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BERLIN - You may have noticed a lack of Berlinale updates over the weekend – to apologize for that would be to suggest, presumptuously, that you missed them, but please accept my excuses for slacking off anyway. Between a flurry of screenings – which finally, after a tepid start, unearthed some B-plus-plus efforts, though from exactly the sources I’d been expecting – a flurry of snow, a blurry of BAFTAs and an awful lot of queuing for tickets, there weren’t too many waking hours to process what I’d actually seen.
Plus, you know, there was the “Iron Sky” party to attend. In a festival starved for silliness, the sci-fi flick, a sci-entry in that hoary old what-if-the-Nazis subgenre, was a hot ticket right up until the moment it screened – so much so that I, along with many other journalists, was shut out of the Saturday press screening. This prompted enough collective vocal dismay that the festival steward manning the door told us, with customary German delicacy, to “disband before I call security.” Being a critic has never felt so righteous.
No matter: friends who did make it to “Iron Sky” me that the film was everything you’d expect and less from a film about Nazis in space starring Udo Kier. And it can’t possibly have matched the WTF factor of the premiere party at a central Berlin club, where guests questionably clad in SS regalia milled around to grinding Teknomusikk, as waitresses in frilly Alpine garb handed out pretzels from giant wicker baskets. At least when Gaspar Noé remakes “The Sound of Music,” I’ll know roughly what to expect.
After that, even the most pedestrian film would have been comforting, but a few were rather better than that, as the Competition picked up with two weighty works, one Sundance story made good on its across-the-pond hype and one name documentary matched expectations of both its subject and pedigree. (I’m still chewing on Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” so will save it for a later round-up, but I don’t mind saying it’s easily my film of the festival so far.) What’s particularly notable is the strong showing for actresses, both fresh and familiar, over the past two days of programming: Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Nina Hoss and Andrea Riseborough are all front and center in their Berlin outings, though one of them drew the short straw in the script department.
We’ll begin with Riseborough, an evidently intelligent and talented actress whom I’d nonetheless begun to despair of ever actually liking, despite the industry’s persistent attempts to sell her to us as a bluestocking alternative to Carey Mulligan. Critics have played along, portraying her as a stoically brilliant survivor of the wreckage of “W.E.” and “Brighton Rock” – but she wasn’t terribly good in either of these false starts, and it was always going to take a vehicle of some gravity and dexterity to show us what she’s really got.
That vehicle has arrived in the shape of “Shadow Dancer,” a trim, taut, tidy IRA thriller that sees director James Marsh, still best known for his documentary work, extend the coolly, methodically drab approach to recent British/Irish history that he mastered in his segment of the recent “Red Riding” trilogy. Riseborough plays Collette, a working-class Belfast radical who, after being arrested for the attempted bombing of a London underground station, must become a mole for the British government, effectively trading one state of justified paranoia for another. Riseborough fills out the character with a quiet, bristly wariness, shifting where necessary to more calculated girlishness as she feels her way out of authoritarian traps. It’s smart, empathetic work, and if once or twice we catch her overplaying the underplaying, a shade too evidently aware of the role’s strength, the film around her sometimes does the same thing.
Marsh’s keen, unpretentious documentarian’s eye may well serve his narrative filmmaking even better than it does the likes of “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,” where his storytelling instincts occasionally overwhelmed his observational ones. Here, they’re comfortably in balance, his patient scene construction and grainy atmospherics – set in 1993, the film looks very much like it was shot then, and not in a pre-distressed way – lending a ring of authenticity to a carefully plotted exercise in tension. If the film’s structural beats get a little predictable, the story itself doesn’t: it’s surely the most candid and least sensationalized study we’ve yet seen of a woman’s place within the IRA. To the end, Riseborough’s Collette remains neither the anti-heroine nor the victim we keep expecting, perhaps even wishing, her to be.
If Riseborough’s stripped-back sobriety in “Shadow Dancer” is impressive, she has some way to go in the actress-as-martyr stakes before she can match the peerless Isabelle Huppert, who seems to be spending her middle age actively seeking out the most physically and emotionally gruelling projects she can find, and laying herself bare to their challenges. Most Western actors would baulk at a phone call from Brillante Mendoza, the Filipino provocateur who caused a stir at Cannes in 2009 with “Kinatay,” a formally admirable long-night’s-journey-into-day anti-thriller, explicitly detailing the rape and dismemberment of a prostitute at the hands of corrupt policemen. For Huppert, the jury president who handed Mendoza a prize for that very film, such a collaboration is all in a day’s work.
Happily, if not quite pleasurably, the two firebrands bring out the best in each other in “Captive,” a propulsive pummelling of a survival drama dramatizing the true-life ordeal of over 20 tourists and missionaries held hostage for over a year by the Muslim Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Philippines ten years ago. The characters have been fictionalized, but their suffering hasn’t: with mud on the lens and an aptly loose commitment to structure, Mendoza dives into this sweaty worst-case-scenario with vivid, unsubtle sensory aggression.
Not as putatively shocking as “Kinatay” – though there’s still plenty here to rattle the squeamish, including the most up-close-and-personal childbirth scene I can recall in a feature film – the film is, in its own way, an equal endurance test, with a generous, not-unfelt running time and unnervingly consistent pacing mirroring the victims’ own indefinite captivity. Huppert, back in elemental, dirty-nailed “White Material” mode, unravels brilliantly as a French social worker who remains the most outspoken of the hostages, even as friend-enemy boundaries blur over the course of a year; there’s striking support, too, from Kathy Mulville as a British tourist whose bottled sense of disbelief at the her misfortune overwhelms her in a key outburst.
The film is sharper on experience than argument: that it’s Mendoza’s first largely English-language film may partly be accountable for the dialogue’s over-emphatic underlining of political ironies and hypocrisies on the kidnappers’ part. (It’s fair to say that Islam doesn’t get the most diplomatic of shakes in Mendoza’s dramaturgy.) And language issues can’t be held responsible for the film’s overreliance on nature-based visual metaphors for terror, though I’m more forgiving of the director’s most fanciful stroke – a late-game appearance of a dreamily colored CGI parrot in a jungle clearing – than most. Mendoza’s a ferocious attack auteur whose previous films (most recently, the surprisingly thoughtful old-age study “Lola”) deserved greater international arthouse exposure; here’s hoping his well-judged alliance with Huppert brings it.
Like Huppert, Charlotte Rampling is another actress whose adventurous taste in directors has sustained an exciting second act to her career. If it seems her instincts have failed her on “I, Anna,” however, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that: this woefully foggy British semi-noir is the directorial debut of Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe. That’s obviously a hard proposition to turn down, but still, Mom might have gently suggested a few adjustments to Southcombe’s over-structured, under-motivated script, perhaps starting with a new one entirely.
Adapted from a novel by Elsa Lewin, the film casts Rampling as the titular Anna, a sixtysomething divorcee whose speed-dating dalliances embroil her in a murder investigation headed by sad-sack cop Gabriel Byrne. The whodunit question is eminently answerable from the outset – “It’s blue-rinse ‘Basic Instinct!’” the colleague next to me excitedly observed, a mere 15 minutes in – but I’ll admit that we aren’t prepared for later, loopier twists, not least because the film isn’t, either. For his part, Southcombe trusts his mother to deliver the pathos while he and DP Ben Smithard focus on finding the fussiest possible ways to light and frame her: a jolly drinking game could be invented around the camera’s repeated decapitation of characters and through-glassware shots. The actress just about maintains her dignity, but I hope she’s getting more than flowers for Mother’s Day this year.
Finally, a word on “Marley,” Kevin Macdonald’s lengthy but thoroughly absorbing music doc on the life and times of never-to-be-usurped reggae king Bob Marley. After his dalliances with Hollywood fiction and last year’s YouTube experiment “Life in a Day,” this is a fine return to Macdonald’s old-school, Oscar-winning documentary form. It’s already been picked up by Magnolia, and I foresee it doing rather well – perhaps even in the 2012 awards race. If you’re interested, check out my Variety review here.
Four days in Berlin remain; my next diary entry should feature thoughts on Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne’s Mansfield’s Car,” a terrific Melissa Leo performance in “Francine” and whatever bizarrely themed cocktail parties I stumble upon in the interim. Until then.
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