Berlinale 2018: Day 11

By Sascha Krieger

L’empire de la perfection (Forum / France / Director: Julien Faraut)

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, tennis enthusiast Gil de Kerdemac produced various series of instructional films about tennis. Starting with simple dry demonstrations of techniques and movements he later started filming the greats of his day during competitive matches.  His favourite subject soon became John McEnroe, the emotional and sensitive genius of 1980s tennis. From that footage, French director Julien Faraut has constructed a film about the pursuit of perfection – in sport and in film making. He looks at McEnroe’s obsessive perfectionism but also at the evolution and techniques of the films de Kerdemac made, has both realms mirror each other and sides of the same coin. The search for perfection in the one is used as a symbol for that in the other. Which makes sense, especially when it’s done in such a light-hearted, humorous and gently ironic way. Particularly convincing are the isolation of images only looking at one player (McEnroe) and the series of the same scene from different angles. This allows us to look at the familiar in different ways, sometimes bordering on the absurd, as well as show the difference between film making and TV and the images Gil de Kerdemac produces are quite different from those of live sports broadcasts. However, the viewer grasps the point rather early on during these 95 minutes and soon – the audience’s reaction was obvious – focuses more and more on the match the film closes with, McEnroe’s 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl. And suddenly we’re much closer to the realm of distanced and unreflected sports TV than the film would like us to be.

L’empire de la perfection (Image: © UFO Production)

Madeline’s Madeline (Forum / United States / Director: Josephine Decker)

How does it feel when all you ever want is be someone else – and yourself at the same time? That’s the dilemma Madeline finds herself in, a teenage girl and the protagonist of Josephine Decker’s latest film. We see her be a cat, a turtle, a pig, impersonation (if that’s the right term) feats her mother is worried about and attributes to mental illness while the leader of a theatre project Madeline has joined celebrates them. Helena Howard does a mind-blowing job conveying the rapid changes between „normal“, teenage stubbornness and acting and leaves open what of the latter is intentional and what might not be. We see her interact with her mother (Miranda July) at home and frequently in a car and with theatre director/teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) in various rehearsal spaces and at the latter’s home. Madeline experiences her world in a fragmented way, her own attempts at finding out what she wants, the irritated paranoia and desperate over-protectiveness of her mother, the fragile ambition of her teacher. Pressure rises from all sides and unloads in a final performance that is disturbing, bizarre and potentially liberating. As fragmented as she is, so is the film. Instability is at its heart. Expressionist splinters permeate it, the camera is unstable, frames lack balance, sound and image are often separated, rhythm floats feeling. The perspective is uncertain, it becomes increasingly unclear what is real and what just perception. Is the mother really this unstable herself when dealing with her daughter (Miranda July is a force of nature, too!), is Evangeline really this insecure or is this how Madeline perceives them? And is it actually Madeline whose perception we share? Hardly ever before has a film been able to translate mental instability – it remains unclear, how much of it actually is a real problem and how much the pains of growing up, especially as a mixed-race child with an absent father – into imagery, rhythm and sound as subjective, try and find a language for unstable perception such as this. Welcome to Madeline’s mind and world. Or is it ours?

Grass (Forum / Korea / Director: Hong Sangsoo)

In his just one-hour long film, prolific Korean film maker Hong Sangsoo, explores – again – the traps and impossibilities of human relationships. Shot in soft black and white, the film focuses of on two person frames, observing conversations in an all-day cafe. Long-time acquaintances meet, often after not seeing each other for a long time. Subjects often turn heavy real quickly: people blame the other for a mutual acquaintance’s suicide, they make advances to intrude the others private space or talk about their own suicide attempt. Lonely lost souls, strenuous connected by being in the same space or failing attempts to find contact. Most are actors, writers, film makers, the gap between art and life being reflected in the almost lab like setting of the film. The camera moves from one couple to the other, leaves the cafe only to end up in a restaurant and returns again. Classical music (mostly Wagner and Schubert), drained of all substance sounding as if packed in cotton wool, floats through the room, as incapable of feeling as Kim Minhee as Areum, a writing observer and eavesdropper who interprets what’s going on around her and expresses her own inability to connect in a confrontation with her brother and his fiancé. Gently rhythmic, the film moves circularly, taking up the canon format it also features on the soundtrack. Time, too, seems non-linear. Even when they’ve accused each other of the worst things imaginable, the couples remain, act and talk like nothing happened. In the end, before metaphorical images of growing plants, a possible connection scene shots through a window. In the distance, a glimmer of hope in this tender meditation about loneliness, life, the desire for closeness – and art’s ambivalent place in all this.

Dressage (Generation 14plus / Iran / Director: Pooya Badkoobeh)

Golsa is running. Exhilarated at first, stubbornly later, desperately at last. She has just committed a grocery store robbery when they realise the forgot the security camera video. Golsa is pressured into getting it but refuses to give it up when she does. Growing pressure to hand it over follows – from her friends, her parents, her accomplices‘ families. This only makes her more stubborn and committed to having things her own way. Dressage tells the story of one girl’s unintended rebellion against a society in which everything exerts pressure on the individual. Golsa gets caught in a web of patriarchism, epidemic corruption, widespread exploitation and a rule of law only upheld when convenient for those with power and money. The more the powers that be bear down on Golsa the more she is force to make choices and the more strong-willed she becomes. Her face is a closed book, but one that hints at what goes on beneath. The only one able to open it is Alvand, a dressage horse she takes care of and which also becomes a weapon in the world’s fight against her. The camera follows her face closely in images full of desaturated colour, cold and efficient. Only one, when she#s able to see Alvand once more, the screen is drenched in warm sunny colours, a symphony of a life that is only a dream as it’s not one Iranian society has in store for her. The consequence with which Golsa pursues her own path is reflected in the tight straightforward narrative follows her at an almost thriller-like pace. She rejects the way the others have planned for her in a tale of guilt and redemption both timeless and very specific to Iranian society. In the end, facing her responsibility is the ultimate act of rebellion in a system built on delegating it – to religion, authority, family or money. A small personal story aiming for the universal.

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