The films that many Berlinale attendees were most looking forward to at the start of the festival, last week, are the ones that turned out to be the biggest bummers: Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, in which Nicole Kidman swathed herself in linen to play early 20th-century English archaeologist, explorer, and political liaison Gertrude Bell, could pass as a handsome and reasonably competent great-lady Hollywood biopic. But if you removed the opening credits in a blind taste test, no one would be able to tell it was a Herzog movie: Kidman does a great deal of noble posing, and looks quite fetching astride a series of exceedingly fluffy, well-groomed camels, but the movie around her lacks the Herzog touch, those dashes of brazen loopiness that mark the director’s best (or even just his most entertaining) work. And Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine — with James Franco as a novelist whose career takes off not long after he unwittingly causes a terrible accident — might have been fine, if it weren’t dusted over with a dull coat of moral worthiness.
Neither is an embarrassment or a disaster. But no one wants films from Herzog and Wenders to be just OK. Both directors have been doing marvelous documentary work these past few years, but when it comes to making stuff up (or adapting history), they’ve stumbled on the path. In the coming year, you’d do better to look out for films from the less internationally celebrated, like Alexey German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds, a somber, visually elegant dream meditation on the hopes and anxieties of modern Russia, which not so surprisingly reflect the disquietude of most of the world, or Radu Jude’s sharply observed Aferim!, a half-mournful, half-jaunty historical drama set in 1830s Romania, in which a bumbling constable and his son set out to capture runaway gypsy slaves.
For me, the biggest surprise of the festival competition was Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s debut Ixcanul, a gorgeously filmed drama about a contemporary Mayan woman locked in a world where age-old customs and traditions rule the day, though it also reminds us that some age-old problems are universal. Ixcanul most definitely won’t be coming to a multiplex near you, but it’s one of those small treasures that’s worth looking out for. Its quiet radiance is transfixing.
Of the few films I was able to catch in the festival’s other programs — that is, not in the main competition — there was one unsettling standout: In Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, starring Elisabeth Moss as Catherine, a young city-dweller who, after recently suffering both her father’s death by suicide and a crushing breakup, treks to the country to spend a week with her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston). We’re not sure, at first, if Ginny is Catherine’s closest ally or her most threatening saboteur — there are times when even the most loyal friend can show aspects of both. But either way, the trauma Catherine has suffered is bound to have consequences. Moss leads us by the hand, gently, through Catherine’s creeping descent into that thing we all-too-casually call madness. Her performance is unnerving, as delicately calibrated as the hum of an anxious insect.
The picture is framed as a Seventies genre exercise — we’re tipped off to that by the opening title card, on which the words “Queen of Earth” are splashed in a flourish of pink script; 2015 is spelled out in Roman numerals at the bottom of the screen. But even if Queen of Earth is presented with something of a sly wink, it’s far less gimmicky and self-conscious than Perry’s last film, Listen Up Philip. It’s the sort of movie that, had it actually been released in the Seventies, would have been passed off as throwaway drive-in fare — you might have gone to it with a bunch of friends on a lark, only to find its deep chilliness following you home in the dark.
There’s a lot going on in this modestly scaled movie: It’s a meditation on the rickety foundations on which even close friendships can be built, and on the notion of whether or not nature — even with all its soothing sounds and comforting greenery — is really our ally. It’s also a teasing admonition that we shouldn’t believe everything we see, as well as a stylish, whispery love letter to teasing psychological horror studies like Persona and possibly Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Waterston — so quietly effective as a California dream babe in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice — walks a deft line here: Ginny is part self-absorbed feline, part horrified witness to suffering. Waterston’s performance is sturdy and understated, a generous support for all the things the movie asks of Moss. Perry opens the film with a Falconetti-style closeup of Catherine, a woman whose makeup has been blurred by tears, just as her eyes have been blurred by pain. In the flashbacks, she seems normal, whatever that is, and happy, whatever that is. But in Queen of Earth, we’re never sure which reality to trust. The only thing we can be sure of is our perception of Catherine’s gradual, painful unspooling. To look away from it is everything we wish for. It also happens to be impossible.