I came to Berlin in search of movies, Clive Owen and wild boars, though maybe not necessarily in that order. In my four days here, I’ve seen no wild boars — more on these elusive fellows later — and, sadder still, no Clive Owen. But now that I’m about halfway through the 59th Berlin International Film Festival, or the Berlinale, I can say I’ve seen quite a few movies — although, as I’ve found to be the case with any film festival, I’m haunted by the feeling that I’m not catching the right ones, or the best ones.
And yet three of my favorite movies of 2008 — Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Johnnie To’s “Sparrow” and Fernando Eimbcke’s “Lake Tahoe” (which, after sitting in limbo for too long, is scheduled for a limited released stateside in March) — played the Berlinale last year. This is the second year I’ve attended the festival — once again, I’m here as a guest of the festival, participating in the Talent Press division of the Berlinale Talent Campus, where I’m spending a week coaching young film critics from around the world — and now that I have a better sense of the festival’s low-key but adventurous character, I can’t help seeing it as a hopeful barometer of the year ahead in movies. The Berlinale, which runs through next Sunday, most definitely begins and ends in winter, and yet somehow opens out into the more hopeful world of spring.
But it’s also a European festival, one that’s worlds away from the week-to-week routine of reviewing the likes of “Bride Wars” and “The Uninvited.” Here, if I only had the time, I could check out all manner of potential treasures and kicks in the head, from French provocateur Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard” to mumblecore veteran Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax.” In some ways, I’m as far from Hollywood as a critic can get.
And yet there’s no such thing as leaving it behind. I find that many of the European critics I speak with here — some of whom are dear friends and colleagues — have an even more conflicted relationship with Hollywood than their American counterparts do. On the one hand, the whole world, for better or worse, needs Hollywood: It still delivers, albeit with rather wobbly levels of efficiency — in that way, it’s not dissimilar to an unreliable drug — entertainment and beautiful people to look at. On the other hand, here in Europe there are plenty of reasons to hate Hollywood. Many of the journalists and critics who travel to the Berlinale from around the world arrive with the same directive from their bosses and editors, all of whom are desperate to attract readers in these tough times: “Screw those arty little pictures that no one will ever see. Just make sure you come back with a Kate Winslet interview.” (Winslet’s is one of the hot faces here this week, since “The Reader,” which opened in parts of the United States in early December, is included in the festival and is being seen for the first time by European critics and audiences.) Ultimately, everyone wants the same story — the hot interview with whomever — and the smaller stories, the ones told in the actual movies, can too easily get lost in the shuffle.
But in the past few days, I’ve found that those understandable frustrations have an uglier side, one that manifests itself as a disdain for anything that seems to European critics too commercially viable, too pandering, “too Hollywood” — whatever that might mean, given that not even Hollywood knows what’s truly “Hollywood” anymore. I began hearing the anti-Tinseltown drumbeat last Thursday, when German director Tom Tykwer’s strange and beautifully made thriller “The International” — starring Naomi Watts and the aforementioned Clive Owen — opened the festival. I’ll have a full review of the picture later in the week, but for now I’ll just confirm that, yes, “The International” is a Hollywood picture in the sense that it has relatively big stars and a major studio (Columbia) behind it. But the movie I saw and loved, even in my jetlagged state, at the press screening last Thursday felt “Hollywood” to me only in the best sense: Tykwer obviously had some money to work with here, and he spent some of it on the kind of elaborate, elegantly constructed set pieces that few mainstream directors know how to do anymore. (Wait until you see what he does with the Guggenheim Museum.) What’s more, “The International” is a leisurely thriller, which means it’s automatically a contradiction in terms: It can be called too slick, too boring, too “unlike anything else out there” and too “just like everything else out there” all at once. Those very conflicts are exactly what make it interesting.
I’ve heard numerous critics here complain that with “The International” Tykwer — whose brash, vital 1998 thriller, “Run Lola Run,” felt like a celebratory shot from a cannon, and whose last picture, the 2006 “Perfume,” floundered in the United States but did extremely well with European audiences — has sold out. I’ve heard others call it boring, which is at least a step toward some sort of valid critical assessment. But while it used to be a given that a talented director might like the opportunity to work in a variety of styles, and, when possible, with a budget of more than 85 cents, there are still plenty of critics (and not just European ones) who seem to believe that an earnest “little” picture inherently has more worth than an ambitious “big” one. No one who cares about movies, myself included, likes the fact that the world has become so thoroughly Hollywoodized. But for that, maybe the last place we should be laying the blame is on the pictures themselves. Is it possible that Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is of movies?
While I’m on the subject of antagonistic critics (and I note here, as an olive branch offered to my colleagues, that antagonism lies in the eye of the beholder), I have to note, with both puzzlement and dismay, that one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing here, “Mammoth,” by the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, was met with vehement hooting and booing at its press screening here on Sunday. Moodysson crashed onto the scene with the teen-lesbian love story “Show Me Love”" (its original title, “Fucking Amal,” was unusable in the United States). When Ingmar Bergman saw it, he reportedly said, “We are witnessing the birth of a master” — the kind of compliment that, coming from someone as revered as Bergman, could as easily be a curse as as a blessing, setting a standard that any young filmmaker would find it hard to live up to. Moodysson followed up with the intimate, ardent “Together,” set in a hippie commune, and then moved on to make tougher, more radical pictures like “Lilya 4-Ever,” about a Russian teen prostitute.
“Mammoth” is unquestionably more accessible: Gael GarcÍa Bernal and Michelle Williams play an extremely well-heeled Manhattan couple (she’s a surgeon, he’s a computer-game genius) who live with their young daughter in a SoHo loft. Because they’re extremely busy people, they employ a nanny, Gloria (Marife Necesito), who is from the Philippines, where she’s left behind a family of her own. Her goal is to save money to build a nice house — and a better life — for her two sons.
“Mammoth” is a movie with some problems: Moodysson breaks faith with the audience, perhaps unnecessarily, with a late scene involving an act of brutality against a child. And sometimes he’s too obvious in making his points, particularly in the way he draws parallels (and contrasts) between the ways the rich and the not-so-rich care for their children. There’s also another plot point that might make “Mammoth” unpopular: Bernal’s character, on a business trip to Thailand, first befriends a young prostitute, treating her kindly; later, he ends up sleeping with her. Depending on your view, that’s either morally reprehensible, or a suggestion of the way people — fallible creatures, all of us — feel a need for connection, even when it may be improper or ill-advised.
But “Mammoth” is the most affecting picture I’ve seen at the festival so far, one that at least tries to grapple with some very delicate ideas: among them, the reality that no matter how much we may feel we’ve succeeded in shrinking the world with technology, it’s still an impossibly large place — especially when the people you love are on the other side of it.
So why all the hooting? When I asked an English colleague about it, he said that perhaps this largely European audience felt that Moodysson, after making some rough, challenging movies, had gone soft in trying to make a picture that’s more acceptably Hollywood (there’s that ubiquitous adjective again). Maybe, he added, the perception was that Moodysson wanted to make some money (another term for “selling out”).
“Mammoth” may be unpopular here, but in the past few days I’ve seen much lousier pictures — including Bertrand Tavernier’s “In the Electric Mist,” an old-style Louisiana sorta-noir based on a James Lee Burke novel and starring Tommy Lee Jones — get a free pass. I shouldn’t beat up too much on “Mist”: The word is that it won’t be getting a U.S. theatrical release, instead going straight to DVD sometime in March. And it isn’t an arrogant picture — just an inept one. Sally Potter’s “Rage,” on the other hand — a bloated, self-important meditation on the nature of fame, wealth, celebrity and all that stuff — is definitely arrogant and possibly inept. “Rage” — which features a Robert Altman-esque assembly of actors including Judi Dench, Dianne Wiest, John Leguizamo, Eddie Izzard and Bob Balaban — didn’t go over too well at the press screening I attended. Still, no one booed, and I’ve also overheard some very kind, earnest defenses of what Tavernier was trying to do in “Electric Mist.” “Electric Mist” is well-intentioned, plodding and badly constructed; it’s good for about four minutes of discussion. “Mammoth” at least touches a hot button, and now that I’ve seen how much it has enraged and frustrated critics here, I’m curious to see what Americans will think of it — when, eventually, they get to see it.
But enough about movies. What about movie stars? What about Clive Owen? Owen is one of my favorite actors, and I made a very brief appearance at the festival’s opening night party for “The International,” just to see if I could get a closer look at that fabulous stubble. (A question to those of you who know about such things: Is there some sort of micromeasurement tool that you can use to make sure those little hairs have reached the proper length? Or do you just kind of “know” when it’s right?) But the party was crowded, filled with pretty young girls standing around waiting for something to happen, and no Clive Owen in sight. So I left.
From bores to boars: Some of you may have read, in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, that the city of Berlin is home to a surprising number of wild boars. (That Wall Street Journal article even includes a video with the enticing title “Wild Boars Invade Berlin” — now there’s a festival crowd pleaser for you.) For the most part, the boars live peaceably among the city folk, spending much of their time snorting around Berlin’s wooded parks, although they can be dangerous if provoked. Some locals feel protective of the beasts; others see them as a potential danger, particularly if their numbers, currently in the thousands, keep growing. According to the Journal article, the city has responded by appointing a number of “urban hunters” who are allowed to shoot the marauding miscreants.
Me, I just want to see one — but not too close. So I stay alert, particularly as I walk back to my hotel from nighttime screenings, looking for small, shining eyes and listening for those telltale grunting noises. I have four more festival days left. I hope the boars prove to be less elusive than Clive Owen. But I’m sure they won’t have better whiskers.