BERLIN - Rarely the first port of call for mainstream prestige fare or the loftiest international auteurs, the Berlinale has, after an indifferent start, started showing off the alternative depths of its programming in the last few days: one week in, I’ve seen a handful of outstanding films from directors whose presence in, say, the Cannes competition would prompt befuddled ‘who-dat?’ questioning from casual arthouse patrons, but whose actual films would pass muster in even the starriest lineup.

The Competition, inevitably spotty given the givens, has nonetheless more than lived up to the standard set last year by the likes of “A Separation” and “The Turin Horse,” even if its highlights can’t necessarily be promised the same level of crossover success. I’ve been particularly wowed by a trio of European titles – Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu,” Ursula Meier’s “Sister” and Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” – for which Thierry Fremaux would be champing at the bit if they happened to be directed instead by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Dardenne Brothers and Michael Haneke, respectively. (I’m planning a joint piece on all three, but don’t wish to rush my thoughts on any of them.)

It’d be disingenuous to suggest that Berlin’s focus on rising talents and more specialized names is entirely calculated, or intrinsically more commendable than the big-name favoritism of its more glamorous rival fests – both approaches result in a lot of awful films being given a shot of prestige they don’t really deserve. But there’s something refreshing about a festival that can’t necessarily be read on paper.

Perhaps the best illustration of the Berlinale’s odd sense of democracy came at a screening a couple of days ago, when I took my seat and glanced two rows ahead of me to spot jurors Jake Gyllenhaal and Asghar Farhadi in animated conversation like long-acquainted friends and colleagues, as if their respective industry war stories bear any relation to each other. Or perhaps they were just bitching about jury president Mike Leigh behind his back. We’ll never know, but it was a sweet sight.

It’s perhaps a testament to the loose-limbed weirdness of the lone American title (and one of only two English-language films) in Competition, Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” that I couldn’t possibly hazard a guess as to whether Farhadi or Gyllenhaal liked it more. Ostensibly a sun-baked, Southern-fried bit of good-natured Americana covering a lot of daddy issues, brotherly bonding, Cadillac-gazing and sanctified masturbation – a Tim McGraw album set to celluloid, in other words – Thornton’s first venture behind the camera since 2001’s “Daddy and Them” is nonetheless so wilfully random in structure and elusive in subtext that it’s easy to project the influence of anyone from Wes Anderson to Wim Wenders onto it. A long time in the making, and seemingly scarred by wildly capricious script cuts, it’s as genuinely inscrutable a curio as any bit of world-cinema esoterica in the Berlin lineup.

With all that said, it’s still not very good. Set in Alabama in 1969, the film haphazardly navigating both the conflicts and unexpected unions that spark when the two husbands – one American, one British – of a deceased Southern belle converge for her homecoming funeral, with variously dysfunctional children and step-children in tow. Robert Duvall’s crustily authoritarian patriarch and John Hurt’s tweedily patrician gentleman are expected to be at each other’s throats from the get-go, but both are surprised to find years of suspicion and bitterness turning to grudging friendship in spite of themselves. Masking still-smarting grief with befuddled social distaste, Hurt wins most of the actors’ shared scenes by a hair, even if it’s Duvall who, due to plot contrivances that scarcely raise an eyebrow in this film’s loopy story world, gets to thrash about in a riverbed while zonked on LSD.

It’s just as well the two old coots get on, since there are more than enough issues to deal with besides: Kevin Bacon is the wilted-hippy Vietnam objector fighting his father’s lifelong disapproval and teenage son’s own urge to enlist; a seemingly out-of-practise Thornton is the mentally damaged war vet pursuing his bubbly English step-sister (Frances O’Connor, a delight throughout, not least when nudely reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” atop a sports car) when he isn’t pinning his military medals directly to the skin of his chest; Ray Stevenson is the stiff-upper-lipped good son resisting his married step-sister’s advances.

That’s a mere taster, but it’s hard to track exactly which of these are the most noteworthy, since the script never finds a narrative throughline, much less a thematic one: seemingly dominant characters drop out of the proceedings for half an hour at a time, a seemingly insignificant one gets the closing coda, and the clash between two families and cultures is snuffed out when half the characters are summarily dismissed without a farewell. It’s hard to imagine what consistent tone could be found for such an enterprise, so it skips cheerfully and inelegantly between knockabout comedy, mawkish melodrama and heightened romanticism. It looks like everyone involved had fun – and so, to some extent, did I – but I’m not sure what any of us learned from the experience beyond the fact that Billy Bob Thornton is one very strange dude. 

 

Not that Melissa Leo is going to let Thornton hog all the crazy for himself. The recently minted Oscar-winner’s latest outing, Francine,” is a thoughtful, downbeat, sneakily moving micro-indie from the festival’s Forum sidebar that has possibly managed to eclipse the Competition entry as the most talked-about US film at Berlin – partly on its own considerable merits, and partly because it offers audiences the indubitably odd sight of Leo licking kittens from head to foot, when she isn’t rolling about on the floor with an indeterminate number of mutts or moshing to a Pantera-like garage band in broad daylight at a local park.

Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s humbly-scaled debut – a concentrated and satisfying 74 minutes in length – is perhaps the most compassionate and melancholy film ever made that could also go by the title “Crazy Cat Lady: The Beginning,” and the most generous showcase yet for an actor who is swiftly building her case as one of American cinema’s finest.

Leo plays the weatherbeaten title character, a shy, taciturn ex-con (we’re never told her crime) whose release from prison opens up a world of social obligations she’d rather not handle. A short-lived stint working at a pet store exposes her paralyzed people skills, but she does at least steal a puppy as a parting gift: a seemingly innocuous impulse, it proves the portal to a damaging escape from human contact, as she gradually fills her house with an unending supply of raggedy dogs and cats, an ill-fed, flea-bitten menagerie who come to displace even the few friends and lovers this sexually indiscriminate Francine of Assisi has selectively made since re-entering society. Cassidy and Shatzky’s pace things artfully enough that mileage will vary among viewers as to when the character’s touching if eccentric form of self-therapy tips into frightening dysfunctionality; judgment is kept staunchly at bay.

It’s the kind of scratchy, slope-shouldered miniature that requires a great performance to hold the narrative down and keep it from shuffling away, and it gets one from Leo: not uttering a word for the film’s first 15 minutes or so, her exquisitely storied face, lived-out and much as it is lived-in, has never been charged with quite so much unvarnished feeling. When she does speak, it’s with the wary, unwitting wit of those who see more than they say, while her emotional decline is punctuated with heartbreaking dashes of bliss. The only professional actor in a project that was initially intended to be cast wholly with amateurs, Leo reportedly got the role by answering an unsuspecting ad at some point between her two Oscar nominations: if these two shoestring directors can hardly believe their luck at who came calling, their whisperingly upsetting film repays her in kind.  

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.