Forces of Nature

Berlin's Body Politic

Situation hopeless but not serious: The Berlin Film Festival and its affiliated Forum of Young Cinema—one a Cold War artifact, the other a manifestation of '68 Kulturkampf—last year relocated to the brand-new, cheerfully ahistoric, Lego-constructed center of a painfully historic city. This year the festival bade farewell to its longtime administrators, wrestling on with its perennial identity crisis.

For decades Berlin was the avant-Cannes, but the marginalization of East European cinema and the popularization of East Asian movies have deprived the festival of its distinctive specialties. Indeed, the overall contraction of the European movie industry is nowhere more apparent than in Berlin. It's symptomatic that the festival's Golden Bear winner, Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy, actually had its international premiere a few weeks earlier at Sundance, where it was somewhat chauvinistically denounced by Variety as a form of cultural pollution.

A French-Italian co-pro, shot in London and starring British actors, Intimacy begins, like a prole Last Tango, in a grungy, barely furnished flat with an anonymous couple scrambling to get naked. The sex is hectic and reasonably naturalistic; although Jack (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox) meet once a week strictly to fuck, the furious tumult is carried over into the other scenes as well. This is particularly true once Jack follows Claire into her daily life, which is to say a pub-basement theater where she's appearing as the untalented Laura in an amateur production of The Glass Menagerie. On the whole, Intimacy is more convincingly shot and acted than it is written or edited. (Fox also received a Golden Bear for her performance.) Graphic carnality aside, this is basically an old-fashioned art movie—a Bergman story given a Cassavetes mise-en-scène—that intermittently packs a considerable emotional wallop.

More radical in its analysis and polarizing in its reception, Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl was the competition's other exercise in sexual confrontation. Having disposed of romance in her melodrama of the same name, Breillat here returns to her favorite subject: the construction of female adolescent sexuality. Two sisters on holiday—one a rotund 12, the other a foxy 15—meet a vacationing Italian law student and whammo. Things develop with the speed of thought. The student pays a nocturnal visit to the girls' shared boudoir to negotiate the older one's defloration. The younger sister eavesdrops along with the audience—everyone wondering just how far this amazing 20 minutes of teasing indecision and frustrated guilt-tripping will go.

No longer NATO's front line, Berlin functions these days as the European launch site for the spring slate of Hollywood movies. Still, the threat of impending strikes by the screen actors and writers unions served to keep most American stars on their various sets.

Essentially comic in its mixture of brutal frankness and philosophical bemusement, Fat Girl amply demonstrates Breillat's brilliance as a director—even as it raises, without settling, the question of whether she may be exploiting her young actresses. (Anaïs Reboux, only 13 when she made the movie, gives an astonishingly unselfconscious performance, whether lost in the contemplation of her body or swimming—happily and literally—in a womb of fantasy.) The movie's classical structure climaxes with a violent shift in rhetoric. This shock ending put some off, but unlike Intimacy, Fat Girl has no pretensions to kitchen-sink naturalism. Rather, the movie is an intellectual argument made discomfitingly tangible in playing out on the bodies of its female cast members.

One could glean a bit of Cold War nostalgia from Park Chan-Wook's hoked-up but heartfelt thriller Joint Security Area, a cleverly constructed political melodrama that is the highest-grossing Korean movie ever. (Its set, which represents the Korean DMZ, has since become a tourist attraction.) But no longer NATO's front line, Berlin functions these days as the European launch site for the spring slate of Hollywood movies. Still, the threat of impending strikes by the screen actors and writers unions served to keep most American stars on their various sets. Whereas last year, The Beach confirmed Berlin as a glamour event by producing heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, this year's festival had to make do with the virtual DiCaprio provided by the world premiere of RD Robb's infamous Don's Plum.

An ensemble piece shot in 1995, Don's Plum was effectively banned by its most famous participants, DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, who evidently warned potential distributors that they had believed they were participating in an acting exercise, and that the ensuing feature was a form of entrapment. Several years of litigation (including one suit reportedly triggered by a sarcastic ad placed in Daily Variety thanking the pair for "their amicable spirits, gentlemanly behavior and wisdom beyond their years") resulted in a settlement preventing the movie from being shown in North America. At that point, the filmmakers took their footage to Lars von Trier's Zentropa and reconfigured Don's Plum as a Danish coproduction.

In fact, this grainy, black-and-white yakker is a sort of acting exercise—albeit one that is indebted less to the much cited Cassavetes and Mamet than to a pair of mid-'90s Miramax hits, Swingers and Clerks. Four twentysomething guys gather, with their dates and pickups, for a long, largely improvisational evening of put-downs and confessions, interspersed with cameos by an assortment of producers, crackheads, and waitresses. The movie may be awful but it isn't dull, and although Maguire's performance is embarrassingly goofy, the relaxed DiCaprio effectively acts his colleagues into the ground.

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