By Edo Choi
About halfway through the 72nd International Berlin Film Festival, a murmuring consensus began coalescing that this year’s selection was a disappointment in comparison to last year’s virtual edition, whose competition lineup had benefited richly from the opening of the 2020 lockdown floodgates. It was a fair assessment, if a little churlish to those of us who just felt lucky to be walking the Potsdamer Platz every morning after the past two years. To be sure, there was no film in this year’s competition to match the incendiary, semiotic brio of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn or the billowing beauty of Alexander Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Nor were there any films as supple or inventive as Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman or Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
The clear standout, Claire Denis’s unsparing Both Sides of the Blade (U.S. title: Fire), was the only accomplishment on equal footing with 2021’s highlights. Presenting a classic love triangle between Sara (Juliette Binoche), her husband Jean (Vincent Lindon), and the predatory romantic interloper François (Grégoire Colin), the film advances aspects of Denis’s first collaboration with Binoche, 2017’s Let the Sunshine In. That buoyantly cadenced film, concocted with the novelist Christine Angot, marked a departure for the typically laconic artist with its structural emphasis on scenes of dialogue, and here again Denis, working with Angot, foregrounds speech. Angot is an expert at crafting claustrophobically circular arguments that stretch interminably, and where the speakers exhaust each other with sense in a desperate attempt to hide the bottomless void behind their words. As in Let the Sunshine In, Binoche plays a mature woman who surrenders to her own desires with almost adolescent abandon and self-astonishment, but where the former film comprised a series of comic vignettes threaded through the protagonist’s romantically unmoored sense of passing time, Both Sides of the Blade constitutes Denis’s first foray into conventional melodrama with its linear descent toward a fated finale and lurching surges of irrational impulse, deluded passion, and finally abject humiliation. Collaborating, for the first time, with the great French DP Éric Gautier (Irma Vep, Pola X), Denis returns to the queasy, lowdown handheld camera that characterized her work before she went digital. Gautier casts every major confrontation in an enveloping crepuscular gloom, and drains even the daytime scenes of color, marking this as the most thinned out and wintry of Denis’s films. Together, they compose sequences of terrifying intimacy and create vertiginous shifts in balance around Angot’s words, which the actors negotiate with ferocious commitment.
Still, alongside Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini and Hong Sang-soo’s latest inspired variation The Novelist Film, Denis’s film felt like an energetic exception in an otherwise replacement-level lineup, appropriately bookended by François Ozon’s opener Peter Von Kant, a heaping dose of latter-day qualité française, and Carla Simón’s Golden Bear–winner Alcarràs, a pleasantly vague derivative of the class-conscious, intergenerational family drama innovated by La Ciénaga. If one ventured beyond the Berlinale Palast, however, the competition’s slack was tautly taken up at the CinemaxX, where most of the films in an excellent Encounters program bowed, or at Kino Arsenal and the neo-deco Delphi Filmpalast in Charlottenburg, where Forum and Forum Expanded unveiled a series of engaging selections. The venerable Forum section, not organized by the Berlinale itself, but by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, continues to uphold the maverick spirit of a festival within the festival, highlighting work that probes the farthest potentialities of cinema in full command of its own devoted audience. Even in this year’s capacity-reduced iteration, one sensed the anticipation of what felt like largely local crowds returning to the program, perhaps for the first time since 2020, at each sold-out Forum screening.
At the risk of smoothing over the distinctive qualities of the Forum films I saw this year, I found much of the program sortable between two broad categories of work. On the one hand, there were a set of films, including Alain Gomis’s Rewind & Play, Raul Domingues’s Terra que marca, Tyler Taormina’s Happer’s Comet, Lina Rodriguez’s Mis dos voces, James Benning’s The United States of America, and Ananta Thitanat’s Scala, that started from a single, discreet subject and applied a strict formal approach tailored to it. On the other, there were films like Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, Jorge Jácome’s Super Natural, Miryam Charles’s Cette Maison, Jonathan Perel’s Camouflage, and Philip Scheffner’s Europe that departed from more elaborate conceptual frameworks, demanding a wider range of formal techniques and interventions. I was particularly fond of Gomis’s chopped and screwed archival portrait of Thelonious Monk being subjected to the factory process of white French television, and Domingues’s meditative, miniDV pastoral, which spins hypnotic reveries from its close observation of farm labor and the subtle vibrations of light and color that ignite an ancient plot of land. I also admired the always purposeful and surprising maneuvers of Scheffner and Perel’s films, both of which put forth creatively oblique approaches for dealing with contested and unrepresentable subject matter. At the same time, I caught a whiff of the rote and the predictable in Scala, an underachieved portrait of the dismantling of a venerable Bangkok cinema that trades on the sentiments of this existential moment for movie theaters, but fails to give them precise shape. And I was disappointed by Afterwater, Komljen’s hotly anticipated follow-up to his 2016 All the Cities of the North, a sporadically mesmerizing transition toward pure fluidity that employs a triptych of successive formats in HD, 16mm, and Hi8 video with intriguing implications, but which is so rhythmically dilated it dissipates.
Forum’s undeniable knockout, Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s defiantly uncategorizable Dry Ground Burning, practically blew the doors off the Delphi at its world premiere. Its overpowering opening minutes, set entirely by night, leave the hallucinatory impression of a truth stranger than fiction. Set in the favela of Sol Nascente in Brasilia, the folkloric tale, part dystopian science-fiction, part western, of an all-female gang of oil pirates who siphon the black gold straight from the pipes running underneath their heavily policed community serves as a stadium-sized platform for Pimenta, Queirós, and their character/subjects to stage a primal scream against the carceral kleptocracy of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The character/subjects in question are Joana Darc Furtado (Chitara, the gang’s leader, in the film’s narrative), Léa Alves da Silva (her sister in same), and Andreia Vieira, each of whom carries a haunting sense of personal history in their unblushing aspect, physicality and testimony that no professional actor could conjure. Pimenta and Queirós keep us off balance with a nonlinear plot structure that plays off their almost ghostly presences, deliberately confounding the question of which version of Chitara, Léa, or Andreia, past or present, is in front of us at any given moment. Shot with muscular reserve by Pimenta, the film above all grants its character/subjects space, space to live, space to dance, space to pray and to sing, and finally space to construct their own fictions in a radical act of authorial abnegation.
Encounters, for its part, has the aura of being Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian’s favored child. A roomily conceived program, the stated intent of which is “to support new perspectives in cinema and to give more room to diverse narrative and documentary forms,” in practice this three-year-old sidebar competition seems to provide a space for Chatrian and Head of Programming Mark Peranson to showcase the movies that excite them most without subjecting them to the bright lights and expectations of red-carpet premieres at the Palast. Much of what Encounters now foregrounds would once have found its place in Forum, whose storied programs included premieres of figures like Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky in the seventies, and popular films from the Hong Kong and Hindi film industries in the nineties, but, over the past twenty years, as Forum has leaned further in an experimental direction pushing the boundaries of the medium itself, a space has opened up for films that tap the wealth of aesthetic possibilities within those bounds, works that don’t expand the limits of cinematic form, but contrive newly vital and idiosyncratic formal expressions to better answer the anxieties of their moment.
This year’s emblematic Encounters title might have been Bertrand Bonello’s Coma, a work of chameleonic hybridity and radically personal empathy that attempts to enter the imaginative life of a teenage girl confined to her room during lockdown through a slippery bricolage of representational modes and formats, from the direct address of the essay film to the suspense mechanics of the thriller to the ironic simulations of parody, and finally the logic of dreams. With little recourse to escape her confines save her child’s doll house, conspiratorial Zoom calls with her circle of friends, the YouTube streams of an occult influencer named Patricia Coma, and a mnemonic puzzle device called a “revelator,” the unnamed Young Girl, played by Louise Labeque (Zombi Child), at first suggests captive fairytale maidens like Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, but as she discovers the animating, projective power of her imagination, she becomes closer to the witches of the same tales, capable of manipulating the reflections of a world beyond physical reach. Originating as a cinematic letter composed to his real-life daughter on the occasion of her 18th birthday, Bonello’s film never fully gels, but each reflexive gesture is animated by a palpable sense of awe alternating with dry-mouthed horror at the state of a world on the verge of cataclysm and yet reduced to pure virtuality. Only once do we see Labeque leave the room that constitutes the film’s only ontologically certain diegetic space, and yet the moment she enters the street that signals the outside world, Bonello has already returned us to the realm of the image by showing her under the surveillance of unknown agents in a chilling panoptic reveal.
Expectedly, Coma was far from the only film in Encounters where the presence of the pandemic could be felt. In a very different sense, Argentine filmmaker Gastón Solnicki’s A Little Love Package, a cryptically multilayered tribute to Vienna, also reflects a world drained and emptied of life. Shot during lockdown but set prior to the pandemic in the immediate aftermath of the city’s era-ending ban on smoking in cafés, bars, and restaurants, the film finds Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia (Dogtooth, Alps) playing a version of herself as a wealthy woman who haunts the streets, basements, and waterways of a hushed, depopulated Vienna, ostensibly in search of a new apartment. Accompanied by the British-Irish actress Carmen Chaplin, here Angeliki’s increasingly exasperated interior designer and confidante, Angeliki spends most of the film morosely distracted, gripped by an unplaceable sense of melancholy that may have something to do with the rootlessness of her privileged expat existence, but also reflects a mourning for lost, old worlds in the face of a contemporary, ahistorical urbanism.
Like Tilda Swinton in Memoria, Angeliki espouses a predicament more than a character, and as does Apichatpong Weerasethakul in that film, Solnicki presents a situation rather than a story. Around this, he builds a dense, nonlinear accretion of locally specific but fragmentary Viennese impressions, textures, atmospheres, and rituals, such that the film becomes something like a cinematic cabinet of curiosities, as well as a palace of memory. Nearly every image in the film, whether space, body, detail, or action, constitutes both a living ephemeral event and a documentary vestige of an already vanished time. There is, for instance, the splendidly dilapidated Café Weidinger, whose real-life owner Nikolaus, the scion of four generations of this 90-year-old establishment’s proprietors, is presented making a presumably perfect soft-boiled egg, its shroud of moisture evaporating in the afternoon air. Later, Nikolaus takes Carmen to the famed mineralogy halls within the Natural History Museum of Vienna, where antique display cases house row upon row of iridescent prehistoric crystal formations. He tells Carmen of the earliest recorded nuclear fission in Gabon two billion years ago. Solnicki then cuts to a lake of salt flats, presumably in Andalusia near where Carmen will soon travel to visit her family, expanding the film’s time scale to encompass the historic within the geologic. With such fractal leaps, Solnicki’s compact, 80-minute pandemic production manages to sound the depths of several genealogies of migratory longing, while offering one of the most pleasurably rarefied experiences in recent cinema.
The discovery of Encounters, for me, was Swiss filmmaker Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest (pictured above). Drawing on a passage from the memoirs of the anarcho-communist political philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin, as well as Schäublin’s own family watchmaking lineage, the film immerses the viewer in an intricately imagined reconstruction of the northwestern Swiss town of Saint-Imier circa 1872, the year Kropotkin paid his visit and experienced an ideological conversion to anarchism. Less an attempt to dramatize this event than to contemplate the fertile social, intellectual, and technological soil that cultivated it, Schäublin’s film revels in the minutiae of a period context that’s simultaneously local and world historic. Each space is rendered with an attention to detail, both visual and sonic, that’s next to loving, from the town’s thrumming watch factory to its smaller, cooperative workshop run out of a watermill, to its local pub, telegraph office, train station, and teeming streets and byways. The script likewise brims with rich contextual detail. The town has four separate, sometimes competitive time zones (factory, municipal, telegraph and railway). A global economic crisis is brewing, prompting the factory to arrange a new marketing campaign to boost sales. The anarchist cooperative is organizing a collection drive to support ongoing strikes abroad in Baltimore and beyond, while the local bourgeoisie are organizing a ceremony in honor of the Battle of Morat to stoke national pride and soften murmurs of disquiet about unequal taxation.
We come upon this complex world, much as Kropotkin himself does, as strangers just getting our bearings. Schäublin formally reinforces this outsider perspective via a deliberately disorienting, skewed style of composition. Shooting nearly every scene at extreme distance with the use of space-flattening telephoto lenses, Schäublin tends to obfuscate the true distances between structures and bodies, often exaggerating the effect a comical notch further by choosing a particularly oblique angle from which to film. His frames reduce building gables to grids of piled geometric surfaces and cut figures off by the trunks or at the knees. Redolent in its perverse playfulness to Ozu’s porous rendering of the suburban Tokyo neighborhood in Good Morning (1959), the immediate effect of this visual strategy is to prompt us to reflect on the mysteriously relational nature of this young industrial community, where capitalists and anarchists coexist and commingle, certainly not peacefully, but cordially, as countervailing forces in a larger social historical process, perhaps akin to the clockwork of a watch itself. Schäublin never allows this too-ready analogy to encapsulate what we see literally or specifically. Even when, in a key late scene, the mechanical operation of the balance wheel—the titular “unrest” at the heart of a watch—is described in detail, its precise metaphorical relation to events themselves remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the unrest may represent the standardization of time under capitalism, but on the other, it holds within it the promise of alternative standards, different beats. Likewise, this always lively film envisions the past as a plane of immanence, where the path toward revolution remains discreetly open.