By Sascha Krieger
Before Midnight (Out of Competition / United States, Greece / Director: Richard Linklater)
So here they go again. Almost twenty years it’s been that Jesse and Celine met on a train to Vienna, nearly ten since they met again in Paris. Now, after Richard Linklater’s witty, touching beautifully light conversation pieces Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, we now meet them again in southern Greece. Since their last meeting, they have remained together, they have twin daughters and have just spent the summer with Jesse’s teenage son. The film takes a while to get out of first gear, the long conversations with their hosts and friends are a little drawn out, slightly pretentious, a little stale. The film doesn’t get off the spot until the two are left together. There again are the long walking shots, the witty, winding, complex conversations about everything and especially each other, their lives, fears, dreams, hopes. This time they argue a lot. An early midlife crisis that takes their relationship to the brink of collapsing. Again, all we see are two people talking, evaluating, re-evaluating, dismissing, picking up their relationship. Everyday stuff just like it happens in so many relationships, everywhere, all the time. And again, it feels real and natural, as if it were actually happening right there and right then. There are fantastic lines as usual, clever insights and loads of the silly way people behave at each other. Before Midnight is a smart and entertaining look at people at a point in their lives when they start wondering what they might be missing or whether they shouldn’t change their lives and will there still be time for this. Some of the gender role play isn’t all that far from clichéd but as before it doesn’t really matter. And as a Greek journalist in the press conference says, the place is always the third protagonist in the series. Southern Peloponnes isn’t a bad one.
Layla Fourie (Competition / Germany, South Africa, France, Netherlands / Director: Pia Marais)
A young black South African woman starts a new job working for a company that conducts lie detector tests. On the way to her first client she kills a man in a car accident leading for this seeker of truth to get entangled in a web of lie which threatens not only her but also her little son. The first man she tests is, of course, the dead man’s son. Sounds bad? Well, it gets worse. The way the film goes about constructing a relationship between Layla and the killed man’s family – including, obviously, an ill-fated love affair with the handsome son – is almost too crude to be believed. The story’s twists and turns border on the ludicrous, the country’s lingering race issues are little more than a smokescreen, the film’s symbolism (the lie detector! the constant returning to the scene of the crime!) incredibly heavy-handed, the characterization one-dimensional at best. Direction and photography add nothing to the film which rehashes an old topic, a quintessential tale of guilt and responsibility, of getting caught in a vortex of lies which one cannot escape from, and turns it into pure blandness. Psychological distress? Serious ruminations about moral duty and conscience? Questions of guilt and innocence? No trace if that. At what point is it justified to worry about the overall quality of this year’s Berlinale Competition? Layla Fourie offers plenty if time to ask such questions.
Tanta Agua (Panorama / Uruguay, Mexico, Netherlands, Germany / Directors: Ana Guevara Pose, Leticia Jorge Romero)
This certainly isn’t Lucía’s dream holiday: a week with her embarrassing father and annoying little brother in a rundown holiday village somewhere in Uruguay. And then, on top of this, it’s raining all the time. Not an ideal setting for a girl just getting into puberty. So there’s no surprise she sits around sulking all the time, a look with which she’ll infect the rest of the family pretty soon. And yet, the film quickly develops a light, warm tone despite its dreary setting. There is, as the title suggests, plenty of water in this film: torrential rain, a river, a swimming pool. The images almost feel damp as if the rain is soaking the screen. Still, the two directors tell the story of a slow, fragile human unfreezing process so gently, unassumingly and without a hint of a heavy touch that the viewer is quickly drawn into these all too ordinary happenings. There is plenty od quiet humor, funny family scenes full of tenderness or that great sequence in which the camera looks at the group visiting a dam. How they stand, look, fidget, how Lucia stands back as if to distance herself from everything thar’s going on, reveals more than any close up could. After a long period if stagnation things start happening, there is a first crush, a dusappointment, a wonderfully laconic ending. The camera moves in and out, stays close to a face or move away, shoot through a windscreen or move to object. A slow film that never feels slow, that takes its time and manages to make the everyday exciting exactly by having nothing exciting about it. A wonderful little film about a girl about to leave childhood and a great find in what hasn’t been the strongest Berlinale so far.
Interior. Leather Bar. (Panorama / United States / Director: Travis Mathews, James Franco)
When William Friedkin’s film Cruising, starring Al Pacino playing a cop going undercover in the gay leather scene to solve a series of murders, premiered at the 1980 Berlinale, it turned out to possibly be the most controversial Competition entry in the festival’s history. Not only here: In order to get a rating in the United States, 40 minutes had to be cut, 40 minutes never since seen. Interior. Leather Bar. is a fake documentary about a project trying to re-imagine the lost 40 minutes. While in reality, this is largely Travis Mathews‘ project, in the film it’s his co-director James Franco who appears as the driving force, pronouncing this to be about freedom of speech and expression, about resisting the concept of a norm for human behavior, about not denying the central part sexuality plays in human nature. This is the second film in this year’s Berlinale (after Don Jon’s Addiction) in which a character states that everyone is watching porn. However this may be, Interior. Leather Bar. is certainly pretty explicit in the actual scenes re-imagining the lost Cruising footage, stylish, polished, fast-edited scenes with a lot of real sexuality. In this day and age though, there is little new, exciting or even shocking about this. An eye opener it is not. Which leaves the „documentary“ part which basically consists of Val Lauren whose character – a straight actor named Val, of course – is playing Pacino’s role looking uncomfortable, talking about how uncomfortable he is feeling and asking others if they are uncomfortable, too. And surprisingly, he does look, well, uncomfortable. Understood, but whether that is enough for even a 60-minute film is quite another question. At some point during the film, Franco goes missing. Sort of fitting, one might say.
La Paz (Forum / Argentina / Director: Santiago Loza)
Liso is a young man freshly released from a psychiatric hospital. What brought him there, the film doesn’t tell, instead we watch him try and get back into life. Or rather we watch others get hin there: his overprotective mother, his impatient father, the understanding housemaid. Liso on the other hand remains passive, his face expressionless. This man has not left hospital alive, a living dead, victim of depression or his medication or both. And a man who has always been and still is a canvas for others‘ projection. It is one of the strengths of La Paz that it neither explains nor judges. This is not a psychological portrait but a look from the outside at someone who has moved beyond understanding – and his environment who has to come to terms with this. La Paz consists of a sequence of episodes in all of which Liso is the protagonist and an absence at the same time. They feel random just as what is happening to Liso. Whether he has sex with a prostitute or goes with his father to a shooting range, nothing really matters. He drifts through the scenes as he does through life, aimlessly, in no particular order, everything is interchangeable. Santiago Loza has created an only seemingly freely floating film that is actually quite carefully constructed. Direction and photography are never in one’s face, it is Liso’s drifting existence that determines its rhythm, that sets its tone. Yes, at times things get a little repetitive and the solution appears somewhat on the easier side but maybe things are a little simpler sometimes than we have come to assume? Santiago Loza’s film is completely unspectacular and could be easily overlooked. It would be shame though.