BERLIN - Just one full day into the 2012 Berlinale, I’m struck by how many faces I recognize as I traipse across the snow-dusted triangle of the festival center at Potsdamer Platz: crimson-blazered festival stewards who all seem to man exactly the same stations they did last year; international critics in the press room whom I identify instantly by their hair, glasses or oddly colored overcoat, but couldn’t possibly name; even the slickly sullen barista at the one decent coffee source over the road.
Nothing and nobody appears to have moved in the space of a year in this city, making today feel less like the opening day of a major international film festival than a comfily unfazed resumption of business. “You’ve been here before,” the politely unenthused assistant said to me as she handed me my shiny new pass and no-nonsense black lanyard. “You know where to go.”
I felt pre-acquainted with the two films I saw today, too. Not dispiritingly so, mind – just in the way one might unwrap a birthday present you’ve already been told you’re getting. They fit the occasion, they followed their respective festival templates, they were as good as I’d hoped they’d be, if not an awful lot better. Both, it has to be said, were the kind of eminently worthy festival films you can’t imagine making great strides to see outside a festival environment, if indeed you were even offered the option; perhaps more so than the name-driven Cannes and Venice programmes, Berlin thrives on these.
The film selected as the curtain-raiser, the predictably plush Gallic costume drama “Farewell, My Queen,” has all the external hallmarks of the kind of over-starched Europudding spectacle that is routinely tapped to open major European festivals, so as to bring out some attractive crossover stars to cut the proverbial ribbon while still ensuring that nobody will remember it by closing night: untaxingly familiar history, rolling hectares of berry-hued silk, a puffily grave title, Diane Kruger with an indeterminate accent, that sort of thing. All these elements are present and correct in this tart, tastefully sexed upstairs/downstairs riff on the done-to-death Marie Antoinette legend – the kind of enjoyably lulling period piece in which bodices are invitingly rustled rather than ripped – with the pointed exception of a flabby journeyman director.
Who we have instead, crucially and rather rewardingly, is Benoît Jacquot, a higher-brow French veteran who, while not the most aggressively distinct stylist, has cultivated a recognizable stamp of terse elegance across contemporary and historical fare alike. He’s as reassuringly calm a visual and narrative disciplinarian as you could want overseeing the shrill discord of Versailles in 1789, and it’s actually his most prosaic instincts that guide the most striking stretches of this portrait of the cake-eating Queen’s fall from grace – seen through the eyes of her ladies-in-waiting – until its over-egged political parallels and dippy Sapphic undertones spill over.
Measured and largely music-free, early scenes map out the daily routine of the Queen’s official reader, Sidonie (the affectingly quivery Lea Seydoux, looking more than ever like a foie gras-fed Kate Moss), with an engagingly practical interest in her actual profession, keeping the gauzy, covetous panning shots of palace treasures to a minimum and instead zeroing in on the miniature everyday power plays between the variously worshipful female underlings of Diane Kruger’s fulsome, flighty, faux-patrician Marie A. First lady among the servants is Gabrielle (Virginie Ledoyen), whose duties seem limited to wanly enduring her Queen’s giggly, groping infatuation. Seydoux’s peachily impassive face makes it hard to discern whether she’s as uncomfortable with these open displays of girl-girl desire as she is out of her mind with jealousy; either way, her slyly ambitious marking of Gabrielle’s status has a cruel payoff as revolution brews, lending the whole the tight causality of a doom-laden fable. No heads roll in this petite fillet of history; none need to.
Aided by the effectively sulky, absorbent quality of Seydoux’s performance, Jacquot negotiates Sidonie’s gaze with such sad, chilly control that you wish he was half as interested in the film’s more airily defined women – though I’d rather spend more time with Noemie Lvovsky’s evasively tetchy aide than Kruger’s dully glowing monarch, who aims for, but can’t quite project, the dreamy, unmannered immaturity of Kirsten Dunst in the same role. Indeed, “Farewell, My Queen” operates as the moderate, less excitingly intuitive flipside to Sofia Coppola’s freeform imagining of the same tangy period in history. It’s both the handsomely lensed and designed corset-opera and the brittle Benoit Jacquot drama different parties might arrived expecting – but as pastel-toned, festival-opening macaroons go, its soured cream filling is an asset.
If “Farewell, My Queen” is a film of at least tempered fulsomeness, there’s no such luxury to be found in Uruguayan director Rodrigo Pla’s “The Delay,” an inescapably glum but quietly urgent miniature following destitute single mother-of-three Maria (Roxana Blanco) as she searches for an alternative to caring for her troublesomely senile father Agustin (Carlos Vallarino) – eventually taking the simplest and least thinkable route. Forbidding at first blush, this Forum entry’s seemingly stock miserablist trappings gradually part to reveal both subtly provocative dramatization and some stunningly confident craft. Among other virtues, it’s a textbook entry in the benefits of crisply creative sound design to budget-challenged filmmakers: Pla uses continuous shifts between diegetic and symbolic sound to score Maria’s own oscillating mental state, with recurrent shrieks of water, whether in a shower or a rainstorm, as a kind of punishing chorus.
Arguably a short film narrative just about carried to feature length by the sheer brute authenticity of its characters’ desperation, it bundles a collection of faintly topical concerns – social welfare, dementia, generational responsibility, the decline of the nuclear family – into a markedly tight, tract-free conversation on human charity and ethics. There’s something of Kelly Reichardt’s nervy observation of personal sacrifice and exchange here, even if the story turns on a rough moral decision that many will find alienatingly inscrutable, however quickly the offending character’s remorse sets in. If it’s a mite too clean in its resolution, “The Delay” at least leaves a sufficiently panicky mess of universal fears to compensate.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
Everything: Academy Awards
Latest news, photos, reviews, interviews, videos and more.