Berlinale: Jeremy Irons derailed in 'Night Train to Lisbon,' but Arvin Chen charms again

Posted by · 2:22 am · February 14th, 2013

BERLIN – Looking at the list of seen films I have yet to write up out of the Berlinale, I’m finding it harder than usual to forge connections between them that would make for a satisfying review roundup. Some have been good. More have been bad. That’s about the extent of the narrative at a festival that, while enjoyable as ever, hasn’t so far maintained the standard of last year’s “Tabu”-“Sister”-“Barbara”-“War Witch”-“A Royal Affair” mini-feast. Only Sebastian Lelio’s wonderful “Gloria,” meanwhile, seems to have buyers buzzing along with the critics; it’ll be a major shock if it doesn’t take a significant prize from Wong Kar-wai’s jury on Saturday.

So forgive this rather randomly paired duo of reviews, which have little in common beyond their presence in lineup and… well, they’re both vaguely Valentine’s Day-friendly. I thought I’d at least couch bad news with good, which wouldn’t have been the case if I’d opted to pair up two former Best Foreign Language Film winners instead. (More on Danis Tanovic’s drab Competition entry “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” — surely a candidate for the most parodic-sounding arthouse movie title of all time — at a later stage.)

To deliver the bad news first, no major European festival is complete without at least one all-star Europudding — that reliably po-faced subgenre of international co-production, often with a literary source, that tends to cast everybody and please no one — in the lineup. And Berlin presented a particularly wobbly one today in “Night Train to Lisbon” (D), an amusingly dunderheaded adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s international bestseller of the same title.

It comes to us courtesy of Danish veteran Bille August, the name people tend to forget when listing the elite club of two-time Palme d’Or winners — largely because, since his late-80/early-90s glory days (during which he also netted an Oscar for “Pelle the Conqueror”), he has morphed into something of a Europudding merchant. We might have assumed he’d peaked, so to speak, in this regard with 1993’s riotous Isabel Allende travesty “The House of the Spirits,” but we’d have been wrong — “Lisbon,” which reunites the director with “Spirits” lead Jeremy Irons, is at least as cloth-eared and self-regarding a precis of material I’m reliably led to believe has a slightly higher philosophical reach.

The florid-yet-banal tone here, however, is set early, as characters manage not to corpse over such lines as, “We live in the here and now — everything before is past.” Well, quite. Irons stars as Raimund, a fusty classics teacher who, since his divorce, has been living a tweedily solitary existence in Bern, Switzerland. (Already, that Europudding passport is shaping up nicely.) That changes when he rescues a mysterious young woman from a bridge-jumping suicide attempt. She runs away (not, it turns out, to the next-nearest bridge) before he can learn anything about her, but helpfully leaves behind a yellowed old book, enclosing two tickets for a cross-country train that, naturally, is set to leave in just 15 minutes. Raimund acts quickly: Bern, he decides, has proved too much for the man, so the midnight train to Lisbon it is.

Most people, upon taking an impromptu vacation to one of the world”s most beautiful cities, would settle for some leisurely sightseeing and a few drinks at the nearest fado bar, but Raimund has a drearier itinerary planned. The book, it turns out, is an obscure autobiography by by Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston), a Portuguese doctor turned revolutionary in the last days of the Salazar dictatorship, who eventually died tragically young in the mid-1970s. Raimund, for reasons best known to himself, is sufficiently touched by Prado”s story to harass the man”s remaining relatives and cohorts in pursuit of the full story. Still, it doesn”t take Irons bursting into a rendition of “I”ve Been to Paradise, But I”ve Never Been to Me” to realize that the lonely professor”s quest is a more internal one.

Among the paycheck-hungry faces assisting Raimund in his endeavours are Prado”s still-mourning sister Adriana (an unduly distressed-looking Charlotte Rampling), his politicized German college friend Jorge (Bruno Ganz), and kindly optician Mariana (Martina Gedeck) who, by virtue of being one of the 20-odd residents of the Portuguese capital (extras seem to be in short supply throughout), is the niece of a key figure in the case. Most of these people respond as anyone would to an unidentified Englishman in Donald Rumsfeld glasses making enquiries about a dead loved one: they invite him in for tea and relate the story of Prado”s life, death and affair with fellow radical Estefania (Melanie Laurent, brandishing an aggressive Portuguese accent) in recurring flashbacks.

These may be even more turgid than the present-day action, though at least they aren”t hobbled by the casting department”s curious confidence in the romantic pairing of Irons and Gedeck. If Raimund does indeed find himself, he”s a few steps ahead of the audience, for whom he remains a complete cipher, apologizing repeatedly for his own lack of dynamism. (“You”re not boring,” Mariana reassures him at one point, though she”s pretty much coerced into it.)

At no point is it made clear why Raimund is so possessed by this disconnected memoir, given that Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann”s windy script flattens all its political charge and complexity into a rather passionless love triangle. August even achieves the considerable feat of making Lisbon look dowdy under the overlit glare of Filip Zumbrunn”s cinematography. Lena Olin, incidentally, pops up near the end to perform pretty much the exact same explicatory task she was assigned in “The Reader,” principally making you wonder how that project ever escaped the Europudding refrigerator.

On to gladder tidings. Some of you may recall that Arvin Chen”s “Au Revoir, Taipei,” a beguiling romantic caper that I first encountered (albeit without subtitles) at the Berlinale three years ago, wound up on my 2010 Top 10 list. Sadly, the Taiwanese-American director”s debut feature never secured a US release, but fostered enough goodwill on the festival circuit to generate considerable anticipation among the Berlin crowd for his follow-up, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (B). If the result is a shade less accomplished and appealing than its pitch-perfect predecessor, that seems a fair price to pay for its increased structural ambition, as it tackles weightier thematic territory and a broader spread of characters without losing the airy whimsy that appears to be Chen”s stock-in-trade.

Indeed, I feared that quality may have tipped alarmingly into tweeness as the pre-credit sequence culminated with a character floating skyward, Mary Poppins-style, on a spring breeze and an umbrella. But it”s an odd, anomalous lapse: while other, more integrated, flights of fancy include one character”s imaginary conversations with the star of her favorite soap opera and another”s karaoke-bar segue into a fantasy musical number, Chen”s fleet feet remain otherwise earthbound.

Where “Au Revoir, Taipei” seemed equally informed by the stylized playgrounds of Stanley Donen”s Hollywood and Wong Kar-wai”s Hong Kong, it”s Chen”s latest that really betrays his background as an apprentice to the late Edward Yang, both in the narrative intricacy of its relationships and the democratic equanimity with which he untangles them. Principally the story of a closeted gay family man surprising even himself as he slips out of the closet, the film is remarkable for the care and constructive humor with which it handles every affected party; no one character is a signposted stand-in for Freedom, Tolerance or Prejudice, just as no one”s behaviour is entirely right or unreasonable.

At the heart of the narrative is a complicated question: if hardly any relationship is perfect, can you be happily married outside the realm of physical desire? Wei-chung (Richie Jen), a mild-mannered optician (hey, there is a link to “Night Train to Lisbon after all) living in Taipei, comes close: an adoring father to a young son, he also loves his gentle, mildly depressive wife of nine years, Feng (Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan), as much as is humanly possible without particularly wishing to have sex with her. Increasingly antsy for a second child, she”s beginning to sense a drift. Meanwhile, after years of suppressing all sexual urges whatsoever, a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, out-and-proud wedding photographer Stephen (“Au Revoir, Taipei” standout Lawrence Ko, once more the chief comic element here), Wei-chung is lured back onto the gay scene he”d flirted with as a bachelor – and falls hard for receptive customer Thomas (Wong Ka-lok).

An abundance of sub-plots fleshes out the running theme of imperfect loves: as Feng increasingly loses her grip at work, her inordinately forgiving boss pines for her from afar, while Wei-chung”s spoiled, flighty sister (Mandy) breaks off her engagement to her doting dullard of a fiancé (Stone), who in turn finds solace in Stephen”s badminton-playing gay wolf pack.

It”s not exactly “La Ronde,” and some of the threads verge of the insipid, but this distinctly melancholy romantic comedy grows more courageously conflicted as it strolls along, building to a fresh, eminently fair denouement in which no one gets quite what they want in quite the way they thought they wanted it. As he demonstrated more effervescently (and with more technical verve) in his debut — and in tune with the titular song, touchingly sung by Fan in the aforementioned doo-wop fantasy sequence – Chen is a romantic at heart, but one capable of compromise.

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