At the Berlinale: Young Love, the World Without Us, and a Modern Nativity

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The 66th annual Berlin International Film Festival ran February 11-21.

Walking around Berlin in the thick, grey winter (perhaps, specifically, as a foreigner) is oddly analogous to the moviegoing experience: there’s a strange sense of freedom to be found amid the pervasive, yet decidedly shared, sense of isolation that hovers over the city. Now in its 66th year, the Berlinale unfolds primarily in and around the bubble of Potsdamer Platz, a central, post-war creation that’s a bit soulless in its angular, metal-and-glass regularity, but that nevertheless hums with the hustle-bustle of festivalgoers scurrying off to screenings or pausing between meetings to wolf down some spatzle from a well-positioned food truck. This distinctly international crowd of cinephiles and industry insiders finds unification not only through their matching tote bags, but through the films they pick and choose in what can be an overwhelming program.

In spite of more than a few disappointments in the competition section, there were a handful of highlights worth singling out. A clear standout of the competition was Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things To Come). The film finds the reigning queen of French Cinema, Isabelle Huppert, in top form as Nathalie, a philosophy teacher suddenly forced to face her future alone when her husband leaves her for another woman. As the title suggests—and like all of Hansen-Løve’s best work—L’Avenir is as much about the nature of time itself as it is a deftly observed character study of one woman’s life. The film oozes with such effortless alchemy between director and actor that it’s hard to believe Hansen-Løve, who also wrote the script, is not more advanced in years (the writer-director is still only thirty-five).

She does, however, draw directly from her experience of growing up with philosophy teachers as parents to provide this book-laden corner of Parisian upper-middle-class life with its stamp of authenticity—and humor. There’s a great scene early in the film in which Nathalie meets with the marketing team behind the “pedagogical makeover” of a textbook she’s publishing (and who doesn’t love a film that casually drops phrases like “pedagogical makeover”?). “It looks like an add for M&M’s,” she balks when they reveal the new, garishly colored cover design.

It’s a telling moment in the life of a woman whose uncompromising sense of self keeps her moving persistently forward, no matter what. Indeed, Huppert’s tiny frame can be seen physically running through much of the film—most often to the bedside of her ailing mother (played by Edith Scob, who still looks ravishing in a silk nightgown). Due in no small part to the strength of Huppert’s subtly emotive performance, the manner in which Nathalie simply carries on without carrying on (i.e.: without suffering a total breakdown) is so refreshingly… female. Though she begins to spend more time with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), her increasingly radical protégé, at his country house turned intellectual commune, ultimately she finds solace and security in her books and her ideas—in short, in herself.

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Another dive into the discreet charms of the French bourgeoisie, or, in this case, French-Canadian, Denis Côté’s Boris Sans Beatrice offers what is perhaps an ultimately thin but nevertheless enjoyable look at one man’s half-hearted attempt at redemption. Boris (played by the strikingly angular James Hyndman) demonstrates his arrogance early in the film when he berates a check-out girl at a fancy clothing boutique. As she continues to probe him for costumer information, he continues to rebuff her, rising toward a blustery (albeit deadpan) sermon against the capitalist system (which, as a wealthy industrialist, he is unquestionably a part of). Boris’ wife Beatrice (Simone-Elise Girard), meanwhile, is suffering from an acute bout of melancholia that has her laid up in a near-catatonic state in their country house. While her cherubic caretaker, Klara (Isolda Dychauk), looks after her, Boris continues his philandering lifestyle with impunity.

Though warmly hued flashbacks punctuate the otherwise frigid palate to suggest that Boris does, in fact, love his wife, it’s not until a prophetic stranger (Denis Lavant) pays him a visit that he considers he may very well be the cause of her illness. Lavant, sporting an intricately beaded tunic, seems to be having a great deal of fun here spouting snippets from the myth of Tantalus with theatrical bravado (even if his character is fundamentally unsustainable). That there’s no particularly “deep” meaning here is besides the point. Striking a difficult tonal balance between satire and Greek tragedy, Côté manages to communicate the kind of deep torment that comes from looking inward at a shallow life.

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Also screening in competition was André Téchiné’s Being 17. Following the rivalry turned romance between two teenaged boys (played by Corentin Fila and Kacey Mottet Klein) living seemingly disparate lives in rural France, Being 17 is not so much about coming out as it is about coming to terms with the very nature of desire. As Damien (Klein) says to Thomas (Fila) at one point in the film: “I’m not sure if I’m into guys or just you.” Drawing out affecting, naturalistic performances from both Fila and Klein (who grew up onscreen in Ursula Meir’s Home and Sister), Téchiné benefits greatly from a script co-written by Céline Sciamma, whose films like Water Lilies and Girlhood have deftly tackled the complexities of teenage eroticism.

Being 17 is a film propelled by the raw, physical energy of male youth—energy that primarily finds expression through violence. From the moment Thomas deliberately trips Damien in literature class, erratic fistfights erupt between them constantly both on and off school grounds. They fight out of hatred and out of vicious jealousy, but ultimately, they fight out of fear and confusion. When emotions are sublimated into erotic connection, it makes the love scene all the more satisfying.

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One of the greatest discoveries of the Forum section, which runs alongside the main competition and caters to the experimentally inclined, was Eldorado XXI. The latest from Portuguese documentarian Salome Lamas, the film—coming to NYC this month via New Directors/New Films—is an alternately hypnotic and deeply distressing look at the harsh conditions of a gold mine in La Rinconada, Peru, which, at 17,000 feet above sea level, is the highest permanent settlement on earth.

The film opens with a lengthy—almost stubbornly steady—shot that frames an uninterrupted stream of miners as they meander up and down the serpentine path that leads to gold (or at least to the idea of it). The soundscape here is almost more striking than the visuals, as the filmmaker ensures we hear every drop of water that trickles down the sloping rock and every squishing, suctioning footstep through the mud. One quickly becomes so lost in (and oddly soothed by) the monotonous repetition that time is eradicated completely—though the shot is reportedly 50 minutes long. But the meditative aesthetic is balance by horror stories narrated by the voices on the soundtrack: personal tales of woe bleed into radio news headlines (including one about an attempted suicide by rat poison) to illuminate the utter lack of regulation and legal protection for miners, not to mention the pervasive problems of alcoholism, poverty, and oft-unrecorded deaths.

The director and her wildly talented cinematographer, Luis Armando Arteaga, clearly understand that showing is often the most effective means of telling, and Arteaga’s eye is perhaps best on display in the film’s second half, which changes locations more readily to offer up surreal landscapes, an eerily masked celebration by firelight, and a brightly lit religious procession laden in reflective gold.

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In a somewhat similar aesthetic vein, the completely wordless documentary Homo sapiens imagines what the world might look like in the wake of human apocalypse. German filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter fixes a steady camera on a variety of abandoned settings—hospital rooms, office corridors, prisons, coliseums, churches, and amusement parks—until they begin to feel uncanny.

The presence of humanity becomes all the more palpable in the absence of people, but the film’s main focus seems to be on the imagined boundaries between civilization and nature: birds flutter around what was once a nuclear reactor, a skeleton of a roller coaster is half engulfed by the sea, and tanks are overtaken by moss in the forest. The soundscape is especially noteworthy here, as the pattering of rain, a gust of wind, or the steady creak of metal, become integral to the immersive experience. Man’s greatest contribution to earth, it seems, is decay.

le fils joseph

Also in the Forum section was veteran Eugene Green with his latest, Le Fils de Joseph. A characteristically deadpan and highly farcical modern retelling of the nativity story, the film centers on Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a teenage loner who spends most of his time staring up at the painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac that hangs on his bedroom wall. “You have no father,” his mother tells him, frankly. Realizing, of course, that this is a biological impossibility, Vincent tracks down the man responsible for his existence: Oscar Pormenor, a high-powered publisher played by an especially excellent Mathieu Almaric, and still clearly a philanderer and all-around devilish rogue. It’s in the midst of a revenge plot against him that Vincent by chance meets Oscar’s estranged brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione).

Joseph is disarmingly serene and sincere and Vincent forges a bond with him immediately, eventually bringing him home to meet his mother, who happens to be named Marie. It’s easy to guess where the third act is headed, and it’s a shame that its gag-like construction (replete with a running donkey joke) almost completely suffocates the subtler and more satisfying elements of the first two acts. It’s a bit of a forgone conclusion, though, and as a film that’s actually about goodness, Le Fils de Joseph is quite a rare beast.

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