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Past Article

Berlinale 04: Competition
By David Hudson
January 2, 2005 - 1:55 PM PST

Preview, Daybreak, Intimate Strangers.

The 54th Berlin International Film Festival, February 2004, as we covered it at GreenCine Daily.

Preview: January 26

At a press conference squeezed in between the Golden Globes the Oscar nominations, the organizers of the Berlinale, known more formally as the Berlin International Film Festival, unveiled the full lineup, program, the works.

This'll be the 54th. Not for me, of course, but for them. Fortunately, I've already written up a brief historical chronology I can simply refer you to so that we can move straight into what we have to look forward to: 394 films, 67 of those, shorts. Naturally, I won't be catching all of them. I'll be concentrating on the Competition, catching the odd showing in the Forum or Panorama when I can. [As it turned out, I caught little outside the Competition, but fortunately, Cory Vielma covered the Forum thoroughly and terrificly for us.]

Berlinale 2004

As for the conference, the numbers, the sponsors and so forth, I'll spare you the details, but this much should be said: The ever-charming Dieter Kosslick, the festival director you can barely make out on the far right there, and his team did a splendid job of almost introducing absolutely everything within the time period they'd set out for themselves, half an hour. They'd even rehearsed! So, out of respect for their efforts, just a few of the barebones essentials.

There are two geographical emphases this year, running throughout every program: South Africa and Latin America. I would add: Africa in general, actually, because there'll also be a special program devoted to the "Nigerian phenomenon," as Kosslick called it. You may have seen, for example, the recent piece in the Guardian on Nollywood. The BBC sent Nick Moran to make a movie in Nigeria where film is the boomingest industry in the young democracy. It wasn't exactly a blast for Moran. "Day four," he writes. "This is when things start to go belly up." But Kosslick and Co. had a grand time. They went down there and asked those in the know for guidance. Here's an industry that produces 1200 films on video a year. Who could help select just a few to show in Berlin? Why select any of them, came the reply. You just tell us what you need for your Competition, your Forum, your Panorama... and we'll make the films for you!

Thing is, they'll also be showing films from India that have fallen through the cracks between Bollywood and the arthouse, and there'll be a film from North Korea, and there'll be three young ladies flown in by the German army from Kabul to report on the festival for the folks back home, and all in all, I think what happened is: They set out to have two geographical emphases and ended up with a genuine festival of world cinema on their hands, which is wonderful. Bravo.

"All in all, there's a certain seriousness about the films in the program this year," says Kosslick, "you can't help but sense it." But wouldn't that be all but inevitable, given what all went down in 2003? Of course, as Kosslick hastens to add, there'll be moments of irony and fun, "and above all, hope," and that's as it should be, too. All in all, though, this team has its collective finger on the pulse of the planet right now.

February 5

Cold Mountain Cold Mountain opens the 54th Berlin Film Festival tonight. Yes, it's a strange choice, just as Chicago was last year. Why are these bombastic Miramax things heading up the wintertime festival that prides itself on being, well, if not exactly the anti-Cannes, the deadly serious counterweight? Because the point of these openers, screening out of competition, isn't so much to set the tone as to party, to get festive. They're glamour magnets, too (though it looks as if Nicole Kidman, who'd promised to come, won't), and that means press, which in turn draws visitors.

Berlin's big-time tourist events are the Marathon and the Love Parade, drawing around 100,000 and 750,000 people into the city, respectively. The Berlinale pulls in only tens of thousands, but they stay longer and spend more (the average tourist, reports yesterday's Berliner Zeitung, stays 2.3 days and spends 417 euros; a Berlinale visitor hangs around four or five days and spends 200 euros/day). Those numbers have to stay up to justify government subsidies. So while it's bad news that Kidman won't be here, it's good news that Jack Nicholson already is.

February 6

Though this is the Berlinale's second day, only two films actually in the Competition have screened so far: Om Jag Vänder Mig Om (Daybreak), the debut feature from Swedish director Björn Runge, and Patrice Leconte's delightfully understated comedy Confidences Trop Intimes (Intimate Strangers).


Jakob Eklund, Pernilla August and Daybreak director Björn Runge

I'd planned on skipping Something's Gotta Give, showing out of competition, in order to catch a film, any film that'll be hard to find once the Berlinale's over, but then, once I heard Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton would both show up at the press conference, appearances I surely did not want to miss, I opted for studying up by actually watching the movie they'd be talking about.

But let's start at the beginning of the day, that is, with Daybreak. First impressions are that, on the one hand, stylistically, it could have fit right in with last year's program with its Dogme-influenced handheld wooziness, but on the other hand, not so much thematically in that last year's batch took those loose cameras to places like Afghanistan, the remnants of Yugoslavia and the mines of China. Daybreak tells three stories of three mid-life crises in Sweden, a country most think of as one of the healthiest and most developed on the planet. But the news from Björn Runge is that all is not well in Sweden.

There's a peculiar, often comic but ultimately very moving desperation in nearly every character in Daybreak, which takes place over 24 hours, morning to morning, a vital turning-point sort of day for the protagonists of each of the three stories: Jakob Eklund and Pernilla August portray a couple who learn, stripped layer by stripped layer, that not only their marriage but their very lives are charade; a bricklayer is jolted into reordering his priorities when he's contracted to barricade an aging couple in their own home; and Ann Petren plays a divorcee who goes off the deep end only to... but let's not give it all away.

What makes the film click is the way each story careens from revelation to revelation, whipping your sympathies from one side to another and back again. Runge, a seasoned TV director in Sweden and a great admirer of Cassavetes, originally planned this one for television as well, with five stories instead of three. His honing is undoubtedly the right move, giving the characters room to reach out and surprise us. Eklund in particular praises Runge's approach: Whole scenes were talked through, flexed and rehearsed beginning to end and then performed that way as well, with cinematographer Ulf Brantås acting, as Runge puts it, as a "documentarian." The resulting reality, revealing a smudgy, not often seen side of Sweden, is convincing: These lives are shot through with misery that comes to a head one long night that ends with just enough hope. No more, but no less.

Leconte and Bonnaire

Patrice Leconte and Sandrine Bonnaire

Confidences Trop Intimes begins with a premise so promising that part of the suspense, at least for a while, involves wondering whether the film can possibly keep up with it. Where will it go from here: A woman on her way to her first appointment with a psychoanalyst walks through the wrong door and ends up spilling her marital problems out into the ear of a tax advisor. The good news is that Leconte keeps enough questions afloat to keep the plot bubbling along nicely while the film's real strength lies in performances of Sandrine Bonnaire as the troubled, mysterious and occasionally child-like Anna and Fabrice Luchini as the introverted yet dryly witty William. As for the rest, the compositions are as tasteful and confident as you'd expect from Leconte with the only surprise being just a tad more use of a handheld camera than usual for him.

During the press conference, Monsieur Hire was brought up more than once, and indeed, Leconte readily admitted the similarities; in fact, he's declared a self-imposed moratorium on stories about self-enclosed men learning to unwind a bit. We can be glad he got this one out of his system first, though.

Jack applauds Diane

Photographers jostle and get jostled in the struggle for a decent shot of Nicholson and Keaton

As with Cold Mountain, I don't have to tell you much about Something's Gotta Give you don't already know. Briefly, I'll just say that the first one begins strong and dissolves into predictability before wrapping with a scene so damn corny the journalists I saw it with had no qualms about laughing right at the face of the screen while the second began with a first half-hour or so rocky enough to make me consider sneaking into a different screening after all - before Nicholson and Keaton's complete investment in the characters won me over and swept me along to the bitter end.

The press conference that followed was one of those events you go to major festivals for. There you are (speaking of corny), in the same room with actors you've practically grown up with, whom you love unconditionally, and there they are, facing a rowdy throng of wide-eyed fans with pens and cameras and recorders, gushing with appreciation, though only one out of ten or so can express it in the form of a halfway decent question. It'll come as no surprise, I'm sure, to hear that Diane Keaton was a bit freaked - "There are so many of you and so few of us; it's weird, it's so fucking weird" - while Jack Nicholson took the helm in isn't-she-great-folks sort of way: "She can be so funny, and the next moment, it's this. And it's real!"

next >>>

Preview, Daybreak, Intimate Strangers.
Witnesses, Country of My Skull, The Missing.
Beautiful Country, Hands, Embrace, Primo, Next Life.
Nightsongs, Head On, Sunset, Maria, Final, Samaria, Weeping.
Kiss, Triple Agent, 20:30:40, 25 Degrees, Bears and Postscript.

back to past articles


David Hudson
lives and writes in Berlin.

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view past articles

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