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February 15, 2007
The New York Times
Whimsy, Pessimism and 'Lady Chatterley' in Berlin
Filmmakers, film-industry types and the journalists who love them often
refer to something called the festival circuit, a sequence of hectic,
semi-glamorous events that crowd the calendar and circle the globe. But
it might be more accurate to speak of a festival system: a complicated,
ever-expanding web in which the interests of commerce, art and criticism
converge, sometimes in harmony and sometimes at cross-purposes.
Any festival is contingent, ephemeral, something of a pseudo-event. When
it is over, there is a brief flurry of evaluation -- Toronto was strong
this year, Sundance was disappointing, whatever -- but those judgments
tend to fade as the movies themselves, the ostensible point of the whole
enterprise, make their way in the world, or into oblivion, or onto the
So the 57th Berlinale, as the festival here is known, might best be
thought of as an average festival. Not only because the films were
generally so-so, with a few outright disasters balancing some
high-quality work, but also because it seemed to typify what a film
festival is these days. Once a bastion of difficulty and high
seriousness -- an identity that suited an event held in midwinter in a
city with a vexed, often grim history -- the Berlinale, which began last
Thursday and concludes with awards on Sunday -- has grown into something
bigger, more varied and perhaps less distinctive.
At the start of this century its center of gravity shifted into a
gleaming complex of shopping malls and corporate towers in Potsdamer
Platz, previously the no-man's land between East and West. More recently
the festival itself has taken place alongside (and sometimes in the
shadow of) the European Film Market, a bazaar of buying, selling and
deal making that takes place a few blocks from the Berlinale Palast,
where the competition screenings are held.
The festival itself also serves as an important steppingstone for
Hollywood films seeking entree into the lucrative European marketplace.
''The Good German,'' ''The Good Shepherd'' and ''Notes on a Scandal'' --
all released in the United States in the December Oscar rush (where none
of them found much traction) -- were shown in competition. ''Letters
From Iwo Jima,'' a best-picture Oscar nominee, was a noncompetitive
official selection, as was ''300,'' a special-effects-heavy rendering of
the battle of Thermopylae directed by Zack Snyder. That film will open
in America soon, and so will the festival's opening choice, ''La Vie en
Rose,'' Olivier Dahan's warmly received biography of Edith Piaf.
It is customary to sort commercial movies into genres: the thriller, the
biopic, the romantic comedy and so on. But there are also films, often
playing the sidebar sections like Panorama and Forum in Berlin, that
belong to genres peculiar to the festival system. These are sometimes
easier to recognize than to describe.
In any given festival there is usually at least one movie that
chronicles a time of political trauma from the point of view of a child.
''The Year My Parents Went on Vacation,'' a Brazilian competition film
directed by Cao Hamburger and set in 1970 (when Brazil, ruled by a
military dictatorship, won the World Cup), fits the bill nicely. In
addition to politics and soccer, it has gentle sentiment, the stirrings
of youthful sexuality and a grouchy, warmhearted old man.
You will also tend to find instances of the stubborn-peasant landscape
film, with stately rhythms and long silences, in which natural beauty
compensates for harsh stories of deprivation and struggle. ''Tuya's
Wedding,'' shot in the steppes of Mongolia and directed by Wang Quan'an
(and shown in the Berlinale competition) is a perfect specimen. It tells
the story of a woman, Tuya (Yu Nan), whose husband has been disabled
while digging a well, leaving her to tend their flock of sheep by
herself. Economic necessity forces her to seek a second husband, and her
courtship is both gently comical and, ultimately, wrenchingly sad.
The current blossoming of Asian cinema -- in China, in South Korea and
now in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia -- has led to some interesting
cross-pollinations. Quiet, oblique dramas of urban alienation, something
of a Taiwanese specialty in the 1990s, have become a hallmark of the
resurgent Korean cinema.
Hong Sang-soo, whose ''Woman on the Beach'' landed in the Panorama here
after stops in Toronto, New York and other festivals, is perhaps the
master of this style, and something of his influence was evident in ''Ad
Lib Night,'' directed by Lee Yoon-ki and shown in the Forum. In it a
young woman is approached on a Seoul street by three young men who,
after some initial misunderstanding, persuade her to accompany them back
to their village, where she pretends to be the long-lost daughter of a
But all is never quiet on the South Korean front. Park Chan-Wook, the
critically beloved author of superviolent spectacles like ''Oldboy'' and
''Lady Vengeance,'' arrived here with a movie called ''I'm a Cyborg, but
That's O.K..'' I guess it is O.K., and in any case it represents
something of a departure for Mr. Park, a foray into whimsy set in a
mental hospital populated by charming nuts.
''Cyborg'' is -- sometimes delightfully, sometimes gratingly -- a
determinedly crazy movie, which may constitute a genre of its own. Mr.
Park's was hardly the craziest Korean movie in the festival. That would
have been E. J-Yong's ''Dasepo Naughty Girls,'' a frenzied high-school
romp described by its director, in remarks before a packed house at the
Zoo Palast, as ''a teenage movie, a comedy, a musical, a mystery, a
horror movie, all in one film.''
The European offerings were on the whole much more sober. (Though to be
fair, just about any movie this side of ''Borat'' could be described as
more sober than ''Dasepo,'' which is like a less restrained ''Strangers
With Candy.'') Quite a few of them were concerned with the social,
economic and cultural divisions that trouble this recently, and still
incompletely unified, continent.
A kind of pessimist realism, holding on to the old humanist faith of the
postwar years, but far less confident in the possibility of progress,
has become something of a default style in Northern Europe. Maria
Speth's ''Madonnas,'' a German-language film about an aimless, reckless
young mother of five trying to get her life back together, might have
been a Sundance film (it has some resemblance to ''SherryBaby'') but for
the English subtitles and the decidedly nonredemptive ending.
A film from Croatia, ''Armin,'' directed by Ognjen Svilicic, also fits
the mold of downbeat European realism, though its story of a father
accompanying his son from their hometown in Bosnia to a movie audition
in Zagreb is funny and warm as well as sorrowful.
My point is not that these movies are interchangeable, or that their
similarities betray a lack of imagination on the part of their makers. A
genre is not a formula but a paradigm, an endlessly variable model that
can be adapted to different temperaments and circumstances. Directorial
acumen, agile screenwriting and sensitive acting distinguish the
run-of-the-mill from the genuinely interesting.
In the films I saw in Berlin this year -- the ones I liked enough to
write home about, in any case -- the quality of the acting often made
the difference. Thus Sam Garbarski's film in competition, ''Irina
Palm,'' about a British woman who turns to sex work in order to finance
a lifesaving operation for her grandson, would have been yet another
British naughty-granny comedy were it not for Marianne Faithfull's
enigmatic, deadpan and remarkably funny lead performance.
''The Counterfeiters,'' a German-language Holocaust movie by the
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, would have seemed much more glib
without the banty, combative charisma of Karl Markovics, who plays a
Jewish counterfeiter conscripted into a Nazi plot to forge large
quantities of British and American currency. And the bracing pleasures
of Andre Techine's imperfect but powerful ''Witnesses'' owe a great deal
to the work of a cast that includes Emmanuelle Beart and Sami Bouajila.
Every constituency in the festival system has its own needs and desires.
The distributors want products to fill out their release slates; the
sellers want buyers; the stars want privacy (or else attention); the
jury (led this year by Paul Schrader, whose new film, ''The Walker,''
was shown out of competition) longs for a masterpiece and hopes for
consensus. And the critics? We want above all to be surprised, to feel a
sense of discovery.
The Panorama obliged this critic with ''Lady Chatterley,'' a
French-language adaptation, directed by Pascale Ferran, of an early
version of D. H. Lawrence's once-scandalous novel. At first glance the
movie, nearly three hours long, seemed likely to belong to yet another
familiar genre: the tasteful literary costume pageant. But Ms. Ferran
and her two lead actors -- the relative newcomer Marina Hinds and a
complete unknown named Jean-Louis Couilloc'h -- do more than merely
honor Lawrence's preoccupation with sex, class and the natural world.
They refresh his spirit and restore his modernity.
Every frame of the movie seems alive: with risk, with pleasure, with a
sensuality that is both wild and intelligent. Already acclaimed in
France, ''Lady Chatterley'' should, if there is any justice, break free
of the festival circuit, even as it is precisely the kind of movie you
come to a festival hoping to see. The kind that restores -- at least
until the next festival -- your faith in the system.
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