The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Berlinale 2009 Wrap-Up: Mini-Reviews

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An Education—Up-and-coming Brit actress Carey Mulligan gives a bright, memorable performance in this delicately rendered tale of a classy, intelligent, self-possessed Twickenham schoolgirl who falls for the charms of an alluring, worldly older man (Peter Sarsgaard) in early ’60s London. Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) directs with a Dane’s eye for non-nostalgic period detail, engineering subtle modulations in tone as the Oxford aspirant negotiates the yawning gap between the stuffy oppression of formal education and the irreplaceable thrills of life experience. Sherfig isn’t breaking new ground here with novelist-screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), but Mulligan’s raw star material is well worth plundering.

The Messenger—The first Iraq war movie to offer intellectual substance instead of bald provocation (see: Redacted) and honest, morally complicated emotional dynamics instead of brainless didacticism or gushy theatrics. Is it a surprise that it took an Israeli-born screenwriter, Oren Moverman, best known for his work on Jesus’ Son, Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, and Ira Sachs’s Married Life, to write and direct such a gripping portrait of (mostly male) grief and post-war trauma on the American home front? Ben Foster, never better, is a pure embodiment of the dutiful, tight-lipped young war vet, courageous but pained, a raw nerve encased in steel that’s about to crack as he’s assigned “casualty notification” duty with Woody Harrelson, the macho officer who’s mastered the despicable art of cold information delivery. Moverman examines the fraught relationship between the two men, introduces Samantha Morton as a war widow Foster’s stuck on, and builds nerve-wracking tension around the agonizing home visits. One wedding scene in particular, a little reminiscent of The Deer Hunter, encapsulates the film’s powerfully moving look at varieties of grief and the roiling anguish of military servicemen returning from an overseas conflict to cope with hostility, public indifference, and untended psychic wounds.

Mammoth—Oh, it’s woolly all right, but hardly mammoth. A ridiculously phony exercise in sub-Crash psycho-Babel, this Inarritú-style critique of upper-middle-class urban American lifestyle’s vampire effect on faraway cultures earned director Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4-Ever) a chorus of boos at the Berlinale press screening. That’s because Mammoth actually panders to the priorities of Western privilege, both in its Hollywood-smooth production values and opportunistic (rather than appropriate) casting, once it’s done manipulating every possible emotional contour of its guilt-courting, overdetermined, we-are-all-connected multi-thread narrative, which hops from New York to Bangkok to Manila and back to touch on forms of estrangement and exploitation. Michelle Williams as an in-demand ER surgeon at a busy Manhattan hospital? Gael Garcia Bernal as a famous video-game designer off to Thailand to seal a multimillion dollar Asian-rights deal? Please. Is your Filipino nanny stealing your child’s affection? This is the movie for you.

GiganteRed Road meets The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Well, not exactly. But Adrian Biniez’s understated Uruguayan charmer does have a beauty-and-the-beast element updated to a cramped surveillance office at a contemporary supermarket in Montevideo. Laconic, heavyset Horacio Camandulle is the shy, speed-metal-loving gentle giant who, while working his nighttime job as a video-monitoring security guard, develops an obsession with after-hours custodial worker Leonor Svarcas. Biniez injects dry humor into his slow-building love story, in which the sweetly naive stalker’s physical strength is roused only to protect the object of his affection, but the more Hitchcockian aspects of his serial voyeurism are never explored.

Beeswax—Andrew Bujalski’s the brainiest and most talented of the m-core bunch. He has a better ear for dialogue than his SXSW-coronated peers and a defter sense of pacing and structure, too (he’s edited all three of his features). Films like Funny Ha-Ha and Mutual Appreciation have a relaxed, hand-made feel because they are hand-made, partially contructed around the eccentricities of the writer-director’s own friends and acquaintances; his actors are akin to found objects, their on-screen personas exaggerated projections of offscreen individuality. Like his previous features, Beeswax is a twentysmething slice-of-Austin-lifestyle drama with a loose, naturalistic feel driven by the personalities of its lead actresses, real-life sisters Maggie and Tilly Hatcher. Maggie is athletic, coltish Lauren, a genial spirit looking for a job that might take her to Africa. She shares a house with Tilly’s Jeannie, a paraplegic who runs a vintage-clothing store that she’s in danger of losing to her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), who may or may not be considering legal action to wrest control of the venture. Bujalski never overplays Jeannie’s handicap, a plot point with subtle, matter-of-fact significance, and his comic touches (social discomfort and romantic embarrassment are persistent themes) are both true to life and almost effortlessly poignant. Filmmaker Alex Karpovsky (Woodpecker) pops in with a wry turn as a legal student who takes an interest in Jeannie’s plight and in rekindling their fizzled romance. Beeswax is slight in scope, but underscores Bujalski’s refreshing lack of pretention and potential to translate his unique sensibility and bare-bones methodology into a wider frame.

Storm—Hans Christian-Schmid’s war-crimes thriller spirits us into the airless, deadened offices of workaday European bureaucracy; namely, headquarters at the Hague’s International Criminal Court, where prosecutor Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox) has just lost her months-long case against a Bosnian Serbian commander accused of ethnic cleansing on the testimony of a bogus witness. Undaunted, Maynard uncovers a nasty hive of secrets on a solo investigative trip to the former Yugoslavia that leads her back to the witness’s tight-lipped sister, Mira (Anamaria Marinca), now living a safe and comfortable life in Berlin with her family. Schmid’s film is polished, serious, and genuinely rattling, suggesting the ways in which EU-mandated diplomatic manuevering conspires against the aims of true criminal justice. Technically, this is a legal thriller, but the only action comes from Bogumil Godfrejow’s pointlessly distracting handheld camerawork. (What is the agitated, zoom-and-quick-pan aesthetic supposed to convey? Anxiety? Intensity? Isn’t that what actors are for?) Fox is coolly commanding and convincing, but the film’s only visceral performance comes from Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), playing a victim of atrocity who ignores the intimidations of Serbian nationalist thugs to face her perpetrator.

Bellamy—Dedicated to Belgian writer Georges Simenon, creator of the Commissaire Maigret novels, and French chansonnier Georges Brassens, Chabrol’s wry, playful Bellamy is a throwback of sorts to old, character-driven detective fiction. Forget the enigmas of its crime-tale edifice, which involves mysterious charred remains, an insurance scam, a cross-generational love affair, and a possible killer with multiple identities; the film is a vehicle for the leonine acting talent of Gerard Depardieu, blimped up here to Rabelaisian girth. His amiable police investigator, Bellamy, loves crosswords and cigars, and loathes travel—not to mention his no-account younger brother, Clovis Cornillac, an ill-tempered drunk and ex-convict who’s paying an unwelcome visit. Chabrol positions the siblings in a brutish, often funny domestic rivalry that lands Bellamy’s doting and erotically smoldering middle-aged wife, Marie Bunel, square in the middle. Whether Depardieu’s leisurely French copper is a cuckold or not is an open question that Chabrol wrings for all its worth. A mildly amusing but not tightly focused effort from the octogenarian auteur, who wraps the film, oddly, with an Auden quote about how every story has hidden aspects.

Forever Enthralled—Unless you are an ardent fan of Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) or the history of Peking Opera, this episodic, gorgeously mounted pageant based on the bumpy life and career of famed cross-dressing performer Mei Lanfang (b. 1894) will bore you to tears.

Unmistaken Child—A grieving Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa, searches for the reincarnation of his mentor, a legendary rinpoche who died in 2001, in the Tsum Valley of rural Nepal. Presuming an interest in Tibetan Buddhist teachings and rituals, this six-year-long lama quest is either a heartfelt and joyous insider peek at a hard-to-experience rite of passage or painfully disillusioning to your sense of the mystic. For the rest of us, it looks like an exploitive ordeal for the earthy, simple parents of the “unmistaken” (and very tetchy) tyke. Nicely shot, though.

Happy Tears—Quirky, unwatchable Amerindie garbage about (what else?) a dysfunctional family from Teeth writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein. Parker Posey, Demi Moore, and the usually flawless Rip Torn struggle with ludicrous dialogue, tonal psychosis, and lots of vapid, not-so-amusing set-ups, all of which makes Ellen Barkin’s scenes as a stethoscope-wearing, live-in crack whore almost refreshing.

Winter Silence—Mysterious deer men visit a village of chaste Catholic women in this execrable art-film allegory about sex, potency, desire, death, deprivation, and who the hell knows what.

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