True to form, the most interesting work at this year's Berlinale could be found outside the spotlight of the official competition. Tucked away in the Panorama section, Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" doesn't exactly qualify as a discovery, having already been anointed one of last year's best films by many French critics. But this precisely fine-tuned interpretation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, featuring bold, tender performances by relative unknowns Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coulloch, is at once the most adventurous and the most conventionally satisfying films I've seen here so far.
Ferran has adapted Lawrence's second version of the story, published as John Thomas and Lady Jane (he wrote three in all, the final one, Lady Chatterley's Lover, being the best known). In 1920s England, a young wife, growing distant from her lieutenant husband who was paralyzed in the war, embarks on an intense affair with the estate's solitary gamekeeper - or, as the title of the French translation puts it, "the man in the woods." A verdant immersion, complete with birdsong soundtrack and lovely Romantic landscapes worthy of Constable or Turner, the nearly three-hour "Lady Chatterley" is as much a return-to-nature parable as "Old Joy" or "Blissfully Yours." As a period portrait of feminine self-discovery, it's as psychologically dense and thoroughly modern as Arnaud Desplechin's "Esther Kahn" (incidentally, Ferran's co-writer here is Roger Bohbot, who worked with Desplechin on "Kings and Queen").
"Lady Chatterley" approaches the conundrums of lit adaptation and on-screen sex with simple, almost radical directness. A very French film in a quintessentially English setting, it promotes a certain disorientation. Ferran also embroiders the mostly straightforward style with the odd anachronistic touch and some playful alienation effects (occasional voiceover, an unexpected to-camera address). The film's great achievement is in mapping the topography of the couple's respective interior lives largely through the all-important sex scenes, which graduate from fully clothed fumbles behind closed doors to more torrid, exploratory alfresco sessions. (Late in the film there's a notably effective insert shot, so to speak, of a semi-erect penis.)
Another French Panorama entry, Julie Delpy's "2 Days in Paris" could hardly be more different: the mode here is anti-French anti-romanticism. Although filled with references to (and steals from) "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," Delpy's self-conscious culture-clash comedy is less Richard Linklater than Woody Allen - premised to a discomfiting degree on the writer-director-editor-star's apparent capacity for psychological exhibitionism.
Delpy's Marion, a more strident version of Celine from the Linklater films, and her American lover Jack (Adam Goldberg) spend 48 strenuously eventful hours in Paris, putting up with her wacky parents and bumping into her obnoxious ex-boyfriends. Set to a near-constant din of petty bickering and sophomoric philosophizing, "2 Days" is less cloying and more amusing than its current American counterpart, Zoe Cassavetes' "Broken English."
But the film is not so much guileless as transparent. Delpy's persona in the "Before" films is shrewdly based on a stereotypical American male fantasy of French femininity, and here she's only too happy to flatter the fan base and presumed target audience. We find out that the local condoms are too small for her American beau, that French men are sex-mad and pitifully endowed, and that the population on the whole is rude and racist. Delpy shamelessly plays to the American (or maybe English-speaking world's) weakness for lame jokes about the French -- which, to judge from the enthusiastic reception here, are clearly even more irresistible when an attractive Frenchwoman is telling them.
In the competition, with about half of the titles screened so far, the higher-profile favorites have also generally been the safest films. Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters" uses the true story of a Nazi forgery operation staffed by concentration camp inmates to probe questions of wartime survivalism, morality, and complicity. It's an aspect of the Holocaust that hasn't often been depicted but the moral wrangling feels schematic and even formulaic.
The opening night crowdpleaser "La Vie en Rose" (La Mome), featuring a gutsy, whole-hog performance by Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, attempts to forestall biopic tedium with a vaguely free-associative achronological structure. Director Olivier Dahan does find some imaginative ways to stage some of the key moments -- Piaf's first big performance, a defining personal tragedy -- but there's little here, besides Cotillard, that makes a lasting impression.
In "I'm a Cyborg But That's OK" Korean director Park Chan-wook abandons the baroque violence of his revenge trilogy with an archly whimsical romantic confection set in a mental institution. The title refers to the heroine's primary delusion (one that appears to be rooted in an eating disorder, since she's convinced that food would gum up her borg circuitry). Park's attempts to expand his range are commendable, but the movie amounts to a failed feature-length extrapolation of Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" video.
Also in competition, Andre Techine's "Witnesses" (Les temoins) is nothing new -- and in evoking the panic and confusion of the early years of AIDS, almost perversely retro -- but the French veteran's democratic humanism is in full, often glorious bloom here. Not only does everyone have their reasons. This being Techine, everyone -- meaning a typically polymorphous, multiracial ensemble including Sami Bouajila and Emmanuelle Beart -- also has unpredictable appetites and impulses that warrant serious, nonjudgmental consideration.
For my money, the best and most intriguing competition entry so far (one that appears to not have found very many fans here) is Saverio Costanzo's "In Memory of Myself." The Italian director of the West Bank domestic thriller "Private" turns his attention to matters of faith -- specifically, to the agonized novitiate period of a young priest-to-be (Christo Jivkov, who played John in "The Passion of the Christ"). The setting is a Venetian monastery that -- with all the silent pacing and questioning glances going on in its dim hallways -- has the vibe of a gay club. The compositions have a frieze-like symmetry; the soundtrack is all hymnal swells and echoing footfalls. Evocative and mysterious, the film is also a triumph of functional design: It leaves the viewer plenty to ponder and at the same time creates a space for contemplation.
indieWIRE's coverage from the 2007 Berlinale and the European Film Market continues in a special section.