BERLIN, GERMANY—Four years after its big move east, the Berlin Film Festival can sometimes seem as awkwardly stranded as the reborn city center it occupies. A busy Third Reich crossroads, later a Wall-bisected dead zone, now a mall-island made possible by landfill and the deep pockets of Sony and DaimlerChrysler, Potsdamer Platz remains encircled by construction sites, cut off from the hipster Berlin of nomadic techno nights and makeshift Comme des Garçons boutiques. The Berlinale—or at any rate, its glamour-hungry competition—likewise exists in a kind of no-man’s-land, with some cinephile edge lost to Rotterdam and many art-house heavies inclined to wait for a Cannes premiere.
The sheer volume of films keeps the prospect of discovery alive, especially in the sidebars: the progressive Panorama and the erratic but adventurous Forum. Back in the official selection, this year’s best entry effortlessly floated to the top. In 1995, Richard Linklater won the Berlinale’s directing Silver Bear for Before Sunrise, which sent two strangers on a train out into the Viennese summer for an all-night rap session. Before Sunset quickly establishes that the young lovers failed to rendezvous a few months later as promised. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has written a novel inspired by their tryst; Céline (Julie Delpy) shows up at his Paris reading. In the remaining hour or so before his New York-bound flight, the two stroll down Left Bank streets and along the Seine, riffing up a storm—a digressive, lifelike torrent of nervous niceties, banal chat, cagey evasions, earnest philosophizing, and strategic confessions—all the while trying to keep regret at bay.
Hawke’s Jesse has lost some of his narcissistic pretensions (and the actor gamely leaves his novelist alter ego open to mockery), but as in the first film, Delpy’s the heartbreaker. Her grown-up Céline—at turns spontaneous and self-conscious, given to righteous tirades and goofy balladeering—is a heroine Jacques Rivette would adore. (In a presumable homage, Céline and Jesse even go boating at one point.) From Slacker to Tape, Linklater has always worked well with compact durations, and in this ultra-brief encounter (a mere 80 minutes), the director and his actors (all three share writing credit) thrillingly orchestrate an entire movie’s worth of real-time momentum. The basic tonal difference between original and sequel is what gives Before Sunset its enormous poignancy—the twentysomething Céline and Jesse viewed their chance meeting as ripe with endless possibility; their wiser, sadder, older selves understand that the unexpected reunion leaves them with finite options, none of them easy.
Given the Berlinale’s political tradition, the most disappointing entries were the ones that purportedly engaged the real world—and yet contained little trace of recognizable human behavior. John Boorman’s South Africa-set Country of My Skull preposterously locates truth and reconciliation in a Samuel Jackson-Juliette Binoche clinch. The refugee drama Beautiful Country, directed by Hans Petter Moland from a story by Terrence Malick, is at once unsentimental and patronizing, following an inexpressive young man from Vietnam to Texas in search of his ex-G.I. father. An entire village was built from the ground up—and subsequently flooded—for The Weeping Meadow, Theo Angelopoulos’s three-hour dirge chronicling a woman’s tragic life between the world wars. Amid a near total absence of character depth and narrative urgency, the pictorial majesty and unvarying vocabulary of sternly languorous zooms and pans grow numbing.
The most mysterious film in the program appeared out of nowhere—and will likely stay there. Directed by shadowy former New York art-world figure C.S. Leigh, Process attracted attention for its celebrity-death-match casting (Béatrice Dalle vs. Guillaume Depardieu, in his last pre-leg-amputation role) and its ostentatious art-core high concept: 29 shots in 93 minutes, including an 11-minute suicide. Adding to the enigma, the movie—which suggests a Leos Carax parody (indeed, Carax has a brief cameo)—premiered with live music by John Cale, who alternated between lugubrious crooning and poetry recital. The abiding impression of an elaborate prank is reinforced with the incongruous end-credit blast of the Jam’s “That’s Entertainment.” Elsewhere, controversy seekers had to be content with Matteo Garrone’s First Love, in which an Italian goldsmith sets out to turn his bizarrely acquiescent girlfriend anorexic—the experiment goes terribly wrong after an illicit forkful of fettuccine.
A few young French directors picked up the slack: Red Lights is another intriguing partial success from Cédric Kahn (L’Ennui), a black-comic Georges Simenon adaptation about an emasculated husband’s drunken, road-raging tear from Paris to Bordeaux—the movie’s disorienting notion of suspense is so deadpan it flirts with boredom. Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’Esquive is a Raising Victor Vargas with much naturalistic swearing and a neatly reflexive framework: Teens in the Paris-suburb projects put on a Marivaux play and find themselves in a real-life comedy of manners. Another Panorama highlight, Sébastien Lifshitz’s jagged mosaic of bruised lives, Wild Side, has a premise that sounds like a barroom joke—ever hear the one about the gay Russian army deserter, the Algerian rent boy, and the transsexual French hooker? But there’s nothing lewd about the punchline, which proposes a polyamorous threesome as a sustainable, nurturing living arrangement—a quietly utopian vision, one as romantic in its way as Before Sunset.
“New York Independents in Berlin” by Dennis Lim