Berlinale 2017: Day 2

By Sascha Krieger

T2 Trainspotting (Out of Competition / United Kingdom / Director: Danny Boyle)

„You’re a tourist to your youth“, Simon says to Mark at one point during this sequel to Danny Boyle’s early 1990s cult classic, accusing his former best friend of nostalgia. The trouble is: The same accusation could be made against the film. Sure, the gang of more or less deranged characters is back, so are the fast edits, psychedelic visual effects and pumping music. Gone, however, is the youth culture this once tied into. That’s forgiveable, after all, the four (ex-)junkies are all in their mid-forties now. But what to replace it with? Nostalgia, mainly. T2 Trainspotting is full of archival footage, aimed at contrasting the then and now. Which is hard if the story seems like a rather lazy rehashing of the key elements of original plot. At its end, Mark (Ewan McGregor) left his friend with the money from a heist. This time there, obviously, is revenge, more drugs and more betrayal. The characters have grown but not grown up, yet, obviously the original sarcasm cannot stand. After all, at their age, this is the last chance. So, in the end we get a sense of, if not redemption, then at least lessons learned and doors opening. This makes the once hip aesthetics seem as out-of-place as the characters and the strained action sequences and stale dramatics. It would be one thing to show the old boys pathetically trying to be back at their game – it is quite another for Danny Boyle to do this. Sure, the characters are strong enough to make the original film’s fans glad to see them again, yes, there’s plenty of hilarious humour, yes, there are nice allusions to age, its demands, its price, its ridiculousness. Substance, however, there is much less.

T2 Trainspotting (Image: © Sony Pictures Releasing GmbH)

T2 Trainspotting (Image: © Sony Pictures Releasing GmbH)

The Dinner (Competition / United States / Director: Oren Moverman)

Four people meet for dinner at a decidedly upscale restaurant: Paul a cynical misanthropist slash ex-history teacher; his wife, caring, warm, strong; his brother, a charming politician; and his younger second wife. What could go wrong? Everything, of course, as a horrific event involving the two brothers’ sons combines with past resentments and hardly buried baggage into a very explosive mixture. While throwing in brighter, more softly coloured flashbacks and an only slowly revealed nocturnal side plot, the scenes at the restaurant provide the film’s core and foundation. Shinily elegant at first glance, the restaurant becomes a noble, multi-room and increasingly dark cave in which masks fall, monsters are revealed as decent, caring people and decent, caring people as monsters. Jumping back and forth without much of an explanation, the multiple truths are revealed as if in a jigsaw, without the picture ever fully completed. Confusion is a communication tool but it is also at the heart of the story. All characters are confused and so is the viewer. At times the film reminds of the God of Carnage style conversation drama so popular in today’s theatre but it goes beyond this by weaving past and present together in a way that includes the future, too. The dinner that structures the film serves as a confinement symbolic of the cages the characters are trapped in. Cages of love, resentment, hurt feelings and mental barriers, some chose, some not. War as a leitmotif (Paul is obsessed with the Civil War) is somewhat redundant – the real war happens between and, more importantly within the characters. What is a person willing to do for themselves, what for those who are close and where does one hurt the other and vice versa, is it ok to give up oneself to save another? And is family rerally the seed of society or its downfall? Questions the film asks in an intense and often irritating way. The answers are up to the viewer.

Testről és lélekről (Competition / Hungary / Director: Ildikó Enyedi)

A snowy forest. A stag and a doe meet. They carefully look, come closer, hesitatingly start exploring each other. This is how Testről és lélekről (Body and Soul) starts. And thus starts one of film history’s more unusual love story between a middle-aged slaughterhouse director and his new younger quality inspector. Both have, for different reasons, issues that prevent them from being too social, to put it mildly. Told in quiet, mostly still and very clean, carefully composed, somewhat painting-like images, bordering on the antiseptic, and loaded with symbolism – the soul versus body on specifically dominant as witnessed by the slaughterhouse setting – the film, however, has a surprisingly light touch, almost like a first though somewhat belated love would feel like. What it tells is an unusual story of the ordinary, an unlikely tale about the probable as, in the driest of poetries, the film shows how hard it is to leave one’s shell and how easy it may end up being when body follows soul. A little kitschy? Maybe. But devastatingly true as well.

Golden Exits (Forum / United States / Director: Alex Ross Perry)

Naomi is 25, from Australia and in New York for a few months in order to help Nick archive his late father-in-law’s left materials. She catches not only Nick’s but also Buddy’s, the son of one of her mother’s old friends, eye, and inspires jealousy in the wives. Add to this Nick’s and Buddy’s equally frustrated sisters-in-law and you have the recipe for a classic New York upper middle class conversation comedy or drama. However, while the bright New York spring provides a light foundation for the calm, mostly still images, the script adds a heaviness that doesn’t do the film any good. Everyone is frustrated, everyone has unfulfilled desires, everyone wants what the others have and they lack, family, of course, is a burden, a prison of expectations and rules no one can escape from. Naomi is the catalyst but she is no exception. The characters played by rather wasted major talents are one-dimensional as suffocated by an extremely rigid and highly formulaic characterisation and the stereotypes they have to present. Humour is rare, the touch heavy and overly obvious, the purpose of every scene, of every plot twist meticulously spelled out. This sucks the life out of the conversation, that centrepiece of this sub-sub-genre which in Alex Ross Perry’s direction feels strangely stale. Someone should open the windows and let some air in.

Barrage (Forum / Luxembourg, Belgium, France / Director: Laura Schroeder)

Barrage’s strongest moments are its beginning and its end. it opens on a young woman watching children. Her focus narrows on one, seemingly lonely girl in particular. She observes her, follows her, talks to her. At this point, it is entirely unclear what drives her. Is there an existing relationship, what are her motives? The unsettled fluidity of the beginning, narrated in a dry realistic tone, opens a playing field the film doesn’t really use but does symbolize the instability of the ground the main character treads on. As does the ending: the woman, Catherine, stands in an empty apartment, looks around, confused, startled, opening her eyes on a world she cannot quite grasp, she’s not entirely certain of. As she is of herself. There is a chance that the pale sunlight might promise better days. But there is no certainty, just the fluidity and openness of life. What happens in-between is less interesting: an often told tale of mothers and daughters, regrets, lives messed up, Catherine trying to make amends. Barrage is a conventionally narrated film that adds little to the well-worn subject of the junky mother returning to the child she abandoned and the over-protective grandmother. Except the beginning and end. That’s a good start.

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