Berlinale 2018 midway round-up: how do you follow Isle of Dogs?

Some duds in (and out of) the competition are par for the course at the Berlin Film Festival, but there have been surprises both deft (Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, from Paraguay) and outré (Rupert Everett’s Oscar Wilde project) – and some excellent candidates for the acting prizes.

Nick James
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Black 47 (2018)

Black 47 (2018)

To open the Berlinale with a film as straightforwardly cherishable as Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (see my first-look review here) was always going to be tricky for the programmers because how do you follow that pack of adorably tick-ridden scavengers? To do so with the run of middle-ranking films that is the festival’s usual choice is to risk an outbreak of the press’s winter grumpiness, but that’s more or less what we’ve seen so far at the half-way point.

Lance Daly’s Black 47, an Irish-set revenge western shown out of competition, is so clichéd you can easily imagine it before you see it. During the 1847 potato famine, tenant-farming families are starving to death because the spuds are blighted and bailiffs are tearing the roofs off their houses.

Come to take his true love and family to America, Martin Feeney (Australian James Frecheville), a fierce blue-eyed deserter from the Royal Irish Rangers, finds most of them dead. When the rest soon follow, he begins a campaign of grim payback against the perfidious Brits. Tracking him down are blonde English officer Pope (Freddie Fox) and gruff Cockney army interrogator Hannah (Hugo Weaving, looking uncannily like Sam Neill did a decade or so back), who’s been saved from the noose for this dirty job. But one might question whether this less-visited genocide should have been any more the occasion for genre atmos than the one in North America was.

Damsel (2018)

Damsel (2018)

Another western, Damsel, from the Zellner brothers (Kumiko the Treasure Hunter) and set in the real USA, was desperate to dodge the familiar, though by swapping bathetic clichés for quirky po-mo ones it failed. It used to be hard to believe that the energy level of any film could drop after Robert Pattinson left the screen, but it’s so true here. Pattinson plays Samuel Alabaster, an immaculate ever-hopeful naif, all set to be married to his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He retrieves Parson Henry (David Zellner), a drunk, from the rubbish heap to perform the ceremony, but then we discover Samuel’s position is not as it seems, and self-conscious semi-accidental mishaps of the sort we’ve been seeing in revisionist westerns for decades now occur with less mirth than the directors the clearly thought they were achieving.

The Bookshop trailer

Moving on to the costume dramas, my main regret about watching Isabel Coixet’s hopeless The Bookshop is that I haven’t read Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel – I fear the film may have ruined it for me. Some flavour of Fitzgerald’s steely observation and bitter irony remain in the voiceover, but this tale of thwarted courage is bafflingly clumsy. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a war widow living on the Suffolk coast in 1959, moves into ‘The Old House’ of Hardborough village and turns it into a bookshop, not knowing that the house is coveted by local aristocrat Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) as the site for an ‘arts centre’.

I have never understood Coixet’s camera placings and framings. There’s no sense of a filmic world, just a jumble of disconnected scenes. One can forgive a Catalan director for not getting the best out of an English cast, but there’s way too much over-the-top winking and gurning. The exception is Mortimer, and one wishes that a better job had been done around her portrayal of naïve doggedness with a wan smile.

The Happy Prince (2018)

The Happy Prince (2018)

One film I did not expect much from but was happily sideswiped by was Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, which chronicles the last years in exile of Oscar Wilde after he’s released from Reading Gaol. Everett has produced a film maudit, a slightly bonkers hysterical melodrama that could be renamed Whatever Happened to Lady Fame? As Wilde, Everett vamps and roars his way through humiliation after humiliation, teeth and jaw forward, body lurching from crisis to crisis. Half the time you don’t know which 1970s TV comedian Everett’s going to look like next – sometimes like Frankie Howerd, sometimes Ken Dodd. But the comic grotesquerie only enhances the real sense of tragic fuck-it-all doom. There’s not much evidence Everett can really direct – way too much in-your-face shaky camera for my taste – yet he can roar with the roaring boys and almost by force of camp will he’s made the most startling British costume drama biopic I’ve seen in a while.

Dovlatov (2018)

Dovlatov (2018)

Alexei German Jr’s films are an altogether different acquired taste. He likes his characters to wander around vast architectural spaces in a kind lemony light while talking to each other as if they’re quoting from great literature or at least their own diary. That he’s chosen for his subject this time Sergei Dovlatov, a long-dead poet of the late Soviet era who was not widely read until after he died, had me reflecting on some of the commentaries in Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second Hand Time in which survivors of the Brezhnev era recall how central to their lives literature was and how that’s all gone now. German Jr’s films are all about drift, and since we in the old West may be drifting into an era in which the arts are no longer so central to life, it could be that Dovlatov has its lessons for our own future. Lead actor Milan Marić has a chance, I think, of the prize here.

An excerpt from Transit

Cristian Petzold’s Transit was probably the film I was most looking forward to. Adapted from Anna Seghers’ World War II novel, this tale of doomed individuals trying to leave France before German troops reach Marseilles has the Petzold twist of being set in the present day – a little like the theatre convention of doing Shakespeare in modern dress.

Georg (Franz Rogowski) has obtained the papers of a famous writer he saw die and is now pretending to be him in order to get transit to Mexico, but two encounters delay him: the first, a meeting with Driss (Lilien Batman), a small boy and his mute mother, the second a street sighting of the beautiful Marie (Paula Beer). The usual lean craftwork one expects from the director is present and I was intrigued and with the film until a tricksy sequence of false endings began to irritate and just about spoiled it.

Eva (2017)

Eva (2017)

Impersonation is also at the heart of Benoît Jacquot’s Eva, based on the same James Hadley Chase novel as Joseph Losey’s 1962 film. Bertrand, a care worker, steals the final manuscript of a dead writer and passes it off as his own but his attempts to build on the success the play brings him bring him into contact with Eva (Isabelle Huppert), an experienced high-class prostitute. I found it tedious and one-note but you can find a different opinion here:

The Heiresses trailer

One of the true critical successes here has been The Heiresses, a beautifully observed portrait from Paraguay of an ageing debt-ridden lesbian couple. Chiquita (Margarita Irún), who runs their life together, has a jail term to serve for fraud, leaving Chela (Ana Brun), the shy buttoned-up homebody, to oversee the selling off of their possessions. Protected from the couple’s loss of status until now, Chela finds herself, by slow degrees and almost inadvertently, running a taxi service for her friends, through which she meets Angy (Ana Ivanova) a much younger woman at ease with her sexual needs. Marcelo Martinessi has made a film of fine degrees of acting from unknowns and subtle scenes of slow revelation.

An excerpt from Daughter of Mine

Brun’s one serious rival so far for the Best Actress prize is Alba Rohrwacher in Daughter of Mine (La Figlia mia), a small film of modest means from Laura Bispuri, who made Sworn Virgin. The film, set in a remote Sardinian fishing village, explores a familial love triangle between ten-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu), a pale red-headed girl rejected by her schoolmates, Tina (Valeria Golino), her strict, religious, raven-haired mother, and wayward, desperate barfly Angelica (Rohrwacher), whose debts are driving her out of her hillside home. The true relationship between these three isn’t hard to guess, and is probably too simple to sustain the level of melodrama Bispuri puts on it, but Rohrwacher’s highly physical fun-loving-girl-gone-wrong performance is extraordinarily fiery and fascinating and is well matched by both Golino in the less exhibitionist foil role and Casu, who seems all self-assurance.

The Prayer excerpt

Would that I could say as much for Cédric Kahn’s The Prayer, which focuses on one 22-year-old boy’s experiences in a strict Swiss religious retreat designed for recovering addicts. Its one virtue is that it takes religious belief at face value, but it’s full of scenes that evince either a bogus kind of purity or a convenient level of coincidence.

Angry junkie loner Thomas (Anthony Bajon) comes through the usual early tests but gets left behind on a mountain in a way that isn’t remotely plausible when you consider that his buddies are supposed to be so caring. He is being kept away from temptation but manages to find a gorgeous girl who will sleep with him at the drop of a hat, despite their shared religious feelings. Fairy tales will come true, it seems, if you can pray the right way.

The Real Estate trailer

The Berlin rumour mill is never to be trusted. I heard early positive buzz on the Swedish film The Real Estate, directed by Axel Petersén and Måns Månsson. Back in 2011, Petersén made Avalon, an underrated gem about ageing party people trying to dodge financial catastrophe. But The Real Estate turns out to be an irritating, sensationalist, deliberately abrasive film about an elderly woman who inherits an apartment building but can’t sell it because her nephew has filled one floor with illegal immigrants. It’s meant to be drily funny but it didn’t succeed with the audience I saw it with. People may talk up the supposed politics of this scenario, but this deliberately arch provocation is just a pretext for a lot of crass, implausible violent posturing to terrible music.

Utøya 22. juli (2018)

Utøya 22. juli (2018)

A more directly topical political film is Norwegian Erik Poppe’s Utøya 22. juli that puts us on the ground with the hundreds of young Norwegian Labour Party activists who’d gone to the island on that day in 2011 when the heavily-armed right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik began his shooting spree.

Straining throughout to be tasteful and respectful, the film focuses on 19-year-old Kaja (a superb Andrea Berntzen) and, after a prologue of news footage showing the decoy bomb going off in Oslo, seems to play out in real time as if it were all one take. There is one scene in which Kaja comforts a young girl who’s been shot where the performances are astonishing.

Still, this film takes me back to the same question I asked of Black 47. The catalogue says that Poppe has ‘dared’ to make a film about this incident and we can be grateful that it is done so decorously, but need it have been made at all?

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