Berlinale 2013: Diary Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Don Jon’s Addiction (Panorama / United States / Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Jon is what one would probably call a player: good-looking, well-built, confident, charming when he wants to be. A ladies man who scores the women at the club with his friends and always takes home the „top scorer“. That is, until he meets Barbara, a stunning beauty who will not be taken home by him but does end up being his girlfriend? All good? No, because Jon is also into porn, very much so one might say. That gets him into trouble with Barbara and leads to something like a minor life crisis. But an unexpected and unlikely savior appears who might just have what it takes to make Jon change his ways. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in his own directorial debut and he is an excellent Jon: cocky, confidant on the point of arrogant, it’s all there – in his smile, his eyes, his stride. The film’s first have is a very entertaining often over the top satire of masculine buddy (and body) culture in the age of Jersey Shore. Gordon-Levitt cuts „real sex“ against pornography, returns to the same settings and scene patterns again and again, illustrating the repetitiveness, almost obsessiveness of his protagonist’s actions. A highly stylized, high-speed, well polished affair that paints everything a little too brightly, inhabited by caricatures behind which real people we probably all have met can be glimpsed. Unfortunately, the film loses its way halfway through, its direction and look becomes more conventional, its story-telling more serious as Jon is finally getting healed. Gordon-Levitt loses his initial certainty and takes refuge in the routine. Still, this is a valiant first effort which, at times, shows that it is a first one. And how could it go completely wrong if it features the likes of Julianne Moore, Scarlett Johansson and Tony Danza? Right, it couldn’t.

Gold (Competition / Germany / Director: Thomas Arslan)

1898: seven German immigrants come to Canada and embark on a trail north to make their fortunes in the gold fields along the Klondike river. Among them is a woman, Emily, played by last year’s Silver Bear winner Nina Hoss. Gold tells the story of their journey and failure and stubborn urge to go on. Or rather it doesn’t so excited does director Thomas Arslan seem about being allowed to do a Western in the untouched beauty of British Columbia. There is melancholy fake Neil Young music in the style of Dead Man, there is of course a subplot involving some villains for what is a Western without a showdown? And obviously this is a post-Eastwood Western so there has to be a sense of hopelessness, despair, loss. In Gold, this leads to endless scenes of people sitting around motionlessly. Aiming grave faces and saying grave things. The film leaves out no cliché, delivers one borrowed line after another as one after the other fellow travelers drops away. Forgotten the amusing opening scenes which belong mostly to group leader Peter Kurth who exhibits full German efficiency and appears more like a travel guide. Soon all humor fades, everything becomes dead serious and needs to have meaning. The quiet images often composed of stills and long unedited shots are mostly hollow, trying so hard to be art it becomes strenuous. There is no narration to speak of, no characters in any meaningful sense either. Even the superb cast remains largely pale, most of all Nina Hoss. It seems Arslan was content shooting a Western so why bother with things like story or characterization? As a result he may well have created the Competition’s worst entry. The award for the most life- and bloodless film should belong to Gold in any case.

Gloria (Competition / Chile, Spain / Director: Sebastián Lelio)

So this year’s Berlinale has its first true audience favourite: a Chilean film about a divorced woman somewhere in her fifties, haunting Santiago’s single parties in the search of, well, whatever comes along. What dies come along is Rodolfo, a recently divorced father of two with at least as much baggage to carry around as Gloria. Quite possibly even more. Considerably more one might sat. How they meet, staring at each other on the dancefloor, the uncertain looks they hardly permit themselves, the awkward first conversation: all this is finely observed, tenderly told without any rush, warmly sketched. There is a lightness, a naturalness to all of this that help the film avoid any of the traps a story like this may fall into. Even the way glimpses of Chile’s troubled present and even more past are worked into the story lack any hint of  feeling forced. There is, as so often at this Berlinale, a leitmotif, phones ringing and often not being answered. But thus, too, is just a natural part of this story. Gloria is totally unassuming and unsentimental portrait of a woman for whom the desire for love and strength and self-confidence are no contradictions. A tale about flawed humans trying to keep the balance between the I and the We, tenderly and completely honestly told. Which also features a very funny theory on the origin of cats and one of the greatest revenge scenes in quite a while. At the end, Gloria (a strong Silver Bear candidate: Paulina García) dances again, for minutes on end. It truly is a sight to behold.

Sakura namiki no mankai no shita ni (Forum / Japan / Director: Atsushi Funahashi)

OK, we all know that the cherry blossom is a powerful symbol in Japanese culture. But it really isn’t a symbol of purity, Kenji says in the beginning. In fact it represents hesitancy, he claims. So obviously we keep seeing plenty of cherry blossoms in this uninspired, heavy and tiring follow your heart story. Kenji gets killed in a work accident caused by a co-worker who subsequently falls in love with Kenji’s widow. All this happens shortly after the tsunami which resonates in the difficult economic situation which is the backdrop to the film but doesn’t interest much apart from that. Director Atsushi Funahashi puts everything on unbearably thickly: the realism which is painted with such a large brush that it turns upside down; the melodrama complete with sugary piano, suffering looks, long shots of faces and loads of bluish visuals; the fake emotional depth of the dialogues. Everything about this film is too much, the more it’s trying for a laconic tone, the more it pretends to go for the low-key approach, the heavier it hits the viewer in the face. This certainly isn’t the strongest year for Japanese films in the Forum.

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