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BERLINALE CRITIC’S DIARY: At Halfway Point, Competition Films Disappoint, But Delicate “Soap” and Sh

BERLINALE CRITIC'S DIARY: At Halfway Point, Competition Films Disappoint, But Delicate "Soap" and Sh

For years, I’ve been trying to convince festival-going friends that the main competition at Berlin is at least the equal of its more famous rival at Cannes. As evidence, let me offer some of the films in last year’s Berlin competition: “Paradise Now,” “Sophie Scholl,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “The Last Mitterand,” “Fateless,” “Peacock,” “The Wayward Cloud,” all excellent foreign films that had a U.S. release. But how can the north of Germany in February ever stack up against May on the Riviera?

At the halfway point of this year’s Berlinale, however, I must indeed confess that the competition has been somewhat thin. “Slumming,” an Austrian-Swiss co-production directed by Michael Glawogger, features a well-to-do Leopold and Loeb-style duo who “slum” by playing mean tricks on members of the less-advantaged classes. One night they kidnap a drunk they find asleep in front of the Vienna train station and drop him off in front of a train station in another country. The film is directed with intelligent whimsy and a great deal of style, but it contains enough dramatic material for at least three full-length films. It’s one of those films that’s finally too interesting for its own good.

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE’s special Berlin International Film Festival section.

A Soap,” on the other hand, is an excellent though very, very small film by first-time Danish woman director Pernille Fischer Christensen. Its plot revolves around the curious relationship of a woman in her thirties who’s confused about love and the man awaiting a sex change operation who lives on the floor below. It’s a delicate study of the way gender considerations influence our emotional lives and it’s deliciously acted. Though the transexual character is already starting to seem overexposed in contemporary filmmaking, this one is a keeper.

Two films in the competition section but non-competing (yes, you read that right) were out and out disappointments. Michel Gondry‘s “The Science of Sleep,” which premiered at Sundance, is imaginative as all get out, and will have its fierce partisans, but if your favorite fiction film is DeSica‘s “Bicycle Thief” and you really actually prefer documentaries, avoid it at all costs. Chen Kaige‘s “The Promise“, which has just been picked up for U.S. distribution by Warner Independent Pictures, has, despite being the most expensive film in Chinese history, some very cheesy CGI. I left after 45 minutes, beaten into a pulp by the non-stop battle scenes. Perhaps the second half of the film contains a masterpiece? In any case, Chen has come a long way, in the wrong direction, from the magnificent “Farewell My Concubine.”

But by far the biggest disappointment was Oskar Roehler‘s German adaptation of the seriously disturbing but sublime novel “The Elementary Particles,” by French writer Michel Houellebecq. What made the novel so original was its strange but potent and ultimately moving mixture of scientific experiment, case study, Nietzschean philosophy, and science-fiction. Virtually nothing of that heady brew has been retained in the film. Generally, of course, it is unfair to compare films to novels because they are obviously entirely different media, generating their own kinds of truth in utterly different ways. However, Houellebecq’s principal characters, two forty-something half-brothers named Bruno and Michel, a teacher/writer and scientist, respectively, are empty, amoral pathetic human beings and thus can’t be easily imagined as flesh-and-blood characters with whom one needs to identify with emotionally on the screen. Nevertheless, in the context of the novel’s intellectual and some might say even weirdly spiritual, vision of the future of the human race, they remain utterly fascinating. Take away the intellectual wrapping and justification, as the film does, and what you have left is a never very involving melodrama (an element completely foreign to the novel) that is oftentimes merely silly.

A scene from Pernille Fischer Christensen’s “A Soap” (“En Soap”), which is screening in competition at the Berlinale. Photo courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Pretty much everyone was disappointed by “The Elementary Particles,” but most Europeans, unlike their American counterparts, were wild about Robert Altman‘s homage to Garrison Keillor‘s radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Altman’s film seamlessly blends real variety acts with cornball fictional ones such as The Johnson Girls (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and the singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Though old pros Streep and Tomlin look like they’ve been singing together for years, the high point of the film is the Bad Joke song, in which Harrelson and Reilly strive to outdo each other in grossness. Americans, though, will miss in the film what most take to be the radio show’s ‘raison d’etre’, Keillor’s own homespun, archly ironic stories from Lake Woebegone. In any case, Altman’s reach here is compromised by the relatively thin script, penned by Keillor himself, which loses some steam in the middle. One Danish critic friend proclaimed joyfully to me that it was Altman’s best film since “Short Cuts“, but I don’t think it is even close, and I don’t think it will do very well when it comes out in the States in June.

Grabavica” is a heartfelt film from Bosnia, about a single mother trying to raise a troublesome daughter who thinks her father died as a hero fighting the Serbs in the Bosnian war. It’s made by a first-time woman director Jasmila Zbanic, and you want badly to like it, but it’s pretty thin gruel dramatically and it doesn’t stand much chance of getting U.S. distribution. “El Custodio” (The Bodyguard) is a Spanish film about the bodyguard of a high official in the Spanish government in which almost literally nothing happens until the very end, which even ultra-tired critics could see coming a mile away. Still, I liked it for the imaginative way it carved up space, always focusing on the daily actions and reactions of the bodyguard while the “important” affairs of state occurred out of focus in the background.

The prize for the most disturbing film so far clearly goes to the nearly three hour German film called “Der Freie Will” (The Free Will), a mesmerizing, brilliantly underplayed study of a rapist and an abused woman who try to escape their pasts. It begins with an extremely brutal rape scene which recalls Gaspar Noe‘s “Irreversible” of a few years back, but this deeply tragic story is more poetically and even delicately told. Not for the faint of heart, or those lacking patience.

Outside the competition arena, I saw a couple of good films and a so-so one. The so-so one was “You and Me,” one of those heartwarming, inter-generational dramas the Chinese do so well, but alas not one of the more accomplished examples of the genre. Structured by a predictable seasonal progression — replete with the mandatory inter-titles trotted out at regular intervals — the film focuses on Xiao Ma (Gong Zhe), an impoverished young female student and the crotchety, miserly grandmother (Jin Yaqin) she wants to rent a room from. The actresses are spirited and play well off each other, but even the greatest talent couldn’t keep viewers riveted by the constant, unvarying psychological warfare of this twosome imprisoned in such a tiny, never-changing location.

Better was Amos Gitai‘s fascinating documentary called “News from Home/News from House.” Israelis and others who follow Middle East politics closely won’t find much that is new, either conceptually or historically speaking, in this, his third installment of a documentary trilogy about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but festival audiences around the world will appreciate the powerful feelings and personal voices he brings to a weary subject. “Heaven’s Doors” was made by a twenty-something team of Moroccan brothers who demonstrate an abundance of talent in this powerful if flawed first film. Made on the proverbial shoestring budget, with Mom and Dad involved in production, and Dad (Hakim Noury) playing one of the key roles, it overflows with an ambition that is both its greatest virtue and vice. But this effort from a part of the world seldom seen on screen remains a wonderful calling card for the brothers, whom we’ll hear lots more from in the future.

[Peter Brunette was chief critic for indieWIRE and now reviews films at the major festivals for the British trade paper Screen International. He is also the author or editor of 8 books on film and Reynolds Professor of Film Studies at Wake Forest University.)

Get the latest news, buzz and iPOP photos from the Berlinale in indieWIRE’s special Berlin International Film Festival section.

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