Sorry there was no Berlinale dispatch yesterday. It was my birthday, and after “celebrating” it with a triple-bill of variously despairing Competition entries — finishing with “The Turin Horse,” Béla Tarr’s impressive 146-minute ode to blizzards, boiled potatoes and dying — more traditional festivities were in order, beginning with several stiff drinks. There’s nothing like a film festival to infuse a birthday with bleaker-than-usual ruminations on mortality.
After a dawdling start, however, the Competition really kicked into gear yesterday with a pair of substantial auteur works that will likely remain the prime topic of critical conversation for the duration of the festival: the aforementioned Tarr opus and Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s “Nader and Simin, A Separation,” now the runaway favorite for the Golden Bear for reasons both artistic and political.
I’ll discuss both these films in due course, but neither one has quite displaced an earlier (and more critically divisive) Competition title from the top of my personal best-of-the-fest list — and indeed, if anything does in the next three days, I’ll be a very happy (and surprised) man. That title would be German director Ulrich Köhler’s third feature “Sleeping Sickness” (****), an arrestingly structured and humidly atmospheric study of immigrant living and integration in west Africa that would make a valuable companion piece to Claire Denis’s more pristine “White Material,” but also warrants discussion on its own merits.
In playing what turns out to be an elegantly symmetrical two-headed character study, Köhler isn’t afraid to conceal his hand to a degree that will agitate some viewers (and already has some critics), but the final narrative shape justifies the slow burn. The film begins with its undivided attention on Ebbo (a dryly cynical, marvelously rumpled Pierre Bokma), an German ex-pat doctor living in Cameroon, where he manages a treatment programme for the titular epidemic. Spiritually wed to the continent, he faces opposition from his homesick wife and boarding-school pupil daughter, both of whom yearn for a stable family life in Germany.
Just as the mounting pressure on Ebbo to return to Europe reaches its climax, however, the film abruptly breaks in two: focus unceremoniously shifts to Alex (Jean Christophe-Folly), a young French doctor of Congolese origin visiting Africa for the first time in order to conduct a report on the other man’s progress. As he arrives to find a decaying hospital with an absent Ebbo, the audience gradually picks up evidence of a life scarcely recognizable from the one portrayed in the film’s first half; with no indication of how much time has passed, we (and Alex) are made to work backwards in assessing the older doctor’s personal and professional decline.
It’s a confidently disorienting storytelling move that offsets what could otherwise become a pat exercise in contrast: as it stands, there’s rich, even-handed irony in the juxtaposed trajectories of the white German, who makes bold sacrifices to belong in a continent that will never entirely embrace him, and the black Frenchman, who feels utterly alienated by a culture that accepts him more easily at face value.
Köhler, who partly grew up in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, has a sharp, tactile sense of the continent’s alluring rot: often working in thick darkness, the camera doesn’t caress its surrounds so much as isolate and scrutinize individual textures, while low but densely layered sound design contributes to the sense of a landscape on the verge of swallowing its inhabitants whole. Beautifully performed by its two leads, “Sleeping Sickness” is quizzical, unyielding outsider cinema that risks incompleteness by bisecting its character arcs, but impressively exceeds the sum of its artfully broken parts.
If the surprise thrill of Köhler’s relatively unheralded film complied with my earlier statement of Berlin being more a festival of discovery than of anticipated pleasures, that was further borne out by “The Future” (**1/2), Miranda July’s long-awaited second feature as writer-director-star. As an unreserved admirer of her debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” it brings me no pleasure to say that the new film, though peppered with numerous fragments of bleak beauty, feels a curiously narrow and unformed work by comparison.
Whether as artist, author or filmmaker, a certain feyness is part and parcel of July’s work, but whimsy here often comes at the expense of character shading or narrative consistency; her head is an interesting place to be, but the new film rarely ventures outside it. Where the knotty ensemble in “Me and You…” covered multiple bases of social interaction, “The Future” closes in on a single couple, increasingly adrift from each other despite shared neuroses, introversion and (seemingly) haircare tips.
Sensing the need for a binding element in their lives, the pair decide to adopt a cat from a local shelter, but joint panic over the implications of this commitment prompts them both to quite literally stall for time — Jason (an endearing Hamish Linklater) freezes the world around him to halt the relationship, while Sophie (July) enters into an affair with an emotionally stunted single father that may or not be contained within the time-slip Jason has created. This is conceptually sophisticated territory for this brand of low-fi Amerindie filmmaking, but languid fantasy papers over cracks in the storytelling rather than opening it out: the film’s finale is indeed moving, as the pair come to terms over the state of their relationship, but not as much as it would be if the emotional bridging hadn’t been lost to July’s elaborate flight of fancy.
Those detractors who find all aspects of July’s art oppressively precious will find more ammunition here than they did in her debut: you’ve probably heard by now that the film is narrated by the aforementioned cat (July again, taking on a muppety head voice), a gimmick which I’m afraid doesn’t sound any less irksome in practice than it does on paper, not least since the long-suffering feline already serves as an overemphasised metaphor for the protagonists’ dying partnership. Yet the film’s tweeness butts heads rather compellingly with its mostly despairing world view.
As in her debut, July has resonant points to make about the impasses reached in modern-day communication, and whether accidentally or otherwise, her self-awareness occasionally pushes her writing to penetrating places: “I wish I was a notch prettier,” she murmurs in the film’s most affecting scene. A mixed bag, then — with Nikolai von Graevenitz’s half-lit lensing and Jon Brion’s fragile score also joining the pluses — but one provocative enough to hope July doesn’t wait another six years to improve on it.
A second, rather more lively, Sundance baby landed in Berlin in the shape of “The Guard” (***), a narratively spotty but nastily hilarious Irish cop comedy that marks the feature directing debut of “Ned Kelly” writer John Michael McDonagh — older brother of Martin, who recently netted an Oscar nomination for his own freshman effort “In Bruges,” and receives an executive producer credit here. Clearly, John Michael is not one to shy away from comparisons to his sibling: the brothers’ films share an underworld setting, a corruptly literate streak of humor, and the presence of Brendan Gleeson.
If one must go there, “The Guard” is neither as astute nor as dramatically well-turned as the 2008 film, but the aforementioned similarities are all still virtues as well. Chief among these is the Gleeson, so often a droll delight, but here making the most of his first billing as a likeably venal police chief in rural Ireland, whose routine of nonchalantly abusing his powers on a daily basis and reporting back to his doting, dying ma is disrupted when he is drafted into a big-league narcotics investigation alongside Don Cheadle’s uptight visiting FBI agent.
McDonagh doesn’t pretend to bring anything new to the good-cop-bad-cop dynamic, and the gangster hijinks are pretty thin gruel, but the material is sparked to life by the leads’ rollicking chemistry and the notably high laugh-to-line ratio of the film’s whipsmart dialogue, so eminently quotable that my notes during the screening devolved into simple joke transcription. (“They have gay lads in the IRA?” someone asks incredulously at one point. Snaps his superior: “It’s the only way we can infiltrate MI5.”) Shot and edited with some ragged panache, this is the purest shot of fun I’ve found at the Berlinale this year, which is intended as higher praise than the festival’s panoply of doomy fare would imply.
[Photo: Roadside Attractions]