Culture

Film

Berlinale highlights: part two

By Shane Danielsen
New films by Céline Sciamma, Dénes Nagy and Ryusuke Hamaguchi are stand-outs in an unusually robust program

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman by Céline Sciamma. Image © Lilies Films

Typically, the Berlin Film Festival’s competition line-up is what might be called a George and Ringo affair: you might not get Pedro Almodóvar or Michael Haneke, but you will get Benoît Jacquot and Christian Petzold. No Bong Joon-ho or Hou Hsiao-hsien – but plenty of Denis Côté. The reason is simple: with just three months separating the festival from Cannes, most A-list filmmakers, producers and sales agents prefer to hedge their bets on the hope of a competition berth in May, rather than squander it on Berlin, an event with less prestige and fewer press.

Did the lack of a Cannes in 2020 help Berlin in 2021? Maybe. But whatever the reason, this year’s competition line-up was unusually robust, both in terms of bigger names and relative debutantes. The film that won the Golden Bear, Romanian director Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, was actually one of the lesser works – provocative, sure (it opens with hardcore footage from a sex tape), but also obvious, scattershot and muddled. Following the consequences that befall a teacher after the leak of the aforementioned tape, the best sequence, near the start, sees the camera simply drift away from its protagonist, as if of its own accord, to take in the ruin of the city (and, by implication, the culture) around her. The rest of the film is loud and antic, jostling to make its points – but the silence here is unusually eloquent.

Alas, better films went home empty-handed – notably, the latest from France’s Céline Sciamma, whose last feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, bought her precisely the kind of international acclaim its (even better) predecessor, Girlhood, did not. The new one, Petite Maman, is different from both. Smaller, stranger; a kind of ghost story, but also a sort of fairytale, reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Eight-year-old Nelly’s grandmother has died, and she’s taken by her mother Marion and father (never named) to the old woman’s home, in the woods outside Paris, as they begin cleaning out the dead woman’s possessions. But Marion is clearly struggling to deal with her mother’s death – there are hints that her depression predates this incident – and for much of the time, Nelly is left to her own devices, free to explore the extensive forest around the house. This solitude, you sense, is not new to her.

One morning she wakes to find her mother gone; her dad tells her that Marion has returned to Paris, and that they’ll follow as soon as he finishes putting the house in order. But in the woods, Nelly meets another girl, identical to herself (the roles are played by twins: Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz), who lives in a house identical to her grandmother’s. It’s Marion, of course – Marion as a young girl – and she and her future-daughter quickly become friends. (Their scenes playing together, in which they appear to be acting out beats from a ’40s film noir, are the funniest in Sciamma’s filmography.) 

Has Nelly slipped backwards in time? Or have past and future simply become one? It’s never clear – yet the strangeness of the situation seems immaterial to the two kids: they calmly discuss child-Marion’s future – she seems every bit as lonely as her daughter is/will be – and Nelly even meets her dead grandmother again, this time as a young, crippled woman.

Sciamma has acknowledged a debt to the works of Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, and indeed the film has some of the dream-logic of films like Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro, as well as their fundamental generosity of spirit. The acting from both children is remarkable, and as adult Marion, Nina Meurisse communicates oceanic sadness with just a handful of looks and gestures. But Sciamma’s direction is key here: over a brisk 72 minutes, she maintains a rock-solid grip on slippery material. Shot in deep autumnal colours, all burning reds and golds, it’s an appropriately elegiac work: melancholy, wise and tender.

Another stand-out, though in a very different register, was Natural Light, the debut fiction feature from Hungarian documentarist Dénes Nagy. In adapting Pál Závada’s 600-page novel, which reportedly spans 20 years, Nagy has chosen to focus on just three days in 1943, as a small unit of Hungarian soldiers attempt to hunt down Soviet partisans in a dismal backwater of the Ukraine. They occupy a small village, medieval in its simplicity, and menace its inhabitants, before walking straight into an ambush that sees much of their unit – and their commanding officer – wiped out. Command passes to a corporal, István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), a silent, stoic figure, long considered something of a joke by his superiors. Reprisals against the local population are expected. But Semetka, not unsympathetic to the villagers, attempts to defuse the escalating situation – only to find, in the end, that their fate is not his to decide.

Nagy reportedly cast for over a year before discovering Szabó, whose impassive features recall Buster Keaton. Unburdened by technique, he’s almost a “model” in the Bressonian sense, able to communicate deep reserves of emotion in as little as a glance, or a nearly imperceptible stiffening of the spine. Most of his castmates are also non-professionals – Hungarian farmers for the most part, cast for their expressive and/or Bruegelian features; this is very much a film of faces. All captured (as per its title) under low grey skies, in cold winter light.

The tone is ominous, freighted with menace. Dialogue is sparse. Apart from being invited to identify with an Axis soldier – a big ask, given the weapons-grade solipsism of today’s film culture – some viewers might feel a certain lack of emotional engagement. I felt the opposite: to me, the film is about a necessary stifling of emotion, the lengths to which an essentially decent man will go in order to perform his duty without forfeiting his sanity in the process. But even considered purely as a filmic experience, it’s little short of breathtaking – from Jocelyn Robert’s exacting sound design, with its immersive evocation of the natural world, to Tamás Dobos’s shadowy wide-screen cinematography, which alternates between grand landscape vistas (the film was shot in Latvia) and tight, almost claustrophobic close-ups of faces, hands, gestures. Of all the films I’ve watched this year, this is the one I most regretted not seeing in a cinema. It deservedly earned Nagy the Best Director award.

German actress Maria Schrader (Deutschland 8386 and 89) recently directed all four episodes of the excellent Netflix series Unorthodox, for which she won an Emmy; before that, she helmed one of the best literary biopics in recent memory, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (2016). Her latest feature, I’m Your Man, sees a researcher at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, Alma (Maren Eggert), assigned to road-test a lifelike robot, “Tom” (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), whose AI is designed specifically to be her ideal partner. Imagine: an Hitachi that could also make you a Negroni. However, Alma is opposed to the idea. The museum’s sole single member of staff (seriously?), she’s only agreed to take part in the trial in order to advance her own research into Sumerian cuneiforms (again: really?), and so greets her box-fresh dreamboat with undisguised hostility.

Working from a short story by Emma Braslavsky, Schrader and her co-writer Jan Schomburg make the unusual decision of beginning in media res, with Alma’s first, abortive encounter with Tom, in a Berlin dance hall. Schrader handles the comedic elements well, aided by an all-in performance by Stevens (whose German, incidentally, is excellent). If there’s a weak link here, it’s Eggert. Best known for her long collaboration with director Angela Schanelec, on films like The Dreamed Path (2016) and I Was at Home, But… (2019), she’s a fine actor, but seems miscast here – her Alma is too one-note, too predictable. The film’s ambitions gradually deepen: what starts as a SF-inflected romantic comedy becomes a melancholy meditation on our increasingly uneasy relationship with the technology we make. And Tom learns fast, his clumsy initial overtures becoming more empathic and intuitive. Yet Alma remains stubbornly, drearily herself, and the film suffers accordingly.

Clearly I’m in the minority, in this regard, because she won the festival’s new, gender-neutral Best Leading Performance prize. To my mind it should have gone to the ensemble cast of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a drama which confirms his status as the most interesting new filmmaker to emerge from Japan since Hirokazu Kore-eda. New to the West, that is: Hamaguchi actually made his feature debut back in 2008, with Passion, but only came to international prominence seven years later with Happy Hour, a five-hour study of novelistic depth and richness, about the friendship of four thirty-something women in Kobe, and the various faultlines that emerge when one decides to divorce her husband. At once epic and intimate, it managed to evoke both Jacques Rivette’s opus Out 1, and Sex and the City.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, clocking in at a tidy 121 minutes, is a portmanteau film, three short stories on the theme of “coincidence and imagination” (the original Japanese title). Remarkably, all are equally strong. In the first, titled “Magic (Or Something Less Reassuring)”, a conversation between two girlfriends morphs into a bitter lovers’ triangle; the second, “Door Wide Open”, sees a woman attempt to seduce and ruin her university professor at the behest of her much younger lover, an undergraduate who blames the older man for his own failure. Finally there’s “Once Again”, which turns on an inspired misunderstanding between two women (about which no more should be said) to become a meditation on identity, and the friction between performance and reality.

Hamaguchi is a subtle visual stylist. His frames are well lit and spacious; he moves the camera no more than strictly necessary. But in addition to being an excellent writer, he’s a superb director of actors, frequently allowing conversations to play out in lengthy single takes, so that we can watch the incremental shifts in power and awareness – the small discoveries and revelations that form the crux of his dramas – play out in real time. Akin to the best work of Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), it’s engrossing, masterly filmmaking.

For most of the past decade, Hong Kong writer-director Soi Cheang has been overseeing various instalments of the mainland’s Monkey King series, a franchise in which I have precisely zero interest. So it’s good to see him back in his homeland making grown-up movies again. (His 2009 film Accident is probably my favourite HK film of that decade: a fiendishly clever thriller about an assassin who orchestrates elaborate, Rube Goldberg–like constructions in order to take out his victims.) Limbo is cut from familiar cloth – two warring cops, an insane serial killer, a female informant – yet Cheang manages to turn it into a savage interrogation of class and gender dynamics, aided in no small part by the contribution of writer Au Kin-yee, one of the few female HK screenwriters, and one of the best.

It’s also just about the dirtiest film I can remember seeing, certainly since early Imamura. Every frame is strewn with refuse: bulging garbage bags, scraps of paper, broken machinery, discarded mannequins… It’s a vision of the world-as-junkyard, a vast, filthy dystopia where bottom-feeders prey ruthlessly upon one another. (Credit, here, to Kenneth Mak’s maximal production design.) And Cheang’s decision to shoot in high-contrast 4K black-and-white does nothing to aestheticise the images – on the contrary, they look like they’ve been slicked in oil and only partially wiped clean. 

The extreme violence may prove too much for some viewers. As the informant, Hunanese actor Liu Cya is raped, repeatedly beaten, thrown out a window; it’s hard to watch. But then, no one here escapes unscathed. Such is the debased environment portrayed: a badly overcrowded city poised on the verge of annihilation. Which, in a sense, Hong Kong currently is.

Finally, screening in the festival’s Forum section was a small jewel: Moumouni Sanou’s documentary Night Nursery. Set in his native Burkina Faso, in the red-light district of Bobo-Dioulasso, a small district town outside the capital Ouagadougou, it focuses on an elderly woman known as Madame Coda, who for decades has opened her home to the children of local sex workers, minding them through the night while their mothers attempt to earn a living. But she’s now 80, and is growing weary of this responsibility. Through her service, we witness the routines of three prostitutes, Adam’s Nana, Odile Kambou and Fatim Tiendrebeogo, and learn their stories, as well as gain a sense of the broader society – rapidly developing, yet still deeply patriarchal – from which they’re effectively exiled.

The texture of life in Bobo-Dioulasso is skilfully evoked, and Sanou, who’s clearly earned his subjects’ trust, sticks close to them as they nurse their infants, put on their make-up, chat with prospective johns and discuss the vicissitudes of their profession. His shooting style is straightforward, neither too lyrical nor too casual, and there are a few amusing lines. (“Fatim’s hungry as a Somali!” giggles Adam’s, as the women wolf down a hurried meal.) But at the same time, he posits broader questions about the possibility of female empowerment, both through sex work and generally, in a country where slavery still occurs (albeit in dramatically reduced numbers) and arranged marriages remain the norm. They’ve sidestepped the expectations of their culture, but are these women really “free”? And what does freedom look like, anyway, whether in the so-called Third World or the First? There are no easy answers here. Nevertheless, I left Night Nursery oddly comforted by its vision of a uniquely feminine space, self-enclosed, self-reliant and (mostly) self-sustaining.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman by Céline Sciamma. Image © Lilies Films

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