The very first scene does not bode well. A man and a woman are screaming at each other. At the top of their lungs. It's the middle of the night and we can barely see either of them, but we're learning bunches: They haven't slept together in half a year. She wants a baby; he doesn't even want a dog. You're watching, you're listening, and you're thinking: This can go one of two ways. Either this is going to be one of those German films with lots of Sturm and Drang signifying nothing, a psychological study with nothing to study, or we'll get lucky and these characters are going to turn out to have more than one dimension after all, things beside the tearing of cloth and gnashing of teeth will happen and we'll get interested.
We get lucky. The international title of Oscar Roehler's new film, Angst, is a bit misleading. The original German title, Der alte Affe Angst, "that old ape fear," is a bit more like it. It's got a loose frankness about it and got stuck in Roehler's mind, evidently, when his father used to yell out the phrase at night. And his father, the writer Klaus Roehler, is more or less represented in the film, as he was in Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go), a semi-fictional portrait of his mother, actress Gisela Elsner.
André Hennicke (Robert), Marie Bäumer (Marie) and director Oskar Roehler
There are a few autobiographical strains in this "radical love story," as Roehler calls it, but the lovers in Angst, Robert (André Hennicke), a playwright, and Marie (Marie Bäumer), a nurse at a hospital station for children with AIDS, have taken on lives of their own, developing away from and beyond their real-life inspiration. Both bear scars; for Robert, thanks to past relationships and a smorgasbord of neuroses, sex and love are two separate drives that cannot be united. As he falls deeper in love with Marie, the less able he is to make love to her. As for Marie, her scars are quite literal and can be read as vertical lines running up each of her wrists.
When Robert's father falls terminally ill and Robert decides to visit him despite years of estrangement, the moment has the couple tossing aside their quarrels and sealing the relationship. They'll stick with each other through this. Then, that's over. Robert goes looking for sex elsewhere and Marie is driven once again to the edge.
None of this plot-outlining does any justice whatsoever to the energy of the story or the performances. "What happens" simply takes a back seat to "how it happens." Hennicke is a wiry firestorm of want and need. His comment at the press conference - "Every scene is a small film" - telling, because that's precisely how much he's thrown himself into this thing. It's a passionate, frantic performance, sometimes even comically so. Bäumer, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Romy Schneider (and no, she doesn't mind having it pointed out to her, she says, nor does she mind when journalists ask if she minds being asked all the time) plays a child anxious to grow up by having a child herself.
Ultimately, "this is a very romantic film," says Roehler. It is. There are surprises in store and Roehler does not offer them ironically. At the end, of course, "the story is just beginning," but the hope even there is unexpected.
Alexandra's Project is revenge. As the old saying goes, revenge is best served cold, and this dish is served very, very cold indeed.
Director Rolf de Heer (born in the Netherlands, he's lived in Australia since he was eight) has the opening credits roll over shots of an Australian suburb that looks a little too prim, too neat for comfort. Inside one of these dollhouses lives a family of four, Steve and Alexandra and their two kids. Today is Steve's birthday. The kids wake him with their cards before hurtling downstairs for breakfast and he rises to do push-ups in the nude. Everyone's in a chipper mood on this bright sunny day - except Alexandra. She looks in the mirror. "I'm so sorry, Steve." Then she spits and takes it all back.
Producer Julie Ryan and Helen Buday (Alexandra)
It takes forever to get rolling. There's Steve at his office, 50s American sit-com style, getting a surprise party and a promotion. There's Alexandra, back at home, getting the kids ready for school. Until the moment Steve's gone and she tells them there's been a change of plans. She looks worried, disturbed. Something's up, but we're not in on it. The kids think at first that they'll be helping her get the house ready for another surprise party that night.
It's the party Steve is fully expecting when he comes home and sees that all the lights are out. But when he unlocks the door and steps inside, there's no one there. He pokes around forever and finally finds a gift on the TV. "Open Me!" it reads in the kids' handwriting. "Play Me!" says the tape inside. On the tape, Alexandra and the kids tell him to go get a beer, relax and watch. Steve, with his beer in hand, and Alexandra and the kids on tape all say "Cheers!" to Steve's birthday.
Then, Alexandra dismisses the kids; she's going to make the "adult" part of the tape now. Now, Steve really gets interested. Alexandra sticks a cassette with cheesy music into a player and begins a clumsy strip-tease. Steve is all woo-hoo until the music stops and Alexandra's mood changes. What follows is the bulk of the film: Steve, evidently, has been a genuine prick throughout their marriage, treating Alexandra as a sex object and nothing else. Now, she's going to unveil an enormously complex package of revenge and there's no way he's not going to take it all in. Steve discovers he's locked in the house with no way out until he's seen it all and learned the extent to which Alexandra has gone to ruin his life.
Alexandra's package is unwrapped pretty cleverly; you think she's gone as far as she's going to go and then the next layer covering her pent-up fury is peeled off, and it's done in visual terms - omigod, a gun! That sort of thing.
The problem is that it takes a long, long time for the story to get rolling, and once it does, it unravels as a guy watching a video. It's not a bad little film (costing all of 1.6 million Australian dollars), but it's not all it could be, either. When Rolf de Heer (who was kept from Berlin by personal matters but sent a statement) wrote the screenplay, dreaming it up one Christmas, writing in January, raising funding and shooting that March already, "the issue of fairness did not enter my mind." I appreciate the point; it's not the writer-director's role to ensure that all his characters get an even cut of good and bad all around. But the biggest criticism he's heard is that "Steve did not deserve what happened." He agrees, "but let's not forget, neither did Alexandra."
Zhou Yu's Train
The last time Gong Li and director Sun Zhou worked together, the film was Breaking the Silence, the story of a mother fighting to get her deaf child an education. The film was shown at the Berlinale out of the Competition the year Gong Li was President of the International Jury (2000) and a new face for L'Oréal, one of the festivals major sponsors. Check the page on Berlinale history, and you'll see a snapshot of her taken in 1993 with her then-partner Zhang Yimou. In other words, Gong Li and the Berlinale go way back.
Zhou Yu's Train (Zhou Yu De Huoche) is also being shown out of the Competition, which is probably a good idea. Let me immediately add that this is a beautiful little film and certainly worthier of a spot in the race than a whole handful of the films that were selected, but it is a little film nonetheless, despite Sun Zhou's ambitions.
Pix coming soon: Tony Leung Ka-Fai (Chen Ching), director Sun Zhou, Gong Li (Zhou Yu) and Sun Honglei (Zhang Jiang)
We're rarely 100 percent sure what exactly is going on in Zhou Yu's Train, and that's just the way Sun Zhou wants it, he says. Zhou Yu (Gong Li), a painter in a ceramics factory in the sunny northern Chinese town of Sanming with a thing about always being on the move, finds a poem that's been written about her and falls in love. The poet, Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), asks her at one point whether she's fallen in love with him or with the poem. She thinks a moment and replies that she's fallen in love with the poet.
And how. Chen Ching lives in Zhongyang, a gray-blue smoggy city a full day's journey away by train. Twice a week, Zhou Yu boards the train, spends a night with Chen Ching and rides back to work. You begin to realize after a while that it's the love she's in love with, the desire she desires. The unattainable ideal. Zhou Yu is challenged to face up to this when she meets a veterinarian, Zhang Jiang (Sun Honglei, an absolute natural with an infectious smile). He falls for Zhou Yu but can't break the spell. To balance things out, although it's a very minor subplot, Xiu (also played by Gong Li, but with short hair) envies Zhou Yu just as much as Zhang Jiang envies Chen Ching.
But the center of gravity of the film remains Zhou Yu. Sun Zhou so much wanted to tell the story of a strong female Chinese character that when he found the original story to base his film on, "The Scream of Zhou Yu," in which a man is torn between two women in two different towns, he contacted the author and asked if he could switch genders on everyone. The author thought for three days and finally issued his approval.
Gong Li, "the best actress in China," Sun Honglei eagerly pronounced, was at a bit of a loss at the beginning. She couldn't understand why her character was forever hopping trains, couldn't pinpoint the motivation. But Sun Zhou told her not to think of this as a burden: "I give you a feather," he said, encouraging her to feel Zhou Yu's love and only Zhou Yu's love and to take everything else as being only half-there. All the performances take on this lightness and spontaneity, and it's wonderfully fresh and pleasurable to watch. "We could act very freely," says Sun Honglei. "Sun Zhou told us, 'Embrace the whole world, the entire audience with your heart.'"
They have, and if it means anything, if I get a chance to immerse myself in this film again someday, I will. Eagerly.