Edo Choi on the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival
At film festivals, I’ve lately found myself speculating alongside peers about the mysterious calculus behind the makeup of this or that selection; the structural factors governing the strength of one section relative to another; the deal-making or -breaking effect of a rare, genuinely good film’s positioning amid the congested field of films jockeying for media and sales attention; and what all of this might augur with respect to the promise of the remaining festival season, the always cloudy future of “the industry,” and the current state of “cinema,” which may, after all, be dying… or already be dead? At the 73rd Berlinale, the shop talk among this crowd was preoccupied for the festival’s first couple days with the question of why Claire Simon’s Our Body, a major work, had played in the Forum as opposed to the Competition, especially with most else that had premiered thus far in the main section falling rather flat. Why for the second year in a row were the movies, as a whole, underwhelming? Was it the lingering stupor of a film business still recovering from the pandemic? And why, in this impoverished moment, had the different programming teams not made a coordinated effort to bestow upon a film as undeniable as the Simon a more prestigious, or at any rate higher profile, slot?
Variations upon these questions, and the dubious assumptions underwriting them, circulated among us like COVID at a super spreader event. But, finally, what did it matter? After the lights dimmed at the Delphi Filmpalast, Simon’s film, one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years, silenced the murmur of such externalities the moment it started, maintaining its quietly firm grip on one’s attention through every startling moment of its nearly three-hour running time. This was the kind of sharp, straight-arrow work—a pure signal piercing the noise—that might justify a whole program’s worth of routine, predictable, market-ready product. It was exactly the film we came to see and once upon a time might have not unreasonably expected to see regularly at a film festival like this.
A synecdochic journey through the life stages of the female body, unfolding one individual case at a time in purely observational sequences captured at a gynecology ward in a Paris hospital, Our Body opens with an underage girl’s hesitant attempt to seek an abortion for an unplanned pregnancy and ends with an elder woman’s lucid assent to enter palliative care. Along the way, Simon presents one sustained medical encounter after another, most often in the form of engrossing dialogues between patient and healthcare worker. These sequences run the gamut from birth control to gender-affirming hormone therapy, from endometriosis to breast cancer prognosis and surgery, and include a pair of birth scenes, the most memorable of which, over a single take, restores a sense of miraculous human intimacy to an event that has often been fodder for the harrowing or shocking in cinema. One of the film’s primary pleasures is hearing the sometimes harmonious, other times dissonant duet of vocal timbres and cadences, and observing the dynamic exchange of hand, head, and eye movements that play out between each new patient-physician pair. Shot when mandatory masking was still in effect, the film rarely shows its participants’ faces. The doctors, still usually men, tend to push their treatment plans and care regimens with clearly enunciated speech and precise, visual gestures, while the patients—cis-women, transgender men, or gender non-conforming individuals—respond with softly insistent tones and closed-in, guarded motions.
In an early sequence, a woman waits patiently as a pedantic specialist, who’s given to drawing comically redundant diagrams of his patients’ anatomy to underline his diagnoses, holds forth regarding his recommendation of a medication that might resolve her endometriosis pain at the cost of a loss of libido. The nearly five-minute scene comes to a devastating point when she is at last able to interject: “…I know myself well enough at 30 to observe how things develop and I told my doctor, ‘Sorry, I’m saying this in all conscience, but I prefer pain to a lack of desire.’” Another sort of film might elaborate upon this scene to develop an institutional critique of the French healthcare system’s prejudices and cowboy culture, and some might view Simon’s eschewal of this as a tacit acceptance of that system’s terms, but her film’s unclouded focus on the common, often difficult, sometimes marvelous fact of the female body itself, and the varying experiences of individuals of whatever gender who must live with this body, is one of its great strengths. If some of the doctors adopt a managerial stance, while others assume a supportive one, Simon always positions herself in complicity with the patients—literally so in the scene where she depicts the moment of her own cancer diagnosis—who must navigate the advice they are given by these professionals and ultimately choose what they feel is best for themselves. In the film’s climactic scene, Simon brings us face to face with one such patient’s final choice to let go of life, only to return us, and herself as the film’s author, a moment later to the verdant world beyond the hospital’s cloistered confines. The simplicity of this transition, carried off in just three succinctly eloquent shots, is remarkable, suggesting the cycle of all life where the prospect of death gives way to the promise of rebirth.
The Berlinale program could scarcely hope to match such a triumph, but as each section unfurled over the succeeding days the festival proved stronger and more vital overall than last year’s already underrated edition. For their part, Forum and Forum Expanded respectively gave two of my favorite features of the young year, Luke Fowler’s Being in a Place – A Portrait of Margaret Tait and Deborah Stratman’s Last Things their international premieres. A supremely confident return to the experimental documentary form she herself pioneered, as well as to the feature-length format of previously admired works like O’er the Land and The Illinois Parables, Stratman’s film cuts a contradictorily speculative path backwards into the future, simultaneously investigating organic life’s geological origins and imagining its coming extinction from the perspective of said origins. As always with Stratman, it’s a matter of merging the fictive and the factual in the hopes of generating a cinematic space that is simultaneously real and imagined, familiar and other, historic and mythic, and, in particular here, terrestrial and interstellar. In material terms, this translates into exquisitely trippy sequences of crystalline forms and flows, a quilted collage of recited texts from Clarice Lispector to J.-H. Rosny, and a globe-spanning network of spaces that includes geology labs, museums, and stalactite caves. Informationally dense though this may sound, Last Things addresses itself less to the mind than it does to the sensate body, culminating in a rousing crescendo that may well levitate.
The evident result of months, if not years, of methodical research and devotional labor, Being in a Place, like Stratman’s film, risks being confused for a headier experience than it proves to be. It also shares with Last Things a commitment to expressing itself through the physicality of its medium, increasingly rare in international experimental cinema where photochemical film is now more often invoked less for its inherent and distinctive poetic qualities than its affective and semiotic implications. An exemplary case in Forum this year, Viera Čákanyová’s anarchist diary Notes from Eremocene seems to have been shot on super 8 and 16mm for no other reason than to evoke the analog in the embalming past tense. In contrast, Fowler uses 16mm not to suggest a former era when images “looked like that” but to underline the distance between our time and that of his subject. Animated by an intimate familiarity with, as well as a touching sense of indebtedness to, the work and life of his late, fellow Scottish film poet Margaret Tait, Fowler mixes his own fragmentary footage of Tait’s native Orkney archipelago in its present, modernized state with a dense patchwork of rephotographed letters and notebooks, one repeatedly invoked audio interview, and home movies from Tait’s archives, as well as a spare amount of her unused rushes. Unlike most conventional biographies, this materialist bricolage works not to bring Tait closer but rather to accentuate the absolute distance from which she often literally speaks to us in a voice thin and haunting, rich and specific. Accompanying this voice and running throughout the film is a sound, the drone of the pibroch, a traditional form of Highlands bagpiping beloved by Tait, that suggests perhaps the film’s one line of continuity between past and present. It is the drone she also heard, which seems to rumble up from the land and billow across the skies of Orkney still, suffusing the photochemical body of Fowler’s film with something like a spirit.
Philippe Garrel’s The Plough also reflects its artist’s stubborn commitment to his medium, though merely this fact seems to have proven objectionable to some critics this year. Why does Garrel refuse to get abreast of the times? Could it be that at nearly 75 this artist doesn’t feel he has the time or inclination to care? More to the point, why should we critics care whether the old man brings himself up to date or not? Would his films truly be the better for it or would they perhaps just be like other films, predigested and ready for consumption? This film arose from the director’s sublimely simple desire to make a movie with all three of his children, Louis, Esther, and Lena. In the press kit, Garrel declares, “I realize that depicting one’s family is a pleasure usually reserved for painters.” He proceeds to offer no justification for his indulgence, but if Garrel can be said to have earned any distinction at this point in his career, it’s as one of cinema’s greatest painters, who has already demonstrated through countless works that filmmaking for him is always a personal matter, often a family one, and that each moment in a film is a gestural response to each preceding one. Shot in color by the great Renato Berta, this was handily the best-looking film in the Competition, and, in my judgment, also the best, period. Yes, its story and its notions of character are frequently so anachronistic they verge on the absurd, especially when enacted by actors in contemporary clothes and surrounded by the accoutrements (smartphones, laptops) of our hyper-contemporary lives. But, at this point, it ought to be understood such disjunctions are a feature of Garrel’s profoundly indifferent attitude toward contemporaneity, not a bug.
Loosely inspired by Garrel’s father’s experiences as a puppeteer, The Plough, or Le Grand Chariot, per its more evocative, Renoir-esque French title, depicts the gradual dissolution of a family troupe and the dispersal of its three siblings after their father (Aurélien Recoing) and grandmother (Francine Bergé) pass away. A second thread involving Louis’s friend Pieter, a vagabond painter who joins the troupe to make ends meet and is effectively adopted into the family, allows Garrel to introduce his staple themes of narcissistic passion and self-destruction, but this film’s most indelibly rendered scenes revolve around the familial interactions of Recoing, Bergé, and the Garrel children; the psychic toll of losing one’s elders and assuming the burden of their legacy; and lastly around the puppet performances themselves, which Berta imbues with an ambience of luminous enchantment. Dreams, often referenced in Garrel’s Freudian cinema, come to the fore as a dramatic device for the first time I can remember since 2008’s Murnau-esque ghost story Frontier of Dawn. A handful of scenes begin with characters violently waking from a dream, and, in one particularly moving sequence, Esther is visited by Recoing’s ghost in the context of a dream. The film culminates in a scene where life itself seems to acquire a dream-like aura, as Esther and Lena wake in the midst of a furious thunderstorm to discover the troupe’s wooden stage broken and cast down. Are Lena and Esther experiencing a symbol of their father’s death in the story of the film, or are they experiencing a premonition of their real father, the filmmaker’s someday departure? Here, as in all Garrel’s finest passages, the film starts to occupy a space elsewhere than fiction, while neither being reducible to documentary, instantiating a liminal, perceptual state between subjectivity and objectivity, the imaginary and the real.
Though a festival’s home team selections often reflect the massaging of local relationships, Berlin’s Competition lineup reliably features films from the major figures of the so-called Berliner Schule. I don’t have much to say about Christian Petzold’s latest, Afire, as rigorous as one might expect, but also like its grumpy writer protagonist Leon (Thomas Schubert) caught in a creative rut. Petzold riffs on genre tropes and tones with his usual aplomb, drawing on an assortment of reference points for a dry, darkly shaded summer comedy about the solipsism of the creative mind from Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse to Chekhov’s Missius. At the same time, he seems more invested than usual in essaying a genuine character study of his lead, which never quite pays off. The systematic deployment of psychologically foreshortened point-of-view shots has always been the formal lynchpin of Petzold’s cinema and remains so here, but it often depends on equally foreshortened characterizations, restricting the degree to which his actors can introduce design-destabilizing behavioral risks and emotional surges. In his best films, Petzold pirouettes around this self-imposed limitation through surprising coups of plotting and haunting occlusions of space; he strangely avails himself too little of either in Afire, which clinches my impression of it as his least revelatory, most dramatically predictable effort in some time.
On the other hand, Angela Schanelec’s Music offered, by a wide margin, the most unaccountable notion of cinema to be found at this year’s festival. An exceedingly liberal transposition of the Oedipus myth to contemporary Greece and, later, Germany, the film at times feels like Schanelec’s attempt at Pasolini’s mode of oneiric allegory. The narrative, which progresses in a series of boldly un-signaled temporal ellipses, follows a young man named Jon, who begins his life already abandoned by his desperate parents, only to be adopted into the family of the EMT who recovers him. Now he’s an adolescent on a road trip with friends, when, waylaid by others, he accidentally murders a young man who has tried to kiss him. Now he’s serving a prison sentence where he meets a female guard named Iro. Now, years later, Jon and Iro have married, had a child, and are living with Jon’s parents. It’s at this point in the story that something starts to feel amiss. This chapter of the film, its strangest and most compelling, re-situates us in Iro’s perspective. Schanelec swiftly maps the current state of affairs between Jon and Iro, their daughter, and Jon’s adopted parents, while building up a nicely unresolved sense of tension, until Iro learns—as we already have guessed—that she is Jon’s mother and that the boy he murdered was her former lover, Jon’s father.
How Iro responds to this information and the ellipsis that follows, easily the film’s most radical gesture, I won’t reveal here, except to say that it is at this point the film relocates to Germany and that the significance of its title becomes clear. Unfortunately, it was also at this point that Schanelec began to lose me. As ever, Schanelec proves a master of composition, devising bewitchingly lucid sequences of opaquely ominous imagery. This idiosyncratic conjugation of Bressonian film grammar approaches new heights of suggestive refinement with Music, but something fails to click emotionally. The sticking point, for me, is my strong sense that Schanelec, unlike Bresson, can’t quite resist a theatrical flourish, leading to exaggerated tonal shifts that hit a bit too shrilly and abrupt changes in performance style that feel opportunistic, even dishonest. By film’s end, it remains unclear exactly why this film’s version of Oedipus, this Jon, who here never learns the true nature of his crime, ought to command our interest, let alone our sympathies. He feels too little like a recognizable human and bit too much like a blank slate upon which Schanelec writes her beautifully vacant cinematic music.
In Encounters, the most consistently exciting section of the Berlinale over the past few years, there was another film that sought to depict the life of an uprooted young man roving the historically flattened landscape of contemporary Europe. With Here, the Belgian filmmaker Bas Devos (Violet, Ghost Tropic) hones a form of minor, human-scaled cinema that, while sometimes evoking the likes of Weerasethakul and Reichardt, establishes its own eccentric, slow cinema rhythm. Commingling the daily and sometimes nightly walks of a Romanian construction worker named Stefan, the film obeys an aleatory logic, expressive of the aimless times between and after our labors, that at key moments transitions into a pure meditative state.
As Here opens, an in-progress high-rise stands before us, observed from street level through a screen of trees in the tall frame of academy ratio, the frame of Ozu that renders such imposing structures at the same scale as tea kettles. Each of the obliquely composed shots that follow, taking us toward and then into the construction site itself before the quiet appearance of the film’s title, drift into each other at a lulling pace. Then an abruptly reorienting cut delivers us to the first appearance of a human face, the jovial countenance of an African worker captured mid-laugh. Two shots later, we catch the first glimpse of our protagonist from the slight rear in 3/4 profile, surrounded by his colleagues, a racially and sexually diverse workforce, and the greenery of the small park where the group takes its break. The individual, the community, the environment. In this unimposing sequence, Devos establishes the luminescent continuum of life that forms the basis of his film. As the story unfolds, we’ll learn that the workers have just been released for a month’s vacation, that Stefan is about to depart for a return visit with his family in Romania, and that before doing so he must attend to some affairs, not the least of which, in this movie’s narrative hierarchy, involves the cleaning out of his fridge. The ensuing action follows Stefan as he visits individually with a disconnected set of friends and family over one weekend, bearing with him the gift of a soup reduced from his leftover produce.
Meanwhile, Devos nudges the pieces into place for a final, blissfully dilated meet cute between this lonely man and a Chinese Belgian bryologist named Gota, who collects and studies the mosses she finds growing in Brussels’ parks and streets. The conclusion of Here, however, is less important than the journey of fine-grained events and microscopic wonders that lead toward it. Like Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, Devos’s work proposes a regenerative way to occupy the world.