam, as writer and director. With the unlikely setting of a Flemish dairy farm, Roskam builds up a tough and gripping crime story, at the centre of which is the character study of a tough, ferocious and deeply disturbed man, acutely unlovely, but still a figure of tragedy. Jacky – a masterful portrayal by Matthias Schoenaerts – has inherited his family dairy farm which he runs with the ruthlessness of a mafia boss. His dealings with the illegal hormones trade, to boost his meat production, is paralleled by his alarming personal consumption of testosterone and a laboratory of other drugs. The mafia connection catches up on him after the murder of a veterinary inspector (suggested by, but not recreating a comparable historical crime of 1995). Mysterious past events and a menace-filled present close in upon him.

Also in the Panorama, the Bengali very-independent GANDU does leave one at something of a loss for words. Kaushik Mukherjee, aka “Q”, with a background in music videos, preceded this film with a documentary LOVE IN INDIA, which declared his very personal exasperation with the hypocritical contradictions between India’s repressive moral codes and the country’s historic tradition of spiritual sexuality. His one-of-a-kind musical is a provocation, flaunting aspects of life and sexuality that are unlikely to be seen on Indian screens, where until recently the notion even of a kiss was more than controversial. GANDU certainly goes beyond kissing, and to the limits. The title character, Gandu, played by the odd but likeable Anubrata, generally lives up to his name (lit.trans., “Asshole”). He lives under a bridge, steals from his mother’s clients while she is purveying sexual services, and dreams of being a rapper. He makes fast friends with a rickshaw boy obsessed by Bruce Lee, who introduces him to the world of drugs. He wakens from a massive trip in which he has sex with a garish incarnation of Kali, to find that his dreams are about to be fulfilled – by Kaushik Mukherjee, aka Q. It is all manic, aggressive and at the same time amiable. At times the screen is shot with multiple images and English-language titles, obscene or ironic. Like it or not, Gandu is an experience.

Kaspars Goba’s HOMO@LV is something of a horror documentary. In 2005 an attempt to stage a gay pride parade in Riga brought to the surface wide-spread prejudice which, along with church opinion, has subsequently been successfully manipulated by politicians into a massive but politically profitable hate campaign. The establishment of the “no-pride” movement has resulted in homosexuals and lesbians being submitted to physical as well as verbal abuse, social and professional bans and the defrocking of priests. Latvia now represents an intolerance probably unparalleled in Europe. Lithuania however runs close behind, and 20-year-old Roman Zabarauskas’ PORNO MELODRAMA, programmed in Panorama with HOMO@LV, is courageous as the country’s (and probably the Baltic states’) first fiction short on a homosexual subject – an anecdote about a man who seeks to leave his wife (and partner in porno film acting) for another man.

INVISIBLE (LO ROIM ALICH) is an impressive feature debut from the already well-established Israeli documentary film-maker, Michal Aviad. This wise and elegantly-composed reflection on the lasting trauma of rape victims is only strengthened by the underlying element of fact and painful first-hand knowledge – Aviad’s own experience, and the documentary record of a notorious serial rapist (“the Polite Rapist”), sentenced in Tel Aviv in 1978. (The film actually integrates contemporary recordings of this rapist’s victims). In Aviad’s film, twenty years after, two of the rapist’s victims – a television editor and a political activist, both now established and with families of their own – meet by chance on a documentary shoot. The meeting awakens the editor’s suppressed traumas, and though at first the activist resists her familiarity, eventually they come together to find catharsis and liberation in a shared exhumation of the feelings and facts of the past. Two actresses, Ronit Elkabetz and Evgenia Dodina, are exceptional.

BERLINALE 60 - February 2010

21 February 2010

The 60th Berlinale did not quite hit the anniversary, since the first festival took place in June-July 1951: the event was not to shift from Berlin’s sweltering summer heat to finger-freezing cold until 1978. In a Berlin then still showing many gaping wounds of the recent war, the festival was started as a distinctly political initiative, proposed by the American Film Officer in Berlin, Oscar Martay. The epithet “International” was then disputable: not until 1974 were any films from the socialist countries of Eastern Europe accepted in the Berlin competition. Even then political tensions might still surface: in 1979 the socialist countries unanimously withdrew their films from competition in protest against the inclusion of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.

The festival has had only four directors in its sixty years. The first, Dr Alfred Bauer had worked in the Reichsfilmkammer in the 1940s and in the post-war years been an advisor on film affairs to the British military authorities. He was succeeded in 1977 by Wolf Donner, who resigned after the Deer Hunter affair, to be succeeded in turn by Moritz de Hadeln, who retained the office until 2001. The fourth and current director is Dieter Kosslick. The President of the 2010 Jury will be the veteran German director Werner Herzog.

At the start of the festival, media attention inevitably focussed on THE GHOST WRITER written and directed by Roman Polanski, adapted from the novel by Robert Harris and starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and the 94-year-old Eli Wallach. Polanski, under house arrest in Switzerland, was clearly unable to take his Biennale bow. The film itself, in the outcome, was efficient, watchable and unremarkable - although the story acquired a new topicality with Britain's Chilcott Enquiry currently assessing Tony Blair's responsibility in the Iraq war.

Berlin's Golden Bear went to the Turkish BAL (HONEY), which is the kind of film that wins festival prizes. Confused and heterogeneous though juries generally are, they can all see that such a film is Art with a capital A. The images are exquisite, the technical quality irreproachable, the action and dialogue minimalist and measured at snail’s pace. The central character is a beautiful child impeccably trained to go through his moves. Honey, though it emerges last, is the first part of Semi Kaplanoglu’s trilogy of Honey, Milk and Egg, a part autobiographical account of the development of an artist. In this first part, the young hero is around six, clever, observant, but tongue-tied at school where he longs to do well in reading. His father collects wild honey – a perilous business that involves climbing tall and brittle trees, and results in the tragedy that climaxes the film.


Bal (Honey) by Semih Kaplanoglu (Turkey)

Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle by Florin Serban (Romania)

The Ghost Writer (The Ghost Writer)(France/Germany/UK)

Caterpillar (Caterpillar) by Koji Wakamatsu (Japan

Grigori Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis (ex aequo) for Kak ya provel etim letom (How I Ended This Summer) by Alexei Popogrebsky (Russia)

SILVER BEAR FOR AN OUTSTANDING ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT IN THE CATEGORY CAMERA Pavel Kostomarov for the camera in Kak ya provel etim letom (How I Ended This Summer) by Alexei Popogrebsky (Russia)

Wang Quan'an and Na Jin for Tuan Yuan (Apart Together) by Wang Quan'an (China)

ALFRED BAUER PRIZE, awarded in memory of the Festival founder, for a work of particular innovation
Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle by Florin Serban (Romania)

Berlinale - How I Ended This Summer

19 February 2010

The solitary two actors of Alexei Popogrebski's HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER shared the best actor prize, while the film received a special award for the photography. The action is set entirely on a bleak, remote Arctic station, where there is nothing but a more-or less abandoned polar research station polar station, which the veteran recorder has manned alone for years. He is joined by a young high-school intern, and endeavours to restrain his irritation with the boy’s inexperience and inattention. While the older man is on a fishing trip, the boy takes a radio message of tragic news for his companion, but emotional fear and timidity prevent him from passing it along. From this incident their relationships deteriorate in unexpected ways. Popogrebski first attracted attention with Koktebel, co-directed with Boris Khlebnikov. The stage actor Sergei Puskepalis, whose young son played in Koktebel, played the leading role in Popogrebsky’s second film Simple Things. Grigori Dobrygin, who plays the younger man is a debutant, after training in dance and drama. The two actors handsomely filll their roles, competing with the bleak and dramatic landscape of Chukotka, at the Arctic tip of Russia, which actually housed a weather station.. Popogrebsky’s own story was inspired directed by the story of Sedov’s failed 1912 attempt to reach the Nporth Pole. The stunning camerawork is a vindication of the RED digital technique.

Berlinale - Shahada (Faith)

18 February 2010

SHAHADA (Faith) is the debut work– virtually a student film - directed by the 30-year-old Afghanistan-born but German domiciled Burhan Qurbani, and is a film of exceptional vitality and invention that certainly proposes an exceptional new talent. The film follows the story of three young Muslims finding strains between their sincere faith, their emotions and the social pressures of contemporary Berlin life. The Imam’s daughter is battling to conceal a messy abortion; a devout young man is struggling against his love for another boy; a policeman (in the least satisfactory of the three stories) is emotionally dogged directed by the effects of an accidentis haunted Their good fortune is to have a progressive and human imam, who finds his greatest difficulty is helping his own daughter. Like any first film-maker Qurhani is trying to squeeze too much into his story, but the vigour and technical flair are a good omen for the future.

Berlinale:The Hunter

17 February 2010

THE HUNTER (Rafi Pitts) is a curiously uninvolving film, considering what might be taken as potent references to contemporary Iran. The protagonist, played by Pitts himself, loses his wife and child through cross-fire in a confrontation between police and protestors in Iran. He runs amok, kills two policeman, and flees into a desert terrain where he is pursued by two policemen. For a while it is unclear who is the hunter and who the hunted, but when the police finally capture him, he faces a confrontation between a maverick who simply wants to kill him and a by-the-book cop who aims to keep him alive. The pay-off might be interesting if it were not so confused that it is unclear just what is happening.

Berlinale: A Somewhat Gentle Man/Submarino

16 February 2010

Hans Petter Moldand's wry, free-wheeling criminal comedy benefits from the main performance by an ageing, heavy-set and balding (apart from a skimpy pigtail) Stellan Skarsgard. He plays Ulrik, freed from prison after a 12 year sentence for which he was framed. He finds a job in a garage and lodgings with a gross and homely landlady who stuffs him with food in exchange for regular sexual servicing. He also finds his sexual attentions welcomed by the garage clerk and even his estranged wife. In other respects his past presents less agreeable vestiges. His son is driven directed by his young wife to disown his gaol-bird dad, while an old partner in crime, who has cared for his family during his gaol-term, now demands recompense: Ulric must kill the man who shopped him – now happily married with children. Out of all this Ulric’s positive attitude to life succeeds in concocting a happy end. This is the third collaboration between Swedish Skarsgard and the Norwegian director Moland.

From Denmark, SUBMARINO finds Thomas Winterburg purged of most of his old Dogme obligations. Based on a grim realist novel directed by Jonas T.Bengtsson, it is the story of two brothers, starting from flashback to their abused and violent childhood and separation. The film adopts an odd structure: the first half concentrates on the often violent and dangerous adventures of the older brother, an alcoholic body-builder just released from gaol and reunited with his unappetizing neighbours in a mixed- population shelter. For its second half the film shifts to the younger brother, whose devotion to his young son is dogged directed by drug addiction. It is a fairly dispiriting and unsparing study of hopeless lives.

Berlinale: Der Raüber/Greenberg

15 February 2010

DER RAÜBER (director Benjamin Heissenberg) is based on a novel (Martin Prinz) in turn based on a colourful real-life contemporary criminal called Johann Kastenberger The protagonist is a slim and dour young man who combines outstanding gifts as a marathon runner with a compulsive urge to commit bank robberies. The two interests complement nicely, though the Robber’s irrational violence finally betrays him. Heissenberg’s previous film Sleeper already displayed the detachment which here makes this less an exploration of character (which might have been interesting) than a virtuoso exploitation of showy and exciting chases in the favourable location of Vienna: we learn proctically nothing of an apparently already existing and surviving relationship with a Job Centre clerk.
GREENBERG is what one thinks of as a Sundance film: set in the world of the well-heeled professional class, dogged by their neuroses and less-fortunate hangers-on. Noah Baumbach’s film is set in a lavish villa in the Hollywood Hills. While the family are on vacation, their brother – just out of a mental hospital, moves in as dog-sitter. The rest of the film traces the uneasy progress of an affair between Greenberg’s and the family’s young house-keeper, as hopeless in matters of relationships as the snaggy Greenberg himself.

Berlinale - A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

14 February 2010

Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP has the light-hearted and spectacular manner of HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS – with the virtuoso visual feats culminating here in a sequence with spinning noodle dough. Zhang claims the influence on his story of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, but even the most attentive would not instantly recognize the source. The noodle-shop of the title appears to have no customers, but its proprietor Zhang is nevertheless a rich old skinflint who antagonizes everyone around – his wife, who consoles herself with the handsome young cook, his employees, whom he does not pay, and the sinister police detective whom he commissions to murder his wife and her lover. It is funny, fast and wonderfully spectacular with lines of dark horsemen galloping through the red-hued mountains of the Yellow River region, and with very lively performances, always just bordering on the comic.

Berlinale - Caterpillar

14 February 2010

The veteran Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu, whose career was originally founded in the 1960s with successful ‘pink’ sex films, continues his subsequent interest in socio-political subjects with CATERPILLAR , a fable in which he ferociously demystifies the patriotic and nationalist passion which fired the Japanese during the Second World War. The film is reported to have been shot in twelve days and edited in less than two, which may explain its dynamic economy. The story is adopted from a novel directed by Edogawa Rampo, unsurprisingly banned on its appearance just before the Second World War. A young soldier returns from the Second Sino-Japanese war, without arms, legs or the ability to enunciate, and with his handsome face dreadfully disfigured. His village celebrate him, elevating him to the status of ‘The War God’, and entrusting his wife with the painful privilege of caring for him, and trundling him around the village in a little cart, propped up in uniform and medals. In private the wife’s lot is less glorious. Publicly she must acknowledge that it is her privilege and duty, as a Japanese wife, The stump of a man grunts out his demands for food and sex; and the wife remembers the abuse she suffered when she failed to provide him with the male heir that was the desire of every patriotic Japanese. The man’s memories also begin to torment him: his injuries were suffered at the moment he was raping and killing a Chinese woman prisoner. The script develops the story of this painful marital relationship against the background of the continuing Second World War, ending with the atom bombs and surrender. It is a broad, unsubtle but effective parable, especially notable for the performances of Shinobu Terajima and Shima Ohnishi, who succeeds in an always riveting performance, using only his eyes in a wrecked face.

Berlinale - If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle

13 February 2010

IF I WANT TO WHISTLE I WHISTLE, the first feature directed by the Romanian documentary film-maker Florin Serban was a universal critical favourite, and collected several prizes. The rough realism and flow of this story belie the fact that it is adapted from a stage play directed by Andreea Valean, the script-writer of The Way I Spent the End of the World. The young hero Silviu is on the point of release from reform school, when he learns that his feckless mother is about to take his cherished younger brother to Italy – where he knows she will abandon him and wreck his future as she already did to Silviu. Unable to confide his anxiety to anyone else in the prison or to find a rational solution to his problem, Silviu is driven to desperate measures. His compulsion to fulfil the obligations of love and fraternal concern will condemn him to a life-time of incarceration. The leading role is played directed by a non-professional, the high-school student George Pistereanu who exudes charisma and played the role with a sensitivity and intelligence which would not have made best actor award surprising. Many of the supporting roles are played directed by actual reform school inmates; and the professional and non-professional actors blend faultlessly in the picture of the underground hierarchies that rule a penitential institution.

Berlinale: Exit through the Gift Shop

12 February 2010

Banksy, the star British graffiti artist, treasures his legendary anonymity, appearing on screen in this autobiographical documentary only as a hooded shadow with muffled voice. But the personality is still vivid, as he wreaks his genial revenge on the Franco-American instant pop artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta started out as a part-time documentary film-maker, and was delighted to capture Banksy to take part in a film he was making on graffiti art. Wisely, Banksy turned his own camera back on Guetta, and so was able to record the Frenchman’s overnight transformation, thanks to energetic marketing and Californian enthusiasm for novelty, from shop-keeper and marginal video film-maker to million-dollar pop artist. Banksy styles his own film “the World’s first street art disaster movie”

CANNES 2009 - The Awards

25 May 2009

Palme d'Or
Grand Prix
Lifetime achievement award for his work and exceptional contribution to the history of cinema
Award for Best Director
Award for Best Screenplay
Award for Best Actress
Charlotte GAINSBOURG in ANTICHRIST directed by Lars VON TRIER
Award for Best Actor
Jury Prize Ex-aequo
FISH TANK directed by Andrea ARNOLD
BAK-JWI (THIRST) directed by PARK Chan-Wook
Vulcain Prize for an artist technician, awarded by the C.S.T.
Palme d'Or - Short Film
ARENA directed by João SALAVIZA
Short Film Special Distinction

In the composition of its juries, Cannes has long abandoned its once-traditional preference for writers, artists and media celebrities from outside the cinema, to move to smaller and more concentrated groups of strictly-film people. This year’s 8-strong jury was dominated by actresses, Isabelle Huppert (President), Asia Argento, Robin Wright Penn and the Taiwanese Shu Qi. They were complemented by three writer-directors, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Lee Chang-Dong (South Korea) and James Gray (USA), and the British writer Hanif Kureishi. Generally their conclusions on the awards were uncontroversial – no doubt because this was a year of varied, interesting, often original, but not particularly prize-worthy films. The top awards were fairly predictable: Audiard’s UN PROPHÈTE is a film whose merits are immediately apparent: the unpretentious craftsmanship, psychology and intelligence applied to what could otherwise be a hackneyed theme. Michael Haneke’s DAS WEISSE BAND is the kind of film that offers so many challenges that a jury can be forgiven for simply succumbing.

Comedies invariably scare festival juries, so that it was disappointing but no surprise that Ken Loach’s human, hilarious and yet poetic LOOKING FOR ERIC was ignored. Perhaps more surprising was the snub to Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR, a courageous attempt to capture an impression of genius in the story of the doomed young Keats’ unconsummated love for the bright, unlikely seamstress Fanny Brawne. The actors – Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish - are brave and pretty, but lack the sense of reality that Campion manages to give to her recreation of the time and place, the rural outskirts of Georgian London.

Cannes 2009 - Day Twelve

24 May 2009

The festival closed, anticlimactically if pleasantly enough, with Jan Kounen’s COCO CHANEL ET IGOR STRAVINSKY, which conveniently takes over the story of Anne Fontaine’s COCO AVANT CHANEL. Fontaine – with Audrey Tautou as Chanel – related the beginnings of her career and her love affair with the English “Boy” Capel. In Kounen’s film Anna Mouglalis takes over the role for the dramatization of an episode where Chanel, having afforded the hospitality of her villa to the exiled composer and his family, embarks on a passionate affair which somewhat consoles her grief at the death of Capel. (Somebody must now presumably complete the trilogy by recounting the more notorious affair of the 50-year-old Chanel with a German officer during the Occupation of Paris). Thin on character, but visually opulent, the film never betters its first virtuoso display, a recreation of the tumultuous first night of Diaghilev’s production of “Le Sacre du printemps”

Cannes 2009 - Day Eleven

23 May 2009

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (shown out of competition) reveals Terry Gilliam’a weird and wonderful fantasy in full flow, making CGI marvels, veering from dazzling to incoherent . Gilliam creations are traditionally trouble-fraught: in this case the star Heath Ledger died in mid-production. With perverse ingenuity, Gilliam has brought in three more actors – Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law – as complements in a composite hero. The centuries-old Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) trails around seamy modern London with his wagon and old-time travelling show, performing to reluctant, baffled and unimpressed audiences. The doctor is understandably preoccupied with the consequences of his pact with Mr Nick, having acquired the gifts of immortality and youth by promising his daughter to the devil when she reaches 16. Resolution comes thanks to a stranger found hanging beneath London Bridge (in the fashion of problem-ridden Italian bankers), this is the Ledger-originated composite character who brings new magic to the show and beats the devil. There is nothing to be done but relax and bathe in Gilliam’s wild imaginative therapies.

THE TIME THAT REMAINS, by and starring Elia Suleiman, is a personal view of sixty years and four generations of the life of a family of Israeli Arabs. The tone is well-maintained at a fairly light human level, and Israeli’s are treated with contemptuous ridicule rather than rabid racism

LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO, directed by Ciro Guerra (Argentiina) is the story of the journey of an old folk musician to return his accordion (regarded as the devil’s instrument) to the teacher who first gave it to him.

Cannes 2009 - Day Ten

22 May 2009

Michael Haneke’s DAS WEISSE BAND is the director’s most impressive film to date, supremely crafted, yet finally elusive – positing a mystery that is never resolved. A village is pervaded by malice. Mysterious misdeeds are committed: the doctor is tripped on his horse and is badly injured; children are brutally attacked; crops are destroyed; a stable is set on fire. Meanwhile the local notables are exposed in their mean sadism. The doctor, recovered, grossly abuses his ugly mistress. The pastor, who ties his children’s hair (and at times hands) in white ribbons symbolising purity, keeps his children in slavish terror, and menaces the only sympathetic character, the young local teacher and musician, who – years later and now an old man - provides the voice-over commentary. Haneke hints that he wants to show through this story a foreshadowing of fascism, but such intent is less than instantly apparent.

Cannes 2009 - Day Nine

21 May 2009

EYES WIDE OPEN (Un Certain Regard), a first feature film by the Israeli Haim Tabakman, is as remarkable for its accomplishment as for the daring of its theme. Developed by the director and the author from a story by Merav Doster, it tells the story of a homosexual love affair between two men in a supremely orthodox community. Aaron, a kosher butcher, married with a family, takes in a slightly mysterious young student, 22-year-old Ezri, allowing him to sleep in a room behind the shop. Aaron struggles to resist, but real love prevails, attracting the suspicion and denigration of an ever-prying community. The characters and the evolving relationships are subtly developed as the men’s interdependence grows, the wife becomes quietly uneasy, and the neighbours instinctively sharpen the barbs of malice. Tabakman and Doster deal with great intelligence with the complex and curious moral aspects. For these strict orthodox believers, sin is necessary so that it may be resisted, though homosexuality does not represent a resistible sin, since, far from specifically forbidden, it is, in this community, considered non-existent .

Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS offers a juvenile and uncomprehending boy’s comic impression of the Second World War: the academic level of its approach is accurately reflected by the orthographic manner of the title. A shade disconcertingly, a large part of the audience and the press greeted it with unwarranted seriousness and respect. The only remarkable point of originality– though whether an echo of Guantanamo concerns or purely self-indulgence is unclear - is the depiction of American soldiers performing brutal atrocities upon their prisoners before coolly murdering them.

Cannes 2009 - Day Eight

20 May 2009

VINCERE is potentially Marco Bellochio’s most commercial film. It dramatises the long-hidden story of Ida Dalser, a young woman of means who met and (very likely) married the young Benito Mussolini before the First World War. She supported him and his activities in his most difficult years, and bore him a son. With Mussolini’s rise to power however, this liaison became inconvenient – he had already acquired an official wife and daughter. The brave and independent Ida refused to be silent, however, and fought for recognition. Her punishment was to be incarcerated and tortured in mental hospitals, ultimately dying in 1937. Their son, Benito Aldo, who bore an embarrassing resemblance to Il Duce, was never allowed to see his mother, served in the Navy, but was finally arrested, and kept in mental hospitals where he died, officially of malnutrition, in 1942, at the age of 26. The story centres on the high-powered dramatic performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno; and Bellocchio keys up the film to operatic proportions with Carlo Crivelli’s passionate score and Daniele Cipri’s stunning images, supplemented by cleverly selected and digitally enhanced actuality shots: after 1929, Mussolini (played in the earlier scenes by Filippo Timi) is seen only in news-reel images.

In DEMAIN DÈS L’AUBE (Un Certain Regard), Denis Descourt tells a story that has the same atmosphere of indefinable menace as his earlier success, The Page Turner. It is the story of two brothers. One, a concert pianist, is suffering an unstated crisis in his marriage to his agent and the mother of his children, and welcomes an excuse to stay with his seriously ailing mother, who asks him to watch over his unsettled younger brother. His sibling initiates him into his absorbing passion, membership of a virtual secret society who dress up in old military gear to re-enact the battles and the rivalries of earlier eras. Only when the elder brother himself dons uniform (which suits the handsome Vincent Perez well) does he plumb the sinister implications of the belligerent fantasies into which these men retreat from their colourless daily lives. The film takes a dark and threatening turn, but offers a final, vengeful relief. Descourt is confirmed as a stylish film-maker one of whose earlier callings, as a solo violinist, is recalled in the considerable part that music plays in the film. (Perez himself plays the piano in convincing style).

Cannes 2009 - Day Six

18 May 2009

ANTICHRIST Lars von Trier’s description of the genesis of ANTICHRIST is less than encouraging: “Two years ago I suffered from depression .... Six months later, just as an exercise, I wrote a script. It was a kind of therapy, but also a search, a test to see if I would ever make another film ... The script was finished and filmed without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity .....” The outcome of the therapy is a one-off mixture of marital psychology and grand guignol,, fundamentally ugly, yet filmed with elegance and style that have quite left behind the aesthetic puritanism of von Trier’s Dogme years. A Prologue largely filmed in slow motion shows a couple engaged in passionate sex while their toddler wanders from his cot and falls from an open window to his death. The rest of the film is divided into Chapters which follow their torments in the aftermath, titled “Grief”, “Pain” and “Despair” and symbolised vaguely by a deer, a crow and a fox, (who at one moment rocked the festival palace with unintended laughter when he broke into human speech with a horror-film voice). Such touches of Nordic nature-lore accompany the couple’s retreat to an isolated forest retreat unsuitably named “Eden”, chosen, in pretended therapy, by the husband as being the place that most frightens his wife. In this isolation they embark on a violent alternation of sex and mutual torment, as the husband’s supposed psycho-analysis comes to seem more and more like sadism. It all escalates to a violent finale involving genital mutilation that tumbles close to SM pornography, but leaves us puzzling how much of what we see is the mutual fantasy of the couple, bravely if inevitably unappealingly played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Cannes 2009 - Day Five

17 May 2009

Ken Loach’s LOOKING FOR ERIC was a welcome outsider in a festival selection mostly dedicated to brutality and gore, and was without question the audience favourite of the year. Loach (pictured, with Eric Cantona) is personally a huge football fan and the saviour of the Bath (England) Football Club; and in this film he discovers a genuine public poetry in the game and the community of the players and the crowd. He could probably not have achieved this with such success without the supremely charismatic presence of Eric Cantona, who apparently first proposed the idea of a collaboration to Loach. Cantona, in the film, is the inspirational imaginary apparition of himself, Big Eric, who materialises to encourage Little Eric (mancunian Steve Evets), a depressed postman given to panic attacks and falling apart as he struggles to play parent to two delinquent step-sons. True to Loach’s socialist idealism, the Erics also can rally the postman’s work-mates to communal action, when need demands. In the climactic dramatic scene the postal workers unite, all wearing Cantona masks, to worst the bullying local gangster. (Their nicely contemporary blackmail technique involves capturing him on video, naked and sprayed with paint, and threatening him with exposure on YouTube if he doesn’t toe the line). Charming, hilarious, truthful and poetic, it is apart from all else that rarity of the times, a genuine feel-good film…

With an 85-minute running time, Alain Cavalier’s IRENE (Un Certain Regard) is an extraordinary and remarkably watchable instance of minimalism and autobiographical film-stylo. Cavalier’s voice-over commentary runs throughout the film, illustrated by chance images of objects, places, photographs, occasionally himself (at one point having fallen badly while filming on the Metro,, and fearlessly showing his injuries). The film opens at the time of his mother’s death, when he gets out his diaries for the years 1970 to 1972, with the record of his love for Irene, which ends when she is killed in a car accident. The intimacies of the relationship and the pain of the loss are frankly discussed; and at moments Cavalier exposes himself, almost forty years on, at an ailing 78. A work of surprisingly gripping and affecting intimacy.

LE PERE DE MES ENFANTS (Un Certain Regard),, the second feature directed by the actress Mia Hansen-Lowe, begins as the portrait of an idealistic film producer, driven to suicide by the unbearable responsibilities of production and the irresistible pressures of finance. This portrait is openly inspired by the suicide in 2005 of the prominent, charismatic and seemingly supremely successful producer Humbert Balsan. In the second part however the story is taken over by the predicament of the family he has left behind: the difficulties of his young children to adapt to loss, the very contemporary and disastrous troubles of the wife endeavouring to cope with irredeemable financial chaos in an unforgiving recessionary era.

AGORA, directed by Alejandro Amenabar and shot in Malta, is a latter-day revival of the sword-and-sandal epic, with the exceptional novelty that this time the out-and-out bad guys are the Christians, whose atrocities include the destruction of the Alexandrine Library, which is the focal location for the narrative. The cast includes one or two more-than-reliable stars (Rachel Weiss, Michael Lonsdale) and the script mostly just keeps its head above banality. The imaginative spectacle – even when digital effects or model-work – keeps you watching.

L’ARMEE DU CRIME (Un Certain Regard), (director Robert Guédiguian) provides a sober, decent and utterly unsurprising story of a Resistance group in Occupied France, and their eventual capture and execution.

In TZAR (Un Certain Regard), Pavel Longuine boldly takes on the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s never-to-be-surpassed classic IVAN THE TERRIBLE. Longuine shows Ivan (Pavel Mamontov) as a tyrant of ever-worsening paranoia, faced by the friend of his youth, the Metropolitan Filipp, played with his usual authority by Oleg Yankovsky. It is handsome (expensively staged and photographed in painterly style by Tom Stern) but never really makes up its mind between Hollywood-style costume melodrama or lame political allegory.

Cannes 2009 - Day Four

16 May 2009

TAKING WOODSTOCK was indifferently received and generally dismissed as a negligible interim in Ang Lee’s career; but it is, to be fair, a wholly enjoyable if lightweight reminiscence on the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, whose far-reaching cultural impact was more due to the contemporary documentary film record than the event itself. TAKING WOODSTOCK is an only slightly fantastic recreation of the genesis of Woodstock. The central figure is a lanky gay designer, Elliott Tiber (charmingly played by the comedian Demetri Martin) who comes to the backwoods community to help retrieve his Jewish émigré parents’ ill-kempt motel. Eager to bring showbiz to the township, when he hears that the authorities of nearby Wallkill have refused to grant a permit for a pop music festival, he calls Woodstock Ventures and proposes that the festival could be relocated. Despite fierce local fears, the organisers and the hippies descend in ever-growing numbers.
The event and the music are all off-screen: Ang Lee is more interested in the transforming effect upon Elliott and his family and their strange and varied new allies and acquaintances. There is no defined narrative: the event is planned, setbacks are overcome, and the weekend comes to an end, as the littered hillside is cleared to its pristine loneliness. The whole is a patchwork of scenes and incidents and characters, mostly funny or charming. The only sour note is the character of Elliott’s greedy mother, who fails to win us over as intended, thanks to a surprisingly (for Lee) out-of control performance by the British Imelda Staunton.

Jacques Audiard’s powerful UN PROPHÈTE is a seemingly unadorned chronicle of a poor, ignorant young Arab who uses the rich “instructional” opportunities afforded by prison to groom himself for a future as a class gangster. It is brutally realistic and rich in character portrayal, notably Niels Arestrup improbably cast as a Corsican gangster and, in the leading role, the 28-year-old Tahar Rahim in his first featured role.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (Un Certain Regard), by first-time director Warwick Thornton, is an oddly sweet picture of the dirty, dangerous lives of two young teenagers on a remote outback reserve and the new perils that await them when they risk moving out and into town. The narrative is slim (the kids DO fall in love) and dialogue sparse, but it is an engaging portrait of its odd little heroes, and a remote and rarely-seen world.

In narrative command and overall technique Brillante Mendoza’s KINATAY is at least an advance on its awful predeessor Serbis, and the principal character – a student of criminology moonlighting with work for the local syndicate – is quite thoughtfully developed; but the relentless concentration on the story of the brutalising, rape, murder and dismemberment makes this one of the most unlikeable films of the 2009 festival.

Cannes 2009 - Day Three

15 May 2009

South Korea’s star director Park Chan-Wook declares that THIRST is the result of ten years’ planning and hoping. It is a sophisticated and beautifully-made vampire story. Song Kang-ho plays a saintly priest who is revered in the local hospital as a divine healer. He volunteers for tests of a vaccine to combat a deadly blood disease, and, one of the very few survivors of the experiment, experiences horrible after-effects. These, he discovers, are miraculously cured if he can drink human blood. Fortunately, the hospital, full of patients undergoing transfusions, provides ample nourishment for his needs. From vampirism he passes to his first excited discovery of sex, with the wife of an old friend. Bad goes to worse as he initiates his new love into vampirism, and is himself shocked by her homicidal excesses in the pursuit of blood .... It is stylish and set to win a popular audience, but suffers from excessive length.

Anne Aghion’s MY NEIGHBOUR, MY KILLER (shown out of competition) is exemplary in its directness and simplicity, leaving the subject to speak for itself without (apparent) “artistic” intervention, even though this short, tight film is the outcome of a decade of work and 350 hours of filming. The subject is the difficult but determined process of reconciliation fifteen years after the horrific Rwandan genocides. Through the process of Gacaca community courts, convicted killers are brought back to their communities, facing those whose families they crazily slaughtered with machetes, and debating at open-air courts questions of guilt, repentance and the possibility of reintegration. The process is hard, and often incredible to the outside viewer. Women whose entire families were slaughtered before their eyes, discuss the process and prospects with fear and resignation, but above all with a humbling wisdom. “These white people ask such strange questions”, ponders one of them.

Cannes 2009 - Day Two

14 May 2009

Andrea Arnold, after her previous Cannes success with Red Road, is widely hailed as a successor to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, which she is not. She has great skill in capturing the surfaces of contemporary working class life, but is less successful in reaching the inner beings and motives of her characters. Her Cannes entry, FISH TANK, is set in the bleak world of council flats in Britain’s Eastern Counties – Tilbury is the nearest landmark. Her heroine is a foul-mouthed, out-of-control youngster, bent on making trouble wherever she goes. The girl’s still-youthful and sexy unmarried mum has a new lover who trawls about the flat with his pants provocatively low on his buttocks. One night when Mum is senseless with booze, the girl and the man have sex. Next day he has disappeared, but she tracks him to the neat little semi-detached where he lives with his wife and child. Thereafter the difference from the Loach tradition sets in fatally. An uncomfortably contrived sequence has her snatching the man’s frightened daughter from her home, but then saving her life after accidentally throwing her into the sea. Thereafter there is an abrupt change of heart and character, as she starts a romantic friendship with a young gypsy whose broken-down horse she has earlier and improbably befriended. The setting is realistic, but belief is strained.

The Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (pictured; shown in the non-competitive Un Certain Regard section) is a totally and literally underground production from Iran, shot on video since all film resources belong to the state and can only be used for authorised scripts. Ghobadi’s script could never have been approved, and the film was shot clandestinely in seventeen days, with an interruption when the unit had to talk themselves out of an arrest by the police. The film is a loose account of young people making music, generally inspired by western influences, in cellars and other secret places. Music of most kinds is forbidden in Iran, as threatening to induce the perils of pleasure and cheerfulness. Tehran’s underground music, as recorded by Ghobadi, is eminently joyous and worth encountering, as is the civilised but secret world in which it is made. “I tried”, says Ghobadi, “to approach the rhythm and dynamism of life in Tehran, hectic as it is. I wanted to show the city from a different angle. The music and particularly the lyrics of the songs influenced the rhythm of the film”. The result is a courageous and richly heartening experience.

Another cheeringly subversive work comes from the independent spirited mainland Chinese director Lou Ye – banned for five years from working in films after SUMMER PALACE (2006). His Cannes entry, SPRING FEVER was made possible with finance from France and Hong Kong. Alternating impressions of modest contemporary working life with private scenes of luscious and affecting eroticism, the film is more about the personal torments of love than the pressures of society. Though the action is eventually fatally hard to follow, the essential story is of a young married man involved in a passionate love affair with another man. The neglected and suspicious wife hires an amateur detective to spy on her husband, but he, too, falls in love with the husband’s boy-friend, and introduces his girl-friend into an abandoned erotic triangle. If confusing, the kaleidoscopic love affairs are convincing and touching, and the film aspires to a new level in the aesthetic vision of sexual activity.


13 May 2009

The 2009 festival broke new ground by choosing an animated feature film, UP, for the opening gala – an appropriate tribute to Pixar, who have shown that design and animation, even at the highest level of contemporary technique, are finally secondary and supportive to the fundamental qualities of narrative, character and (in the highest sense) sentiment that are the essence of every kind of good film. As co-directors and co-writers, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have come up with a very human fable about an old widower Carl, who decides to fulfil a life-long dream of tracing the steps of a long-ago explorer in South America. He hitches his house to a cloud of balloons (whose marketing was his life-long profession) and sails away – inadvertently taking with him a talkative, high-minded 8-year-old. The stunning sequence retracing Carl’s life-long attachment to his wife and her eventual death is in itself a small masterwork – though one which the rest of the narrative is challenged to match.


12 February 2009


The Awards

Golden Bear
La Teta asustada/The Milk of Sorrow) directed by Claudia Lliosa.

Silver Bears:
Jury Grand Prix (ex aequo): Gigante, directed by Adrián Biniez.
Jury Grand Prix (ex aequo): Alle Anderen/Everyone Else, directed by Maren Ade.
Best Director: Asghar Farhadi (Darbareye Elly/About Elly)
Best Actress: Birgit Minichmayr (Alle Anderen/Everyone Else)
Best Actor: Sotigui Kouyate (London River)
Outstanding Artistic Contribution: Katalin Varga (for sound design)
Best Script: Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon (The Messenger)

This year’s Berlin Jury, under the presidency of Tilda Swinton, were certainly not embarrassed by too big a choice of major candidates for their awards, and it must have been a relief when Claudia Lliosa’s La teta asustada came along, late in the festival, to give them a worthy prizewinner. Lliosa’s first film, Madeinusa, the critics’ prize-winner in Rotterdam in 2006, revealed her as an auteur of visual and visionary power and originality. Like that film, La teta asustada is set in a remote Peruvian village, where Lliosa finds the fundamental essences and torments of the whole society. This is literally about the legacy of Peru’s years of terrorism and violence. Fausta (Magaly Solier, who played the leading role in Madeinusa) imbibed all the terror and sorrow of that era from her mother’s milk. Lliosa has a remarkable gift for incorporating the grotesque and absurd into her distinctive universe of magical realism: the beautiful Fausta has adopted a potato as a very practical defence of her chastity.
Another generally applauded Latin-American prize-winner was Gigante, which received the prize of the First Film Jury, as well as ex aequo Jury Grand Prix. Newcomer Adrián Biniez’ film is almost a solo portrait of the protagonist, Jara (Horacio Camandule), a night security man in a supermarket, glued (when he is not distracted by cross-words) to the surveillance screens. Jara is the giant of the title, a huge and if necessary violent man (he moonlights as a night-club bouncer) but of an essentially sweet nature. On his screens he begins to observe another lonely soul, a young cleaner. Official surveillance leads to private, though innocent, stalking. There are improbable moments in Biniez’ script, but Camandule negotiates them faultlessly.

Gigante shared the Jury Grand Prix ex aequo with Alle Anderen, the second feature outing of 32-year-old Maren Ade. The film is a subtle description of a relationship that is not seriously or permanently threatened, but subjected to all the minor shocks when exposed to the exclusive intimacy of a holiday in Sardinia. It is well played (Birgit Minichmayr took Best Actress award), but could have been more forcefully structured to avoid moments of tedium – especially when the relationship is tested by the arrival of two friends with whom their relations are ambivalent.

The prize for best direction went justifiably to the Iranian Asghar Farhadi for Darbareye Elly/About Elly, the story of a seaside holiday weekend whose misadventures expose the more vulnerable and less appealing sides of a confident, well-heeled middle-class group. The Elly of the title is the school-teacher of the hostess’ daughter, taken along as a likely match for a recent divorcé. They are likeable, civilized people … until, in the way of the world, things go wrong. Originally a stage director, Farhadi’s perceptions of humankind are shrewd and universal and amply bear out the promise of his third and break-through film Fireworks Wednesday (2006), which also starred the exquisite Taraneh Alidoosti

London River proved a big disappointment after the director Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006 Indigènes – even though it was a fairly popular success at the festival, even with less demanding professionals. The story is a very schematic attempt to derive some message from the aftermath of the 2004 London bombings. A Muslin father and a Christian mother – a farmer in French-speaking Guernsey - arrive in London in separate search of their children, from whom they have had no word since the bombings. By chance they meet, and after initial cultural misunderstandings, find a common sympathy. The plot is too contrived, with its obligatory twist of dashed hope, and the script too often makes the characters stereotypes. Moreover Bouchareb is not happy directing in English: Brenda Blethyn is an actress who needs more sympathetic control to protect her from her own excesses. The colourful Sotigui Kouyate – a character actor much in demand, who previously worked with Bouchareb on Little Senegal – gives a natural truth to the character, despite the manipulations of the script, and was an irresistible choice for the best actor prize.

The only Hollywood film to receive an award - for best script - was The Messenger, the first film directed by the Israeli Oren Moverman and written by him with Alessandro Camon. The film is a rarity in American cinema as a film that deals, without illusions, with the personal effects of war. A young soldier returns from Iraq, physically and emotionally scarred, to find himself posted to the “casualty notification office”. His job, teamed with an older, more experienced but no less psychologically troubled officer, is to deliver notification of deaths in action to the nearest relatives. The film is an assured debut for Moverman, hitherto known as a writer, and there are stunning performances by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson.

Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Happy Tears is an odd mixture. At times the excellent cast (Rip Torn, Demi Moore, Parker Posey and Ellen Barkin) seems thrown away on a somewhat inconsequential story about two daughters trying to sort out the life of their obstreperously senile, drunken, incontinent and lecherous father. Moore plays the daughter who has got herself stuck with the task of looking after the ungrateful old man. Posey is her sister, married to the heir of a famous artist (evidently an autobiographical touch: Lichtenstein’s father was Roy) and rather unwillingly drawn into family responsibilities. Barkin is a vague-minded whore who has attached herself to father. But apart from the solid performances, the film is intermittently lifted by winning playful moments. As an actor, third-time director Lichtenstein (now 53) is best remembered as the American half of the odd couple in The Wedding Banquet (1993).
Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist deserved more notice than it received in Berlin (and it has subsequently been relegated to straight-to-DVD). True, the complex plotting of James Lee Burke’s original 1993 novel (updated here to post-Hurricane Katrina) makes for occasional structural problems, but the settings, cast and story-telling keep the film compelling. Tommy Lee Jones plays an ex-alcoholic New Orleans detective, given to encountering phantoms of the Civil War, and pitted against the local mobster, impressively played by John Goodman.
My One And Only, directed by the British-born Richard Loncraine, is a biographical oddity about the early days of the actor George Hamilton (who is executive producer on the film), going some way to explain Hamilton’s legendary dedication to his mother. It becomes a comic-romantic road movie as mother Ann (Renee Zellweger), fleeing with her two sons from her philandering musician husband, sets off in determined search for a suitable step-father for her two sons. It is hard not to imagine some autobiographical element also in The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller. Robin Wright Penn plays the thirty-year-younger wife of a distinguished publisher. When the octogenarian retreats to a retirement village in Connecticut, the inactivity of the life changes her perception of herself, as she hankers back to her wilder youth, and in fact starts an affair with a handsome younger man (Keanu Reeves).
Turning, in Mammoth, to a more conventional (and commercial) subject than his earlier successes, Lukas Moodysson relates an excessively contrived have-and-have-nots fable, about a successful New York couple – web genius and emergency surgeon - and their Filipino nanny, desperate to earn money tor her son back home, tormented by the separation.
Several veteran establishment directors appeared in disappointing form.
The Dust of Time, the second part of Theo Angelopoulos’ panoramic historical triptych struck a shock of (perhaps misplaced) reverence in many viewers. The schematic formula of a film-maker planning a film about his parents, who emigrated respectively to Stalin’s USSR and to the USA, is contrived and its pretensions rub off on actors as good as Willem Dafoe, Michel Piccoli, Bruno Ganz and Irene Jacob. One admires the boldness of the production – it was shot in Berlin, Rome, Greece and Kazakhstan – and the inventiveness of Angelopoulos’ games with time and manipulation of the image (his cinematographer is Andreas Sinanos. The brave and loyal actors have to embrace 50 years of time, which sometimes gives pictorial and technical problems.
The gallic bite, wit and style of Colette’s Chéri entirely elude Stephen Frears and his writer Christopher Hampton – and the failure is compounded when Frears, in his heavy Anglo-Saxon voice, takes on the role of narrator. The décors are expensive and stylish without ever really evoking the Belle Époque; and the whole is overwhelmed by Alexandre Desplat’s soupy music. Michelle Pfeiffer manages the dialogue quite well, and, as a stunningly attractive and beautiful 50-year-old, superbly fits the physical presence of the courtesan at the end of her career, who falls in love with the 19-year-old Chéri. Unfortunately Rupert Friend is so lifeless that it is hard to comprehend this sparkling woman’s attraction to him. Kathy Bates steals the show as the beamingly malevolent superannuated whore Charlotte.

Andrzej Wajda’s Tatarak (Sweet Rush) is a pleasure for the admirers of the great Polish veteran and his favourite actress of thirty years ago, Krystyna Janda, but not likely to enjoy a popular following, on account of the complexity and idiosyncrasy of the concept. The film began as an adaptation of a short story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz about the doomed love of an older woman for a young man. Mid-production, Janda’s husband and Wajda’s former cinematographer, Edward Klosinski fell ill and died. When production resumed Wajda wove the story into an account of the making of the film, including a long and poignant monologue by Janda relating the pain of her husband’s last days and death. The film is moving, faultlessly crafted, but for the unprepared audience might seem elusively private.
Chen Kaige’s selective biopic of the legendary Beijing Opera star Mei Langfang, Forever Enthralled, aroused surprisingly little interest, despite the innate fascination of the subject. The problems are the over-long and under-dramatised script (probably handicapped by the supervision of the Mei family), and the weak main performances, often overshadowed by strong supporting roles.