Berlinale 2013: Half shadows and blooms
Jonathan Romney looks beyond a lacklustre-so-far competition to highlight two unheralded gems from Germany and Georgia.
One of cinema’s great euphemisms is the idea of a ‘festival of discovery’. What this means in practical terms is that, at a lot of festivals you find yourself realising that you take your discoveries where you can find them. At the end of Berlin’s first weekend, there’s been only one competing film that enthused pretty much everyone – the Chilean drama Gloria – alongside a stack of ho-hum films that confirmed the Berlinale’s competition reputation for serving worthwhile but unappetising broccoli as the staple of a lukewarm menu.
Apart from Gloria, and the final chapter of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise, only two films here have meant much to me so far. One isn’t exactly a discovery as such, more a confirmation of the enduring interest of a certain school of thoughtful, undemonstrative, psychologically acute German cinema. The director – making his first cinema feature after a long TV piece – is Nicolas Wackerbarth, and his film is Everyday Objects, although the German title Halbschatten more poetically means ‘Half Shadow’.
It reminded me a lot of Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated and certain other films about people going on holiday in unfamiliar places and having a terrible time – notably, Maren Ade’s Berlinale succes d’estime of a couple of years back, Everyone Else. The heroine is a young woman, Merle (Anne Ratte-Polle), who turns up at a holiday home outside Nice, expecting to see a man who, we presume, is her lover (the film is big on uncertainty and ellipsis). He’s not there but his two children, aged 16 and 13, are, and thoroughly resent her presence.
Merle mooches around the house, more or less making herself invisible, occasionally skinny-dipping in the pool or half-heartedly going to work on the book she’s supposedly writing. Once in a while she ventures into town, but everything proves that she’s wandered into hostile terrain. Like the heroine of Unrelated, she starts hanging out with younger people, which turns out to be not such a great idea, and occasionally the camera hovers, as enigmatically as Merle herself, around the streets of Nice at night.
Everyday Objects also recalls other films of detached understatement – by Pia Marais, as well as the Dutch specialist in taciturnity Nanouk Leopold. But it has a wry freshness and a quietly caustic sense of humour that are very winning. Some might find it too entirely representative of a certain glacially laconic strain, but the combination of stylistic chilliness with the ambience of oppressively hot places, inhabited by the blasé bourgeoisie, is very to the point. Ratte-Polle’s quizzical, sometimes spiky presence (or often, semi-absence) gives its edge to a confident piece that quietly hums with tension and ominous meaning.
Out on a limb of its own in terms of being sheerly satisfying is In Bloom, a Georgian film co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. It’s a female coming-of-age story set in Tblisi in 1992, and carries an autobiographical charge on Ekvtimishvili’s part. The heroines are two adolescent classmates. One has her father’s absence to contend with (it’s not made clear at first, but he’s in prison), while the other is caught between two young admirers – a romantic suitor who gives her a gun to protect herself, and the impulsive thug that she probably should be protecting herself from.
A lot about the film is familiar – scenes of girls gossiping and smoking, uproarious classrooms – and the mood has a timelessness that makes it feel as if we could be observing almost any period in the 20th century (if not for occasional bursts of Phil Collins). There’s an element of nostalgia for lost youth (you might call this Georgian Graffiti), except that the world the girls are living in is defined by a potent undercurrent of danger and male violence – which made me think somehow of A Brighter Summer Day.
There’s a very specific background too, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict of the period, and the girls’ world is defined by domestic and social chaos, the constant danger of collapse – that is, enforced shock entry into the adult order. Photographed with a grainy intensity by Oleg Mutu (collaborator with Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu and Sergei Loznitsa), it’s a film that promised little more than the familiar at first, then turned out to evoke lived intimacy more vividly than anything else in the festival. It’s playing in Forum, but it truly would have thrived in competition. I hope distributors notice it.