Toronto 08 — Day 8 capsules
A WOMAN IN BERLIN (Max Farberbock, Germany, 2008) — 7
It doesn’t take a genius or a German-speaker to realize this film, which follows one woman and her neighbors for about a week during the fall of Berlin to the Soviets at the tail end of WW2, has had one word dropped from its German title. And the “Anonymous” strikes me as important (though we learn the story about this story at the end of the film, via title cards), because one of the things A WOMAN IN BERLIN is about is how shame can even follow actions done in-extremis. Nina Hoss plays the titular heroine and her performance here and in JERICHOW make her the TIFF Acting MVP. The performances in similar in their understated interiority with more than a touch of sullenness (this still actually embodies her performance quite well). Waz calls her performance in JERICHOW “wooden” (though in a complimentary way) and he’s not wrong: both roles are fundamentally about women keeping their heads down as they negotiate their status as sex commodities, which Hoss, certainly here, doesn’t play as “sexy.” It’s been a fact of war since THE ILIAD that victorious soldiers often seize or rape the defeated party’s women as a spoil of war and that women will try to avoid this via accommodations that we’d not hesitate to call whoring or concubinage in other circumstances, and is sometimes explicitly called that here. In fact, A WOMAN IN BERLIN is actually the first film in history to make me consider for a second (only a second) the radical-feminist position that all sex under patriarchy is rape as anything other than the rantings of the certifiable. But it’s more complicated than that — this film also shows that even actions taken in-extremis and under a structure of sin still objectively shape our souls. After all keep in mind, and A WOMAN IN BERLIN makes a couple of nods toward it including a dance scene, that the odious regime of East Germany will be built on the ashes that we see being created. “We have to be practical, Herr Hoch. Things will get better.” There is one scene — and all I’ll say is that it involves an apple pie — where the women of the building talk about Russian and German men in ways that I, at least, could hardly believe. The female Russian soldier that we see frankly has not a shred of sex solidarity. A WOMAN IN BERLIN is not a great film because it’s a bit too predictable and pat (though I was surprised and throat-frogged by the one suicide), though this actually may help its aim to be a LIVES OF OTHERS-type breakout German hit. (The audience I saw it with certainly liked it a lot.) It’s not as good as LIVES, but it could be a US hit; it’s certainly better than most of the more-accessible foreign films I saw and it’s more accessible than the most of the better foreign films I saw.
GIGANTIC (Matt Asselton, USA, 2008) — 2
When GIGANTIC was over, Missy Schwartz sitting next to me whispered words to me to the effect of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and I whispered back to her “makes the Coen Brothers look look De Sica.” As Pauline Kael once wrote about I-forget-what, GIGANTIC’s Bizarroworld contrivances feel more like “the captions a bright teen might write under a photograph” than a script. Caption contests can be funny or sustain a three-or-four-frame comic strip, but they really can’t sustain a feature-length movie. GIGANTIC is the sort of Indiewood comedy that ultimately quirks itself to death: the protagonist is a 28-year-old single man who has wanted to adopt a Chinese baby since he was 8 (this is as close to a central throughline as GIGANTIC has); a scientist dips his sandwiches in a mayonnaise jar and drinks blue athlete-concoction out of a chemistry-class beaker; a homeless man tries to kill the protagonist three or four times without the slightest explanation; a mattress salesman, **while trying to sell to clients** uses the n-word and the m-f word in his sales pitch; a business meeting takes place at a massage parlor where the three men are lined up in a row being obviously masturbated; a family ritual involves busting pinatas painted like political dictators. There is exactly one laugh in the movie: One character says “What’s a Countach,” the other responds “it’s a Lamborghini … (pauses to think) … it’s a car.” (I have now saved you the price of admission.) Anyone who criticized Sally Hawkins’s performance in HAPPY GO-LUCKY as too *much* is invited to look at Zooey Deschanel’s collection of quirks as the girlfriend here, to repent and to come to me for absolution. Anyone who complained of Paul Dano’s performance in THERE WILL BE BLOOD as bland and diffident is invited to look at Dano here, to repent and to come to me for absolution. I am available at 3 pm Saturdays, an hour before each Mass and by appointment.
How is a movie like this possible? There is an exchange late in the movie between Dano’s mother and Deschanel (we’re talking about a girl who casually mentions being a prostitute the first time she meets Dano). The mother assumes the sage worldly tone of girl talk on the balcony looking out on the street at sunset, which clearly indicates Author’s Message, and says that “nothing’s normal.” There was a scene in REVANCHE where the identical point is made — well, it was in German and my notes on the subtitle actually say “this is perfectly normal.” (And however the constructions look, “everything is normal” is “nothing is normal” are actually the same thought.) But the REVANCHE line was said by a prostitute as she was snorting coke, which led me to think that perhaps it was ironic, and the film played out in the way I described below. A movie as aggressively ridiculous as GIGANTIC is only possible because the very notion of normality is now suspect — it marginalizes difference and reinforces the status quo by privileging its contingent normativities, you understand. Maybe I should go see BURN AFTER READING this week and get back to something realistic and normal.
CLOUD 9 (Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2008) — 7
Let’s deal right away with the central “selling” fact of this movie about an adulterous liaison (see the festival guidebook, e.g.) — that it has some fairly explicit sex scenes involving characters in their 60s or 70s. Wags have already riffed off a current Canadian film and dubbed this one OLD PEOPLE FUCKING, though the couple of scenes, and they happen quite early, are not even close to hard-core, and barely soft-core IMHO. The thing is that while not deliberately disgusting a la Greenaway, the scenes are not a turn-on and so very obviously not intended to be that it was difficult for me to be offended by them. There are “good” reasons pornographers prefer young performers, but beyond that, CLOUD 9 is simply not directed as an erotic turn-on — Dresen uses a close-up heavy, Dogme-influenced style with long takes and natural light that is too matter-of-fact for the manipulations of porn. The film’s interest also extends far beyond the sex scenes — indeed, the most cynical part of me thinks that maybe the scriptwriter thought he had done his duty and could now make something interesting (OK, the sex is outta the way … let me get to the story, now). The adulterous liaison is discovered (a story like this really had no other place to go), but how it is discovered is not. Wife Ilse simply tells her boring but unsuspecting husband Werner without “having” to, simply for honesty’s sake about her and lover Karl. The scenes that follow are brilliant — worthy of Bergman’s marital quarrels in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Old hurts having nothing to do with the adultery at hand (“I raised your kids,” e.g.) are dredged up, and they sting worse and maybe in part because they’re true. Ursula Werner sobs for apparently minutes on end and hits the right emotional notes through her tears in a manner worthy of Ullmann. When Ilse tells their daughter about the liaison and her plans to move in with Karl (whose acts like a little puppy), we get this perfect exchange: “What was I supposed to do, lie to him? / Exactly.” There is a reason the confessional is private. Indeed, late during the film I remember thinking to myself, “Ilse and Karl are played emotionally exactly as if they were in her 10s or 20s,” which in some ways could be the point: authenticity is the shackles of youth, to paraphrase REM. But I though why make this story, well-done though it is, about old people — and then the last plot point answered my question. Among young lovers, it would have been unbelievable; not among 70-year-olds.
STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008) — 8
Seeing this film one day after A CHRISTMAS TALE, I realized that I couldn’t recall seeing two films so similar to each other in such a time frame while having no obvious immediate connection, either in terms of auteurial or other-talent influence or in terms of topical subject matter. Adult children visit the grandparents, with the kids in tow for an annual memorial for the death of a sibling. And the resentments and disappointments presided over by the memory of a dead child get played out. In other words, the reverse premise of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, and Kore-eda does frequently use Ozu-like “pillow shots” of things like factories as breathing spots between events and at the start of the 2nd day, like another director might use a fade to black. But Kore-eda frames actions in multiple planes within the image (kids playing bust the watermelon in the foreground oblivious to what’s going on at the dinner table in the background) more than I recall Ozu doing. And at an earlier screening, Kore-eda reportedly said in a Q-and-A that his family resembled more a Naruse film than an Ozu.
But compared to the Desplechin, Kore-eda works from the better script, I think, or certainly the less-contrived one. The family in STILL WALKING puts on a better show of finding one another tolerable, keeping up appearances and social avoidances — like turning the channel when the TV mentions a dead child. All of which is frankly far more believable than the open hatreds in the Desplechin family (e.g., why would Mathieu Amalric even show up, if this is how he feels about them or they him). One example: the line “so, how did you feel when your dad died” is said by one child to another. Children, who haven’t learned the social graces and filters, can talk that way believably; adults really can’t (and Desplechin’s film is full of lines at that level of either cluelessness or unbelievable cruelty). There are occasions in STILL WALKING when adults do say that kind of thing, for example a scene in which a (notably cranky) character talks about the difficulties of arranging marriages in a set of circumstances that just happens to also be the circumstances of another couple in the room. Kore-eda’s camera and actors act more disturbed, as though propriety has been breached. And the moments of open cruelty take place outside the victim’s ear — for example, the grandmother’s explanation (“maybe the gods will punish me; so be it”) for why she invites the man whose life her dead son saved to the memorial each year. Or they take place for only the victim’s ear — like the record of “Yokohama.” In other words, bitchiness is present in STILL WALKING but not the norm or is contained in believable ways. Still, Kore-eda’s direction isn’t nearly as lively as Desplechin’s. And combined with the lack of a through-line and the one-too-many resolutions at the end, this keeps WALKING below the category of Kore-eda’s best (NOBODY KNOWS and AFTER LIFE)
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