February 25, 2022

Film

Berlinale 2022 highlights: part one

By Shane Danielsen
Film still showing Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche in ‘Both Sides of the Blade’, directed by Claire Denis. Image © Curiosa Films 2022, courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche in Both Sides of the Blade, directed by Claire Denis. Image © Curiosa Films 2022, courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

New films by Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel and Darezhan Omirbaev shine at the Berlin International Film Festival

After an online-only edition in 2021, this year’s Berlin International Film Festival kicked off on February 10 and, for the first time since 1992, I chose not to attend. The first weeks of the year had seen Omicron case numbers surging wildly across Europe; exactly a month before the event began, Germany hit a daily record of 80,000 new cases. To insist on staging it as an in-person event seemed to me both reckless and tone-deaf – and to then refuse any provisions for online screenings, on top of that, just felt arrogant.

All delegates, even fully vaccinated and boosted ones, were obliged to test every day, and access to screenings was conditional upon returning a negative result. Predictably, the festival’s organisers boasted of its success: just 128 positive cases out of almost 11,000 tests. But, as one friend in the city noted, those were mostly conducted among foreign guests. Berliners – who constitute the vast majority of attendees – were typically tested not in Potsdamer Platz, but in their own neighbourhoods… and those numbers were not added to the festival’s tally. (“I personally know of 27 people who probably caught it at the festival,” she wrote. “So it’s a little dishonest, I think.”)

Thanks to some sympathetic publicists, I attended virtually. Which was fortunate, since, as with last year’s Berlinale, there was a large number of noteworthy films to cover. For this reason, I’m writing two reports. This one will deal with competition titles and veteran filmmakers; the second, in a few days, will focus on discoveries and sidebars.

Happily, my festival highlight was the film I was most anticipating: Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade (soon to screen as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival under its original title, Fire). Set in Paris, it finds Sara (Juliette Binoche) torn between two men: her current partner, Jean (Vincent Lindon), with whom she’s been living for nine years, and her former lover François (Gregoire Colin). It is, in other words, the same story as pretty much every French movie ever. Yet the relative conventionality of the subject matter is what makes Denis’s treatment of it so remarkable; watching her tear into this standard-issue plot (adapted from a novel by Christine Angot, her co-writer on 2017’s Let the Sunshine In) is a little like hearing Miles Davis play “Time After Time” – an almost grotesque overmatching of artist with material. 

Sara seems blissfully happy with Jean – the opening sequence finds them swimming together at the beach, holding hands in the water, then making love back in their hotel room. Nevertheless, something is far from settled between her and François: even the mention of his name visibly destabilises her. It’s what Roland Barthes, in A Lover’s Discourse, memorably described as retentissement, how “a word, an image reverberates painfully in the subject’s affective consciousness”. It was, Barthes claimed, the “fundamental mode of amorous subjectivity”, and Denis and Binoche lean heavily into this idea. The confounding intensity of Sara’s passion seems to overwhelm the structure of the movie itself, transforming bourgeois marital drama into unruly melodrama. As Sara lingers in the street outside a party – where she knows she will encounter François in person for the first time in years – the emotional pitch hovers just this side of hysteria. 

Let’s pause a moment here to note that, nearly four decades into her career, Binoche continues to astonish. Is there any actor of her stature so utterly without vanity? Whose performances, so fine-grained and intelligent, are always strictly at the service of the story? She can deliver big emotional beats with authority and power, yet can also convey profound interior shifts with the merest twitch of her lips, or with a shadow passing across her eyes. For most actors, to appear in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue would be a career summit; for Binoche, it’s merely one highlight among many.

What the film gets absolutely right are the lies adulterous lovers tell, both to their partners and to themselves. Sara can profess undying devotion to François one moment, and in the next seem furious and even self-righteous as she denies any interest in him whatsoever to Jean (and be equally convincing in either mode, because: Binoche). Part of this is of course simple self-preservation, a liar not wanting to be caught out, but it also represents something else: the divided self one creates, either consciously or not, when commencing an affair.

Some of my friends felt François’ character was underdeveloped – yet this, to me, seemed exactly the point. François himself isn’t important; it’s what he represents – and the seed of suspicion, yearning, dissatisfaction and disorder that he introduces into the apparently settled life of these two people. Denis shoots him as a rogue element in almost every scene – lingering silently at the edge of the frame, or glimpsed at a distance, or behind glass. He’s less a human being than a pure instrument of chaos, the personification of something unfinished in Sara and unreconciled in Jean. A hairline fissure that, when lightly tapped, causes the vessel to shatter.

That film won Denis the festival’s Best Director award – which, incredibly, is the first award she’s picked up at any of the three major European festivals from the 15 feature films she’s made since 1988, at least three of which (Beau Travail, White Material and I Can’t Sleep) rank among the greatest movies of the past half-century. The Golden Bear for Best Film, meanwhile, went to Alcarràs, the sophomore feature from Spain’s Carla Simón, whose debut Summer 1993 proved a standout in the 2017 Berlinale’s Generation program.

Apparently semi-autobiographical, Alcarràs follows the declining fortunes of a family of peach farmers, the Solés, in rural Catalonia. They’ve occupied a remote patch of farmland for generations, thanks to a handshake agreement made between their now elderly patriarch, Rogelio, and the previous, long dead landowner, Old Pinyol. Now his grandson Young Pinyol is in charge and, without a formal contract, the precarious nature of the family’s tenure becomes clear when their new patrón announces plans to redevelop his land. The Solés’ orchards will be razed and the fields covered in solar panels; they can either retrain and stay, he says, or be evicted. But either way, the forthcoming harvest will be their last.

There are moments of almost Chekhovian sadness here, as when Rogelio, belatedly realising the error he’s made, has a basket of freshly picked figs delivered to Pinyol, in the belief that it will somehow convince him of the value of their labour. But Simón is unsparing in exploring the faultlines created in the family by Pinyol’s decision, as Rogelio’s daughter Nati and her husband Cisco, more pragmatic than the rest, attempt to strike a separate deal of their own with him – a little piece of chicanery that earns them the enmity of Rogelio’s oldest child, the bearish Quimet. Proud and stubborn, with a hair-trigger temper, Quimet is already physically broken by long decades of work in the fields. Yet he won’t – can’t – conceive of any other life, and so violently resists Pinyol’s offer to continue working for him. He angrily stands his ground, even as that ground is pulled out from under him, for the sake of earning a victory that, in the greater scheme of things, is meaningless.

Also in competition was the beautifully if enigmatically titled Robe of Gems, which marks the debut of Mexican filmmaker Natalia López Gallardo, previously an editor for directors Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas. A study of the deep class divisions between Mexico’s cities and villages, it begins in the bourgeois world as blonde Isabel (Nailea Norvind), in the midst of a divorce, decides to take her children and stay at her aristocratic mother’s country villa. There, she learns that the sister of their family’s housekeeper, María, has been kidnapped. And despite María’s warnings that she shouldn’t get involved (“You don’t know this place”), Isabel decides to do precisely that, abandoning her kids – who spend their days lying around the pool getting high – and embarking upon a quest to find the missing woman, one that proves as self-destructive as it is ill-advised.

María, we soon learn, has her own reasons for urging circumspection. She’s become involved in drug-running and some minor kidnapping herself, working for the cartels to make some extra cash alongside Adán, a young up-and-comer who, frankly, seems more obsessed with updating his Instagram account – and who also happens to be the oldest son of Roberta, the only honest cop in the region. Gradually, inevitably, the fates of these three women converge.

It’s a complex and multifaceted story worthy of Netflix’s Narcos, but López Gallardo treats the material obliquely, filming entire conversations with the main speaker out of frame, for example, or shooting action in near-darkness or from a disorienting distance. The result is cryptic and frequently baffling, yet many individual sequences evince both a powerful visual imagination and real technical skill. In fact, the film probably works better as a succession of remarkable scenes (a collage, per the filmmaker’s notes) than as any kind of conventional narrative; and its central premise – that women’s attempts to maintain order in the face of male violence are doomed – isn’t quite as profound or original as López Gallardo seems to think. Nevertheless, this is an unusually confident debut, one that earned her the Silver Bear Jury Prize.

Hidden in plain sight, in the festival’s Specials section, was a new work from Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, whose last feature, 2017’s Zama, was not only my favourite from that year, but one of the best films of the last decade. Martel is from Salta, in the country’s mountainous northwest, quieter and more socially conservative than Buenos Aires, and Terminal Norte is a 36-minute documentary about a group of female singers from the region, who gather in a partly constructed building to perform songs and talk art and politics. The styles of music vary wildly, from declarative coplas to noise-rock and trap, but a common thread of feminist defiance runs through their work. The film’s narrator, Julieta Laso, is both a cantora and Martel’s partner, and her low, throaty voice and theatrical delivery are electrifying.

The feel is celebratory, and the structure loose; Martel refrains from obviously “directing” the action, so as to better focus on the performances that are the film’s raison d’être. But the film was completed under lockdown, and she can’t entirely resist playing subtle little tricks with time: sometimes compressing it, at others allowing moments to expand, or to recur – notably, in a scene of Laso driving along a freeway explaining how she came to music via experimental theatre. As she speaks, the looped image of a possibly abandoned car and the wail of a police siren suggest another, harsher world beyond the sanctuary these artists have created for themselves.

From the recent Rotterdam film festival, I praised the new film from Kazakhstan’s Adilkhan Yerzhanov. And just over a week later, Berlin’s Forum section hosted Poet, the latest from the O.G. of Kazakh cinema, the great Darezhan Omirbaev.

Didar is a poet in contemporary Almaty, which if this film is anything to go by, is a little like being a stripogram in Kabul. He works on the editorial committee of a failing newspaper, and struggles to support his wife and young daughter; literary acclaim seems an increasingly unlikely prospect. One night, he and his wife visit a new restaurant, and Didar discovers that its owner is a former classmate, once a talented poet in his own right, who saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to follow the money. (“Is it better,” Didar wonders aloud, “to run a cafe or be a poet no one needs?”) But the friend also introduces him to a rich businessman – maybe a gangster, maybe not – who wants Didar to write a book about his life and heritage, and will pay him handsomely for his efforts. (There are shades, here, of Woody Allen’s character in his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanours.)

Omirbaev juxtaposes Didar’s travails with a number of historical episodes connected with the death and posthumous fate of Makhambet Otemisuly, who was not only one of Kazakhstan’s great poets but also a significant political figure, notorious for urging resistance to the Tsarist regime. Otemisuly was assassinated in 1846, and we see how his legacy proved problematic for successive generations of his people, both during the Alash Autonomy and throughout the Soviet era.

This historical register is a new one for the director, and he handles it adeptly, successfully reconciling his Bresson-derived asceticism with the kind of ethno-nationalist “epic” mode that (unfortunately) constitutes much of the filmmaking from the post-Soviet republics. But there’s also a sly, self-mocking humour in this study, never more so than when the “great minds” of the newspaper, earnestly cataloguing the debasement of intellectual culture (and with Omirbaev himself among them), pause for a moment in their pontificating to check out a cute secretary. Or when Didar accepts an invitation from the literary society of a nearby town to come and read his poems, with predictably disheartening results. Wry and measured, yet imbued with a genuine anguish, this film never raises its voice yet effortlessly commands (and rewards) attention. It is quietly masterful filmmaking, from a quiet master.

Shane Danielsen

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

From the front page

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Two sides of the same Shields?

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media