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.
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.
If Don’s Plum seems a prime candidate for illicit Internet distribution, a more rarefied ain’t-it-cool moment was provided when the Russian producers of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Taurus inexplicably chose to preview this surely Cannes-bound film in the festival’s European Film Market on video, complete with an antipiracy “not for sale” warning in the image’s upper left corner. The next installment in the totalitarian series Sokurov inaugurated with Moloch, Taurus is set in the greenish gloom of 1923 and concerns the prolonged death agony of V.I. Lenin following a second stroke.
Attended by his wife and sister, the bedridden “comrade leader” muses on God, the death of Karl Marx, and the doings of the Central Committee. (Trying to recall the new party secretary, Lenin wonders who elected him: “What is he—a Georgian?”) At times, Taurus echoes Mother and Son—a train whistle is heard across an empty field as Lenin asks, “What is the point of suffering if there is no hope?” Meanwhile, a German attending doctor wishes he could study Lenin’s great brain. Sokurov treats this classical subject with a distinctive mixture of objective naturalism and subjective vision. This film about death has a powerful, cumulative sense of the world dimming out—unless it was a factor of the video transfer.
Digital projection may well be the future, but it marred the world premiere of Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey—a dense, hypervisual, proudly glamorous fetish-movie that insouciantly mixes a half-dozen varieties of film stock, and at least as many film projects. Beginning as a portrait of boy wrestler (turned model) Peter Johnson, Chop Suey meditates at length on the singer Frances Faye, while digressing on a Brazilian jujitsu champ, a family of California surfers, the spectacle of Robert Mitchum singing, and Diana Vreeland expounding. There’s plenty of lovingly photographed beefcake, but ultimately Weber, who links everything together with his first-person voice-over, seems most thrilled with his own collection of photographed memories. In this, as well as his celebrity interest, Weber recalls Jonas Mekas (represented in the Forum of Young Cinema with his own personal epic, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty).
Did the general absence of high-powered personalities create another sort of space? Note the prominence of female auteurs in the competition, responsible not only for the strongest entry in Fat Girl but the biggest crowd-pleaser and the major discovery as well.
The latter, La Cienaga (The Swamp), written and directed by Lucretia Martel, is a mordant account of provincial life in northwestern Argentina. In her first feature, the 34-year-old filmmaker shows so sharp an eye for color and composition, her performers might almost be playing themselves. A vivid, if oblique, narrative is fashioned out of numerous micro-incidents that coalesce in an inevitable disaster foretold. The title refers, among other things, to the summer torpor as well as the thick miasma of social relations—kids, dogs, servants, two interlocking, accident-prone families. (In keeping with the Chekhovian program, the women are forever talking about going to Bolivia for the weekend.)
Winning both press and audience prizes, Lone Scherfig’s comic Italian for Beginners was billed as Denmark’s fifth Dogme production and is certainly its most benign. Scherfig’s ensemble includes plenty of drunks but no donkey-boys. Her focus is on relationships. Although characters die throughout, the movie is basically a sort of Ealing-style romantic comedy that ends with the equivalent of a triple wedding. Although not nearly as sentimental as Mifune, Italian for Beginners is heartwarmingly rife with second chances and redemptions. Indeed, in the festival’s big acquisition story, Harvey Weinstein dive-bombed into Berlin, bought the movie’s North American rights, and was airlifted out.
The other major pickup (by Sony Pictures Classics) was Wang Xiaoshuai’s mediocre Beijing Bicycle—a flat and convoluted social allegory that references both The Bicycle Thief and The Story of Qiu Ju. Meanwhile, last I heard, Fat Girl and La Cienaga were still up for grabs.