The decision by the Paul Schrader-led jury to award this year’s Berlinale Golden Bear to “Tuya’s Marriage” came as no surprise. Chinese director Wang Quan’an‘s third feature, a socially conscious, colorfully ethnographic paean to peasant defiance, is in many ways tailor-made for festivals. But Wang’s film, despite its predictable crowd-pleasing qualities, is rooted in the present-day economic realities of the region and essentially as tough-minded as its heroine (winningly played by Yu Nan).
Set on the remote, scenic steppes of Inner Mongolia, where employment and even basic survival tend to involve back-breaking labor (and where the ripple effects of China’s vertiginous rush toward industrial capitalism are being felt), the movie concerns Tuya’s poignantly pragmatic search for a new spouse. Her old husband, paralyzed from a well-digging accident, grants her a divorce, and so she sets about finding a replacement who will care for her and her brood, old hubby included.
A lot of the noteworthy work at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival – good and bad – was by female directors or centered on memorable female characters. Another tale of economically imposed self-sacrifice, Belgian director Sam Garbanski‘s London-set “Irina Palm” was one of the worst films I saw in the Competition (only the unanimously panned “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” by the young American director Ryan Eslinger, was more painful to endure), although to judge by the laughter and applause at the press screening, many of my colleagues disagreed.
“Irina Palm” follows in the dubious tradition of “Saving Grace” and “Calendar Girls,” ostensible comedies in which old English dames engage in sniggeringly inappropriate activities that expose the puritanical hypocrisy of society at large. At the very least, it’s a stranger film than its predecessors. A frumpy middle-aged widow (Marianne Faithfull), attempting to fund an essential operation for her sick grandson, applies for the position of “hostess” at a dingy Soho establishment and is soon dispensing handjobs through a glory hole. Once she overcomes her initial qualms, it turns out she’s a natural and proves so popular (under the eponymous pseydonym) that she even develops “penis elbow.”
The film is nothing short of a tonal train wreck, with a beyond-lugubrious mood repeatedly derailed by obvious, juvenile gags (in a running joke that was funnier in “Austin Powers,” the erect members of the clientele are framed out of view or carefully obstructed by objects in the foreground). It doesn’t help that Faithfull, in an abrasively one-note, slow-motion performance, opts to play her character as if partially lobotomized. (Incidentally, Miki Manojlovic, who plays the sex club owner, also shows up in Srdan Golubovic‘s “The Trip,” a slick Serbian thriller that screened in the Forum and likewise pivots on the exorbitant cost of an ailing child’s life-saving medical procedure.)
The noble striving of Tuya and Irina is one familiar brand of default behavior for characters in festival films. The monstrous bad-mommy self-absorption of Rita, the anti-heroine of the German Forum entry “Madonnas,” is another. In Maria Speth‘s pitiless study of the cyclical effects of parental neglect, Sandra Huller (of last year’s Berlinale favorite “Requiem“) plays Rita, a one-woman baby-making factory. Still in her 20s, she already has five kids, ranging in age from infancy to near adolescence, by a variety of fathers.
Rita’s ever expanding brood spells out her life story. Her extreme fertility (and aversion to birth control) is in part an act of aggression against her own mother (Susanne Lothar), who in her youth was hardly the most maternal of figures. Rita appears to repeat the same pattern with each child – a period of attempted responsibility followed by abandonment – and each time the burden is passed on to her increasingly weary mother.
Into her provocative analysis of social class and biology, Speth folds in an interesting racial thread: Rita has a thing for black American servicemen (who have fathered three of her kids) and it’s even noted at one point that Germany is a “paradise for black men.” Speth, who won a prize at Rotterdam for her minimalist first feature “The Days Between,” also has a flair, partly derived from the East Asian ennui school, for detached moods and compositions (she has a curious habit of shooting through glass where possible).
The Forum FIPRESCI prize went to a much safer film, also by a young German director: Ann-Kristin Reyels‘ “Hounds,” a stock, almost Sundance-ish tale of coming-of-age puppy love and family dysfunction in wintry rural Germany, enlivened by some deft and funny ensemble acting. Back in the main competition, another German film, Christian Petzold‘s “Yella,” won star Nina Hoss the Best Actress prize. Predicated on a young divorcee’s personal loss and professional ambition, it’s a well-directed metaphysical mystery that will hold no surprises for anyone who’s seen the apparent source, “Carnival of Souls” (or its bastardized descendant “The Sixth Sense“).
But there was no love from the jury for what seemed to me the clear high point of the Competition: Jacques Rivette‘s “Don’t Touch the Axe.” Rivette has previously made Balzac-themed films: “La Belle Noiseuse” (loosely based on “The Unknown Masterpiece“) and of course the recently rediscovered “Out 1” (very loosely inspired by the “History of the Thirteen” trilogy). Here, with the help of his regular screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer and two highly idiosyncratic stars in Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, he attempts a more literal adaptation.
The source is “The Duchesse de Langeais,” the middle story of the “Thirteen” trilogy (“Don’t Touch the Axe” was its original title), and Rivette claims he was motivated this time by a desire “to be faithful not only to the spirit but also the letter of Balzac’s text.” The star-crossed romance opens with Depardieu’s wounded war hero finding his long-lost love, Balibar’s coquettish socialite, in a Majorcan convent and flashes back to detail their complicated, tragically out-of-sync courtship, played out in the drawing rooms of Restoration Paris. The supremely confident duchess toys with her stolid suitor with obvious pleasure, reeling him in then rebuffing him, until she goes too far in her humiliations and awakens not just a protective coldheartedness but a vengeful streak. Naturally once he shuts down she opens up…
This star-crossed romance is often torrentially talky, but it’s far from boring – rarely has a film paid such enraptured attention to the weight and flow of words. Balibar and Depardieu, both excellent, illuminate the minutely shifting dynamics of their characters’ tortured pas de deux. At first glance, “Don’t Touch the Axe” can simply seem like a well-wrought Old Master period piece – there are moments and gestures that call to mind Olmi, Oliveira, Rohmer – but the dry playfulness, the dazzling intricacy of the verbal and physical choreography, and the sense of love as a potentially deadly game are all quintessentially Rivette’s.
indieWIRE’s coverage from the 2007 Berlinale and the European Film Market is available in a special section.