The Wall / The First Night of My Life
It's no surprise that every film in the "2000 Seen by . . . " series eve-of-millennium stories commissioned by French television uses anxiety as its starting point. Of the bunch, Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole has a wit, nerve, and poignant despair that puts it in a class of its own, but this double bill, which screens at Cinema Village for a week alongside The Hole (another four films can be seen next week), is a breezily enjoyable alternative.
Of these two hour-long works, Alain Berliner's The Wall is the more ambitious. An outlandish vision of fissure set against a political landscape of supposedly dissolving borders, the movie amplifies the tensions between the French- and Flemish-speaking halves of Belgium, bringing events to a head with a whopping dose of surrealism. At the literal and figurative heart of the dispute is portly, mild-mannered Albert (Daniel Hanssens), who hails from the francophone north, but whose chips stand is positioned smack-dab on the linguistic border. After an all-night party in the south, Albert wakes to find the country (and his stall) split in two by a massive, Berlin-ish wall, erected overnight by a government that's suddenly devolved into a nightmarish bureaucracy with vaguely fascist leanings.
Berliner, who previously directed Ma Vie en rose, indulges his taste for whimsy with a sweetly daffy Romeo and Juliet scenario, pairing Albert with a newly forbidden Flemish love. Essentially a simplistic cautionary allegory, The Wall benefits enormously from its playful streak it's cartoon Kafka, with more bite than that implies.
A loose yet neatly interlocking ensemble piece, The First Night of My Life is a welcome antidote to the shrill and fatuous 200 Cigarettes it's a New Year's Eve ramble that actually ends up somewhere. Setting most of the action in the shantytown outskirts of Madrid ("the butt-end of nowhere," as someone delicately puts it), first-time director Miguel Albaladejo skillfully maneuvers his hapless characters including a pregnant woman, her social-worker husband, her disapproving father, an inept carjacker, and assorted lost souls and the contrivances that bring them together or keep them apart over the course of a night. It all goes a little soft eventually, but throughout, there's a warmth and social awareness that keep the film afloat.
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