The Novelist’s Film Festival It’s good to be back in Potsdamer Platz, cinema’s demilitarised zone, for another Berlinale. And it’s a pleasure for Cinema Year Zero to arrive two weeks … Continue reading BERLINALE 2022
At the beginning of Both Sides of the Blade, Claire Denis gives us something new: an iPhone creation myth. Blissful ocean waves splash with that XS shimmer, and in the distance, two figures dance. Sara and Jean – Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon – in bliss. It’s like a Malick parody, nothing can get better than this. But the digital photography is too revealing. Vincent Lindon, owner of the widest pair of shoulders known to man, looks oddly cramped by the dimensions of the lens. And he will continue to shrink, as Denis’ game of sexual cat-and-mouse transforms him into a cucked Quasimodo figure.
This magnetic film from Claire Denis sometimes plays like a greatest hits piece. Establishing shots of Paris rooftops could be from Vendredi Soir (2002), recurring shots from the inside of a train carriage looking out at the tracks from 35 Shots of Rum (2008). The absent mothers that haunt Denis’ films, (most recently High Life , filmed while she was in mourning), reach a fulcrum here, where every single character tries to recall what it’s like to be nurtured. These oils with which she paints have never dried quite so solemnly. Back from vacation, the apartment that radio DJ Sara and ex-con Jean share becomes a prison when she spots her motorcycle-riding ex-boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin, ageing with a bloat that emphasises his past glories) near her workplace. Clearly, this awakens something from the deep within, and when François approaches Jean with a business proposition, the couple’s orbit discovers a new constellation.
It is dour and difficult – particularly in the long, talky scenes that pad the film’s second half. As Sara/Jean reconfigure their relationship – their lust, their vision of each other – we get the kind of actorly showcase fight scenes that you wouldn’t expect from Denis, the master of ellipsis. Here, though, extended awkwardness becomes a powerful tool, like when Jean whitesplains racism to his mixed race son, pacing back and forth across a living room with admonishments and assertions of the value of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.
Denis tends to get a pass for her crude depictions of race. Within her decoupage, her interest in/fetish for Black bodies tends to have a sensuous effect that burrows into the psychology of her characters: they know not what they colonise! Here, though, it becomes too on the nose. Jean’s tearaway son stands shivering on the far end of a railway platform, an image from a thousand bad kitchen sink dramas. When Jean drives to see his son, only to be turned away by the Grandmother who takes care of him, he yells up to his son’s bedroom window. The boy hides from his father behind the curtains. He can’t send him away face to face, but that sheet of glass becomes a dividing screen that makes the truth easier to see.
We see this in reverse, later, when Sara attends a party for Jean’s new business. She practically has a panic attack ascending the stairs to meet François, but outside, she sees him and François through the window. Now, she can speak to them on the phone, knowing their reaction, and hiding her own visage. Later, the phone becomes another body to be caressed and pulsed in that oh so Denisian way. This fear of being exposed is what pushes Sara to go back and forth between the two men. To Jean she is mother, to François she can be plaything. It’s not just that François takes her back to the past, but he takes her away outside of her own reality. Denis emphasises this in her clever use of disposable masks: when they try to kiss, they forget their faces are covered, because they can’t actually see each other, just memories!
In High Life, Binoche’s scientist gave birth to a similar looking daughter, memorably concocted from Robert Pattinson’s semen. Pattinson’s horror at his inevitable attraction to his daughter led him to drag them both into a wormhole. Sara similarly sees Jean/François as two parts of a whole. But if you cannot have both, then each side is incomplete and harrowing: Jean’s bullish aggression threatens to turn violent, while François energy is as cunning and manipulative as it is sexual. It reminded me of the melodrama urtext, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), where Nicolas Ray’s central trio are locked in a battle of wills that seems almost cosmic – if they get too near they will combust. If the twilight colours of Both Sides of the Blade aren’t as immediately appealing as Ray’s bold combination of technolour and widescreen, their clarity exposes Sara, Jean, and François’s own blindness.
By the time this swirling mess of emotion and plot draws to a close, with Tindersticks crooning the film’s title over the closing credits, one feels reborn. The universe ends in High Life. In Both Sides of the Blade, it begins anew.
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A film that almost wasn’t, Rita Azevedo Gomes’ Kegelstatt Trio began life as an abandoned cinquième aventure in Èric Rohmer’s Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (1987). Opting instead to develop it as a stage play, Rohmer’s offshoot is a familiar reorganisation of shapes he played with his entire career: two ex-lovers have a series of digressive but honest conversations about art, love, and life. Paul (Pierre Léon) lives in a large but sparsely furnished modernist 1960s house in the countryside; Adélia (Rita Durão) visits him often, and the two are drawn closer together even as they discuss Adélia’s dissatisfaction with her current partner.
Gomes shoots the house, already a sharply defined architectural imposition, on lenses with angles that lean towards the wider end, making Paul’s relative solitude even more pronounced. The hardwood floor seems to stretch for miles across his living room, adorned by a few sets of shelves, a table with CDs and a stereo, some plastic garden chairs, a piano. Captured in clean, rigorous static shots lasting several minutes, the Paul of Gomes’ interpretation appears to have cleared out all distraction, filling up the hole left by Adélia’s love with music.
Or perhaps his stripped-down living situation is a symptom of another facet to Gomes’ version of Rohmer’s play: Paul and Adélia are actors, performing the playscript as though it were an original work by a particularly fickle director, played by actual Spanish filmmaker Adolfo Arrieta. He fusses over details, praises the actors as perfect and yet remains perpetually unhappy with the finished product, and gets them to rehearse independently without guidance. “You were both perfect, but it’s not right,” he says at the end of the first scene, frustrating both performers with his inscrutable supervision.
The Rohmer connection becomes an ironic one. For an artist so invested in a digressive and ambling discursive cinema, Gomes has loaded her tribute to said artist with a knowing fussiness in both her formal framework and the character of the director. Where Rohmer preferred a relaxed editing style, and let his camera roam freely when it suited him, Gomes’ film looks rigid and highly controlled. A focussed artistic effort, certainly, but more than that, the film’s formal austerity is a total inversion of the source material’s core values. This is, after all, still Rohmer’s script, albeit delivered in the fashion most dissonant with his philosophy.While these separate pleasures of sweet, tender writing and tight formal control are endearing in the first instance, their disparity becomes more pronounced by the second hour. The conversational circularity of Rohmer’s writing is tiresome, even as Gomes’ framing skills don’t miss once. It renders a potentially radical examination of Rohmer’s insular, overwhelmingly French artistic ethos into something more hermetic. It has the distinct feeling of an exercise, a passing fancy for the global festival circuit that acts as an Avengers-style ‘What If…’ for fans of Rohmer, Gomes, and Arrieta too. As a tribute, it’s more thoughtful than the average supercut or fancam. But it lingers for about as long.
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Documentary essayist Philip Scheffner’s Europe may be a work of fiction (his first in feature length), but only in the sense that it contains a structured narrative built around the lived experience of its lead actress, Rhim Ibrir. Ibrir’s life is closely mirrored in that of the protagonist Zohra Hamadi, a young Algerian woman on the cusp of recovery from severe scoliosis, the same condition which affects Ibrir, in Western France. Ibrir previously contributed to Scheffner’s documentary essay Havarie, about a group of refugees adrift in the Med in an inflatable dinghy. Like Zohra, Rhim is separated from her husband who can’t visit her from Algeria due to lack of papers, and this storyline was featured in Havarie.
Scheffner and screenwriter Merle Kröger effectively build a sense of cautious optimism in the opening scenes of the film on what is shown rather than said. As Zohra’s voiceover in the opening states, “It’s not the kind of film that tells you what to do, because the story says so.” After leaving a doctor’s appointment where she’s told she no longer needs surgery, Zohra takes the bus on her usual route home, where she takes the seat with the little blue and white disabled access sign, until an elderly woman with a walking stick embarks and politely mentions that the seat is only for disabled access, and Zohra pleasantly gives up her seat. She once needed it, and habit may have led her to sit there, but her life has now changed, for the better. It’s this emotionless portrayal of small, quiet victories which eloquently sets up the trajectory of trauma which comes to plague Zohra’s life.
The benevolent state which France and other wealthy post-colonial European nations hold in high self-regard dissolves when it emerges that, since Zohra is now in recovery, she has lost her right to stay in France and is to be sent back to Algeria. The bus scene, ever so polite, identifies a world where Zohra is expected to give up what was always temporary, even if unbeknownst to her. Zohra was always journeying to but never quite arriving in Europe, even as the bus drops her at a stop that is, in the real-life town of Châtellerault, quite literally called Europe.
After Zohra receives this news, Scheffner makes the pointed decision to temporarily erase her, not from the story, but from screen presence. Instead, we see neighbours, friends and state officials talking at a fixed point offscreen where Zohra is imagined to be standing, punctuated with pauses representing Zohra’s responses which are neither seen nor heard.
Scheffner is a self-aware filmmaker, wary of what he describes as a “reflex” by the media to humanise the stories of refugees and immigrants for a well-meaning but politically limited European audience. His decision to vanish Zohra from her own story is a deliberate rejection of news stories and documentaries which forcefully construct adulatory narratives of tragedy and hope, to instead showcase the brutal reality for a woman in Zohra’s position. As a disabled woman from North Africa she is rendered completely voiceless and powerless at the hands of an indifferent system, and the narrative decision to vanish her reiterates this, rather than resorting to heart-tugging cinematic techniques.
This attitude is present in the camerawork too. It’s interesting to note the difference in style from a film like the Dardennes’ Deux jours une nuit (2014), which features a (white) French female protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, who also must fight to preserve her social security after a health crisis. There, the camera is handheld and frequently follows her footsteps, matching her pace and spurring her onwards in her quest with its momentum. In Europe, the camera makes no such benevolent gestures for Zohra. It remains passively neutral, always capturing the scene from one fixed point, allowing the narrative to speak loudly for itself instead of building sentimentality. In the aftermath of receiving the news that her residency in France is terminated, Zohra happens upon an official memorial service for the Algerians who sided with the coloniser in the French-Algerian war. The announcer talks of their sacrifice, and how France will always make known its gratitude, as Zohra stonily watches from amongst the small crowd gathered. The local government officer in charge of her case tells her there’s nothing he can do and goes for a cigarette break with his colleague, who calmly but pointedly questions his decision to hire ‘an Arab’ to care for his ailing father while they chat. Racism and imperialism are glaringly exposed in the cracks of a system that purports to care while failing those who are vulnerable, always reflected in Zohra’s calm but long-suffering gaze.
Europe does away with asking its audience for sympathy and instead creates an experience where a more privileged viewership can understand what powerlessness looks, feels, and sounds like, in the plainest of terms. Rhim Ibrir’s life mirrored Zohra’s to the extent that it directly affected the filming process after her residency permit was rescinded, and the finished product is a mutual pact between Scheffner, Kröger and Ibrir to tell her story honestly and directly.
Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas) is, among the critics I spoke with, the consensus pick for best film at the festival. The public audience with whom I saw the film would probably disagree, as there were at least a dozen walkouts. But fortunately there isn’t an audience prize at Berlinale. Their dispute won’t have been because of extreme gore or sexuality, but perhaps because of its lack. In Dry Ground Burning, emptiness is a virtue.
Consider its premise: fresh from jail, Léa (Léa Alves) joins forces with her half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who sells gasoline from a makeshift oil refinery in Sol Nascente, on the outskirts of Brasília. While their all-female team sling to bike gangs, an armoured police car circulates the favela in search of scalps. Along the way, the ladies run a political campaign in protest of Bolsonaro, and attempt to reclaim their community from authoritarian patriarchy and globalisation. All in a day’s work for these steely, magnanimous women. One can’t read the minds of the audience at Akademie Der Kunste last night, but hearing this Russ Meyer premise, they would be forgiven for expecting Bacurau 2.
The film is a writer/director collaboration between Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, who also acts as cinematographer (she shot his earlier Once There Was Brasilia in 2017). It is quite elegantly constructed. Its genre signifiers are a way to hold the audience down, but Dry Ground Burning has more in common with documentary. So between the gun toting scenes, we travel around the region: party and barbeque, and, in the most apocalyptic scene, a Bolsonaro rally where the volume is turned all the way up.
The characters of Léa and Chitara, too, are fictional extensions of their actors’ lives. When it holds on faces as they tell stories, the film is enrapturing. Léa and Chitara both have a way with words that transports us into their recollections, both painful and funny. Léa’s stories from the pen are mostly wistful recollections of the three girlfriends in her cell. Chitara, the heart of the film, speaks mostly of family or business. But words can be few and far between. Really, Dry Ground Burning relies on sheer visual language to inject the audience with Sol Nascente, and the hunt for economic and spiritual agency.
One scene abruptly begins on a bus, where a party is taking place: women twerk, a rapper MC’s, and Léa soaks it all in. Then, a cut to a prison bus. Léa was dreaming all along. From that, cut to Léa back at home. Queirós/Pimenta took us into layers of memory in the way it really happens. The long close-up shots invite comparison to Pedro Costa, though when the characters here are dromospherically angled in the corner of the room one goes back to Costa’s beloved Straub-Huillet. They are cut from the same cloth.
None of this is subtle. When the action starts, characters fire guns off screen at unseen adversaries, quite like how Feuillade or Lang would stage such scenes. At one point, a stallion trots past a burning billboard with the faces of our heroes. Zack Snyder used the same metaphor for his Wonder Woman – grow up dudes! These shorthands, which Queirós/Pimenta reach to over and over, have a rhapsodic, cumulative effect which is quite powerful. In the final moments, one wonders why the film isn’t ending. A perfect final shot is followed by another perfect final shot. Does that mean each shot is perfect, or that Quieros doesn’t know how to wrap things up? Frustrating as this can be in the moment, the abundance is this film’s life blood.
The tendency towards docu-fiction hybrids in contemporary cinema might be reaching an endpoint. From Costa to Kiarostami, to Robert Greene, to a dozen other names that I won’t bore you by listing, the festival market thrives on this kind of cinema. The reasons are self-evident: these are reflexive films about themselves and their making, which comforts audiences and critics who lack the cultural context to read these films as anything but a movie. They diversify fiction-heavy festival strands, but by leaning into the frame of a traditional narrative film, they don’t alienate audiences. If something like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the pinnacle of this trend, then Dry Ground Burning is at least so outlandish in its winks towards science fiction, gangster movies, and worldstar culture, that it lifts the project into a poetry that almost escapes the new convention of the festival film.
Telling a story about disability and boxing, Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow But Steady takes an unexpected route by being a contemplative film about relating to society and working through a sense of loss.
Keiko Ogawa (Yukino Kishii) is a dedicated boxer who is early in her career. Having completely lost her hearing in both ears, she is most comfortable communicating through sign language. Viewed in this lens the ordinarily solemn Keiko’s ability to throw punches becomes a new mode of personal expression in a world that often fails to consider her. Yet even this outlet is shown to be precarious, as the gym she trains at is shedding members and its ageing chairman (Tomokazu Miura) is increasingly beset by health problems.
Faced with the gym’s imminent closure, and a future without her mentor, Keiko’s determination falters. Despite this Lifetime movie premise, Small, Slow But Steady isn’t a hollow story about a singular overcoming. Rather, through deliberate pacing, and a subtle performance by Kishii, the film is more about accepting the pain of life as it encroaches around you and finding the will to trudge forward regardless.
Miyake quickly establishes a thematic preoccupation with perception. When we are introduced to Keiko in the first shot of the film, we see her through a reflection in the mirror. Later, when she is changing at the gym, we see her again through a reflection, this time a full-length mirror. Such a motif creates a dual effect: first, it distances us from Keiko as a character. There is an awareness that her interior life is not entirely open to us as an audience. Characterisation comes from overhearing snippets from the chairman and her brother (who she also lives with) about Keiko’s past, such as her fights with bullies in school. Other times it is intimated through her subtle reactions to turns in the narrative. Her sameness at a prospective new gym hints at her subdued sorrow at the loss of her old training ground. This is contrasted with one of her trainers Hayashi breaking down in tears while doing mitts with her.
The second effect is an awareness of the scrutiny she is under as a disabled woman in an unaccommodating world. Set during the Covid pandemic, interactions with hearing people can become alienating for Keiko as face masks prevent her from lip-reading. At one point, a pair of police officers spot her hanging around a favourite training spot near a bridge. First assuming that she is a high school student due to her short stature, they then assume her black eye is from some kind of abuse. Yet their unwillingness to communicate on her level means they quickly give up pursuing an explanation and walk away.
Throughout the film it is made clear that boxing as a profession is more dangerous for Keiko since she cannot hear the bell, or orders from the referee. The chairman of the gym also notes that as a short person with limited reach, she is at a disadvantage. Yet it is clear from the grounded training sequences in the film that boxing is an integral part of her life. The film largely forgoes a score, but when Keiko is doing mitts with one of her trainers, the thwacks and Keiko’s breathing harmoniously come together and take on such a rhythm as to become musical.
It is tempting with boxing films to turn the final fight into the supreme point of the story, where the main character must overcome. Through its languid pace, Miyake’s film sidesteps such a simplistic narrative frame and instead dwells more on the quotidian aspects of Keiko’s life. The balance between her mundane day job as a hotel cleaner, her training as her boxer, and her relationships with friends and family take precedent over a showy climax in the ring.
When Keiko meets some friends for lunch, and the group of women communicate in sign language, the expected subtitles do not appear. It’s a quietly striking moment in the film. This decision to withhold places a hearing audience in Keiko’s position, where we are put into a situation where we cannot understand. By denying us access to this facet of Keiko’s life, the film prompts larger questions about a disabled character’s relationship to an able-bodied audience. A rather liberal progressive view of cinema is that films can educate a privileged audience about the plights facing people who are marginalised in society. Yet doing so, can create a false impression of “understanding” in the audience and also exposes marginalised characters to an interpretive scrutiny that can at times be unwelcome.
If the film touches on the politics of living as a disabled person in an ableist world, it springs from a robust foundation of quietly stirring human drama. Miyake’s film is understated, seemingly out of respect for the withdrawn character at its centre.
Hong Sang-soo loves nothing better than putting distinct forms in unknown spaces and seeing what frictions they create. In the case of The Novelist’s Film, the instigator of this friction is a writer, Jun-hee, played by potential new Hong regular Lee Hye-young, who also appeared in In Front of Your Face (2021). Despite being in an artistic crisis herself, having written very little in the years previous, Jun-hee exerts a force on the drama’s other players that, as with Hong’s other films, sends each of them in unexpected directions. She encourages a ritualistic sign-language recitation with an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) and said friend’s bookshop assistant (Park Mi-so); lashes out at a film director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who once promised to adapt her book and never followed through; and uses a chance encounter with famous actress Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee) and her nephew (Ha Seong-guk) as a starting point for the three of them to collaborate on a short film together.
Despite being another notch in Hong’s ongoing project of detail-driven, small-scale works, and featuring many of his favourite shot setups – medium shots in long takes that will only occasionally zoom to isolate one character from others in the scene – this is perhaps Hong’s most hermetically artificial work. The sharp black-and-white look of the film often washes out windows in each scene more noticeably than in any of Hong’s previous films, making interiors look like strange spaceship control rooms – or film sets with bad lighting designers. Meanwhile, the film features a rare POV shot when introducing Kim Min-hee into the narrative, singling her out under the dramatically rendered gaze of the director.
No stranger to metatextuality, Hong nevertheless has tended to find self-reflexivity in knotty structures, such as narratively modular diptych Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), or in the very foundation of his concepts, most notably the thinly-veiled autofiction of his greatest work, On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). In The Novelist’s Film, the artificiality of his filmmaking is creeping, ambiguous. One isn’t even entirely sure that it’s there at first, or whether the blown-out lighting and unexpected shot choices are naturally occurring production restraints and on-the-fly experimental notes in an otherwise straightforward drama for Hong.
But then the short film finally appears, showing Kil-soo (or is it Kim Min-hee herself?) wandering around a woodland with an elderly woman, brandishing a bouquet of flowers, and play-acting a wedding aisle walk. Suddenly, the picture turns to colour. Despite looking so unassuming on Hong’s consumer-grade digital cameras, the overall effect of the film’s harsh monochrome palette elsewhere is to make this sequence akin to seeing colour for the first time. And at the centre of this burst of colour? Kim Min-hee herself, forever Hong’s romantic and artistic muse.
Jun-hee thus becomes more than just a stand-in for the director’s artistic pretences, and even then she is particularly loose in that regard – she is, after all, experiencing writers’ block, something I doubt the prolific Hong is particularly worried about right now. No, her role here is more orbital, a walking manifestation of Hong’s methods: goad people into action, see what new modulations come from it, and you have a film. A post-credits stinger that erases all trace of Jun-hee appears to drive home this point, consciously sending the film straight into the realm of speculation and once-and-for-all blurring the line between Kil-soo and Kim Min-hee. It’s a somewhat circular way of getting there, but this might be his most romantic film, a love letter where he tries to answer the question of what inspires him to create. And in the end, he can only muster this missive: I do it because of her.