Ah, the sour taste of disappointment. Watching Erick Zonca's Berlinale competition entry "Julia" -- his first feature since his superb 1998 debut, "The Dream Life of Angels" -- the question became less, 'Where has he been?,' than 'What the hell HAPPENED to him?' Playing a tottery lush in a succession of cheap frocks, Tilda Swinton seemed to be channeling Kiki & Herb (was Justin Bond not available?), and while she struggled gamely with the material -- a loose updating of Cassavetes' "Gloria" -- she was unable to do very much with her badly underwritten, horribly cliched role. Sadly, this one seemed wrong from the very first scene, and what was disconcerting soon became ludicrous -- and then, finally, unendurable.
Walking out, well before the end, I ran into a venerable French critic, who hailed the film as a masterpiece. I demurred; he demanded to know why. I replied that, to me, every note it struck was wrong -- in terms of tone, it was like listening to an elementary-school band attempt to play Schoenberg. The dialogues, in particular (I added), rang false -- and immediately Monsieur frowned: "Ah, but people say this all the time: that Zonca, Francois Ozon, do not have an ear for English!" Well, perhaps because it happens to be true, I replied; watch a film like "Angel," or "Swimming Pool," and you're struck by how slightly but crucially off-key its candences, its rhythms of speech, seem.
"No, they're not," he declared flatly.
Bien sur. Only a bourgeois Parisian could argue that French speakers have a better idea of idiomatic English than native Anglophones.
Similarly wayward was Brad Anderson's "Transsiberian," which has been mentioned out of Sundance, but whose most notable achievement might be, for at least two of its three acts, managing to overcome the whiff of Euro-pudding that wafts around its tale of American innocents (Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) abroad. They're menaced, first by a Spanish backpacker (Eduardo Noriega), and then by a suspiciously affable Russian police chief (Ben Kingsley), and a queasy sort of menace is evoked. Mortimer's character reveals some interesting complexities, and she's typically excellent in the role, though you never quite accept her and Harrelson as a couple. But the film's final section goes badly off the rails, as the pace quickens, shock piles upon shock, and the bodies begin to pile up. A pity.
The Chinese mainland competition entry, Wang Xiaoshuai's "In Love We Trust," offered a puzzling conundrum: a film about a dying child that's totally lacking in emotional power. Seven-year-old HeHe is diagnosed with leukemia; her prognosis is not hopeful. But then the viewer learns that Xiao Lu is actually her stepfather, and that her best hope of survival lies in a bone-marrow transplant from a sibling. HeHe, though, is an only child, which prompts her mother to call upon her estranged ex-husband and urge him to sleep with her "one more once," as Count Basie was wont to say. The Chinese title "Zuo You," translates as "Left, Right"; a better English title might have been "An Heir and a Spare".
Handsomely shot, in a wintry palette, the narrative trundled dutifully from point to point, without once offering so much as a hint of surprise. In the end, its tone was that little bit too refined for its material: it's tough to make a compelling drama out of a film where all concerned are busy doing the best possible thing.
Hospitals, somehow, seemed to be the order of the day: the eponymous protagonist of "Leo," in the Forum, wound up in one: badly beaten by the same two thugs who shot and killed his girlfriend. (I'm no Robert McKee, heaven knows, but I suspect this might be called an Originating Incident.) The result was a revenge drama whose boneheaded machismo elicited little more than a weary shrug ... though writer-director Josef Fares' decision to play one of the supporting roles, didn't seem to deter him from placing himself prominently in most shots. (Not to mention the still in the catalogue: yes, there was Fares, front and centre; of the film's nominal leading man, Leonard Terfelt, there was not a trace). Not since Zack Braff in "Garden State" has a filmmaker crafted so loving a valentine to himself.
And then there was "Black Ice," the Finnish competition entry, and a major box-office hit in its home territory (which means, as one friend put it, rather unkindly, that BOTH Kaurismaki brothers watched it.) Here, cuckolded wife Saara takes on a false identity in order to insinuate herself into the life of her husband's young lover, Tuuli. She's a gynocologist, and her suspicion, toward the end, that Tuuli might be pregnant, led to the film's finest moment -- and, in fact, the defining sequence of the festival thus far. The by-now-obsessed wife takes the younger woman out clubbing, drugs her drink, drives her home, and then, once the girl has passed out, pulls down her pants and proceeds to administer an old-fashioned vaginal examination.
But then, unexpectedly, Tuuli wakes up, and looks blearily down at her new friend, obliging Saara to discreetly pull off the lube-smeared glove, give a wan smile, and proceed to make out with her, while simultaneously using her fingers to check if the girl's cervix is, indeed, dilated. ("Smooth!" breathed the critic beside me.) In the words of Dr Evil, that, er, got weird.
A similar perversity characterized the finds of the Berlinale so far: the three-film mini-retrospective, in the Forum, dedicated to the "pink eigu" films of Wakamatsu Koji. Made in the 1960s and 1970s, they stand as fascinating artifacts of that era, perfectly encapsulating many of its aesthetics and concerns. Not exactly titillating examples of pornography -- nowhere in the collected works of Jenna Jameson or Brianna Banks, as I recall, do they lie there repeating "Kill me" as they're being fucked (although Chasey Lain's eyes often hinted at the unnamable). They use the conventions of Japanese softcore only as a means to explore their deeper preoccupations, with transgressive sexuality (particularly the Japanese fascination with rape), the nation's shame and self-loathing after their WWII defeat, and the will to death among the taiyozoku ("Sun Tribe") generation.
Thus, "Secrets Behind the Wall" (1965) offered up a Godardian collage of photographs and sound clips in between its tale of adultery and voyeurism. "Ecstasy of the Angels" (1972) was a major work by any standard, comparable to the provocations of "Oshima" or "Masumura"; and watching 1969's "Go, Go, Second Time Virgin" -- essentially, a young girl's poetic soliloquy as she's repeatedly gang-banged on a Tokyo rooftop --- it occurred to me that Sasha Grey should think seriously about an American hardcore remake. It's the project she's been looking for.
[Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and now lives and writes in Berlin.]
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW's special Berlin section.