Indie filmmaker Josephine Decker pulled off one of the major coups of the Berlin Film Festival—a “Double Decker.” A cute phrase to communicate the fact that she had her two debut films, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” and “Butter On the Latch,” both accepted and premiering at the Berlinale. It’s certainly no small accomplishment and nothing to sneeze at. And while some were taken with Decker’s oblique, dreamy experimentalism that often charted moods of dread with a sensual palate, placing her as a “filmmaker to watch” is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Decker’s definitely got something, but as unformed and inchoate as it is now, it’s largely a bunch of expressive ideas, atmospheres and cinematic forms that never quite coalesce. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” the film we caught first, was aggravatingly precious and arty, but haunting (our review). Giving it time to linger, the frustrating elements evaporated to the back of the mind and what one is left with is its evocative sense of sensuousness and unnerving terror. One might have thought being acclimated to her somewhat erratic work, “Butter On the Latch” (which is technically her debut as it was finished first), would go down more smoothly, but in fact, it’s the lesser picture, connecting even more loosely and is arguably more maddening.
Another drama with fantasy and horror elements, the film centers on two friends, Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), who reunite at a Balkan folk song and dance camp in the woods of Mendocino, California (that feels an awful lot like a Renaissance faire). Decker is good at articulating sinister moods and unstable psyches, but anything resembling a cogent narrative is challenged. Opening with a panicked scene of alarm, Sarah talks a friend through a nightmarish situation; she has awoken after a night of binge drinking naked and among strange men. The transition to the next sequence—Sarah going through the same horrible situation—is jarring and poorly formed. We’re to assume Sarah was talking to herself all along or it’s some horrible meta-dream gone wrong, but so obliquely constructed, it’s easy to be just left baffled by the entire sequence. And how that connects to anything down the road in the film is mystifying. From there, the movie is 50 minutes of improvised conversations and a freewheeling approach that sees Sarah and Isolde’s friendship slowly begin to fray. It culminates in a sensual moment of sex in the woods with a musician that turns eerie and then horrific. But what it all means outside of an unraveling psyche shot in a wantonly elliptical manner will be beyond anyone but the extremely patient viewer. There’s certainly something to be said for the expressive and experimental manner with which Decker communicates uncanny textures and unsettling psychological states, but until the filmmaker can include some kind of adhesive, narrative or otherwise, that can glue her disparate ideas together meaningfully, all that one is left with is evocative images and elusive auras that never truly or satisfyingly add up to much. [C-] – Rodrigo Perez
“The Third Side of the River” Dir. Celina Murga, starring Alian Devetec, Daniel Veronese, Irina Wetzel
One of the harder to define Berlin Competition films, Celina Murga’s Spanish-language “The Third Side of the River” should by rights, considering how willfully opaque are the relationships and personalities it features, be a lot less compelling than it somehow manages to be. And yet, we found it strangely riveting, even if trying to parse it later felt like an exercise in futility—rooting through a massive box of polystyrene filler pellets for a tiny scrap of meaning that may or may not have been packed at all. Dropping us into the middle of an oddly composed family, and giving us no background on a history that they all obviously take for granted, the film, presented by Martin Scorsese, follows Nico (Devetec), the eldest son and brother in a family in which his father Jorge (Veronese) has a child, Lauti, by another woman, with whom he lives, Still, he often spends time with Nico, with his mother (their relationship is still explicitly sexual) and his younger siblings, all of whom call the man “father.” While we confess we got hung up for a while on trying to work out if the youngest child in this household was younger than Nico’s half-brother Lauti (Dylan Agostini Vandenbosch) and therefore whether Jorge had had another child by Nico’s mother after he’d had the second family, it’s probably time wasted as the film simply never shows its hand in that regard. Instead, Murga builds a slow-burn atmosphere in which the banality of Nico’s pretty standard coming-of-age story (getting a part-time job, being asked to help out at his father’s ranch, helping prepare the party for his sister’s grand 15th birthday party, the all-important Argentinean tradition of Quinceañera) is slowly undermined by something darker, something slightly rotten. But, unusually for a director more known for slow films that culminate in an anticlimactic ambiguity, here, there is an unexpected moment of all-out drama towards the end that acts as a kind of cathartic reply to some of the questions we’ve been asking, while preserving the detached mystery of many others. [B]
“El Somni” (documentary) Dir. Franc Aleu, starring Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca
It feels somewhat unfair to be reviewing “El Somni” as a standard documentary as it’s less categorizable than most, and unlikely to see a general release except when targeted at the rarefied crossover point where arthouse cinema meets hardcore gastronome (in Berlin there’s an incredibly popular and exclusive sidebar—Culinary Cinema—dedicated to this arena). A kind of video documentary project, the film suffers because the experience it tries to bring to life was, by its nature, one that the eyes and ears alone could not take in: the Roca Brothers, after their 3-Michelin-starred restaurant El Cellar de Can Roca was named the number one restaurant in the world in 2013, decided to embark on an ambitious project in which twelve diners would experience a one-off menu of extraordinary artistry and creativity that was designed around a series of themes which would be enhanced by everything from a specially-designed table and walls that would show (to our eyes rather ugly) video art, while specially composed, conducted and recorded music played. Everything from the theatrically precise movements of the waiters, to the individually handcrafted cutlery and serving dishes was designed to create an artistic experience that used every sense at all times. Yeah. If it sounds rarefied, it was, and we’re sure it was absolutely incredible to be there (the diners were a selection of Barcelona-based intellectuals and scientists—and Freida Pinto), but the documentary really only works in those moments when it’s being a real documentary. Talking to the chefs about their background (the youngest brother, the pastry chef is particularly unpretentiously charming—he got into being a chef because the hours were better than being a waiter), or observing them dreaming up the idea for their next dish like mad scientists (seriously, the “breathing dessert” thing is the weirdest, and watching them discuss esoteric questions like what the moon would taste like is its own kind of fun), the brothers don’t seem to realize that what we’d really like is a whole film about them, and not about some transient, extravagant art project that so few are ever going to experience fully. One for the dedicated foodie only, unless you’re lucky enough to be heading to El Cellar de Can Roca anytime soon, in which case, can we have your life, please? [C]
“The Midnight After” Dir. Fruit Chan starring Suet Lam, Janice Man, You Nam Wong, Kara Hui
One of several Asian films across the Berlinale lineup to have a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel (other include the Vietnamese “Nuoc” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer”), we’re pretty sure that gonzo Chinese director Fruit Chan’s “The Midnight After” is the only one to take a few minutes out for a full karaoke version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” complete with a brief, crudely animated section delivered by a man who subsequently bursts into flames and burns to death. In actual fact, this marks the point at which the film perks back up immeasurably, having become rather monotonous over its first 40 minutes or so, as a busload of locals suddenly find themselves seemingly alone in a deserted Hong Kong (itself a visual conundrum—Hong Kong is never, ever empty), and struggle to piece together what has happened while one by one they start to die. Though that all makes it sound a lot more linear and comprehensible than it is, and actually the noisy, rather graceless film, which, shorn of about half an hour might make a fine addition to a midnight-madness cult movie season, is really just a bundle of nervous energy, untranslatable puns and dropped threads and subplots that are either delightfully playful and genre-bending, or simply headache inducing, depending on your mood. We waxed and waned on the film, enjoying, for what they were, some of the gorier, more WTF diversions as members of the bus’ motley crew randomly exploded, melted and occasionally freeze-dried and crumbled before the remainder go all “Lord of the Flies” on each other, but then we’d suddenly be wholly put off, like by a completely gratuitous chase, rape and necrophilia sequence that feels as long as it is tasteless. However if you go in prepared for its exploitative excesses and can check your expectations of such conceits as “logic,” “character consistency” and “coherence” at the door, you might be in for a blast. Just don’t expect any of it to make a lick of sense. [C]