Friday, February 26, 2016

INTERMISSION: BERLIN #3

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A former mainstay of festival competitions everywhere - and still in France, though with varying degrees of success - is the relationship drama, a type of mid-range film that the French did better than anyone else in the 1970s (see Claude Sautet, or some of the more sedate later Chabrol) but that has been progressively squeezed out, replaced in most festival line-ups by equivalent projects made as pan-European or American productions or more openly auteur works. Berlin tends to have at least one of these every year, though usually middling (in 2015 it was Benoît Jacquot's underwhelming Diary of a Chambermaid), but the 2016 choices were smart enough to suggest a sort of inter-generational relay in this sub-genre. The festival welcomed both the veteran André Téchiné with his best film in some years and the relatively youngish Mia Hansen-Løve with a dazzling display of maturity.

     Mr. Téchiné's Being 17, co-written by Céline Sciamma of Girlhood fame, is a finely observed tale of adolescent yearnings in a small mountain village, complicated by familial and social issues. It's a welcome return to the director's best form, openly reminding of The Wild Reeds in its almost effortless weaving of the personal and the public in the tale of Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), two 17-year old schoolmates whose strange, inexplicable antipathy toward each other hides deeper, darker undercurrents. It's been a long while since we've seen the director this energized, to be honest, and even if Being 17 brings really nothing new to the table thematically, it proves there's still life in the old man.

     Ms. Hansen-Løve's Things to Come is what Mr. Téchiné might be doing today if he were a younger filmmaker: a deceptively simple tale of a woman whose intellectual and professional achievements are of no use when dealing with the unexpected blows of everyday life. As always with the director, the film is built of subterranean, loosely focussed episodes that work more by accumulation of mood and detail rather than by narrative flow. Isabelle Huppert radiates her fierce intelligence as Nathalie, the philosophy teacher whose life begins to disintegrate under her very eyes, and Things to Come is a sort of perfect match between director and actress (like Mr. Téchiné had years ago with Catherine Deneuve), while proving Ms. Hansen-Løve (who took home the best director award) can shift up in age from the teenagers and twentysomethings that populated most of her previous work without skipping a beat.

     If France made a sort of comeback this year with two excellent films in a more classical mold (plus co-production duties in a few more), a few countries that are Berlin regulars in the main selection were mysteriously absent. Nothing from Latin America, to whom the festival traditionally pays attention (the highest-profile title was Chilean Alejandro Almendras's Aqui no ha pasado nada in the Panorama section), or Russia, though there was a quite intriguing Polish title, Tomasz Wasilewski's United States of Love, a stylish, formalist roundelay about four women and their romantic heartbreaks just after the fall of the Berlin Wall (winner of the screenplay award, somewhat bewilderingly since it's so obviously a visual experience).

     There was only the one Chinese entry, Crosscurrent, a beautifully shot but derivative, oblique Jia Zhangke wannabe (winner of the Artistic Contribution prize for Mark Lee Ping-Bing's delicate camerawork). And Germany was also not in the running - while present as co-producer in a number of films, the only fully-fledged competition entry was Anne Zohra Berrached's 24 Weeks, a woman's picture that I didn't see but that resonated mostly with the press as a "movie of the week" that hardly deserved to be in competition. Still, the matters of a film's nationality are becoming secondary anyway, given the globalized nature of modern arthouse film production.

     Case in point of this border-blurring: Soy Nero, the latest from London-based Iranian exile Rafi Pitts, shot in the US and in Mexico with an American cast and global crew, backed by the director's regular German producer and co-written by Razvan Radulescu, the Romanian screenwriter behind The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days. For all that, Mr. Pitts' film is one of those earnest but dull "problem pictures" dealing with the hot topic of contemporary's America xenophobic response to illegal immigration.

     Inspired by true stories of the so called "green card soldiers" (one of which, Daniel Torres, served as consultant and walked the premiere red carpet in his Marine dress blues), Soy Nero follows the trials and tribulations of the titular character (Johnny Ortiz), a teenage son of immigrants raised in the US and deported back to Mexico, who ends up joining the US Army as fast-track way to gain citizenship only to find not even serving one's desired country is enough for a welcome. Everything in this handsome production is so obviously signposted that you have the feeling you already know the outcome even before you go into the theater; while there's enough intelligence and a couple of nice narrative twists in the film's first half, once Nero ships out to Iraq the film gets stuck in the desert sand like an over-loaded Humvee.

[to be continued...]

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