“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” A modern retelling of a Paracelsian myth set in Berlin, Christian Petzold’s hotly anticipated Competition film Undine washed up on the shores of the German capital last night like a soggy old boot. The Berlin School director reunited the main cast of his last film Transit (Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski) to deliver a disappointing thriller almost completely devoid of suspense or intrigue. While elegantly shot and finely acted, one can’t help but notice that material like this calls for a faggoty touch – the end product feels safe and toothless, not to mention derivative of superior aquatic adventures (The Lure, The Shape of Water, Ningyo Densetsu). Later in the evening, queer directors Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra presented Todos Os Mortos (All the Dead Ones) to an enthusiastic audience filled with friends and supporters. A fabulously stuffy period piece that starts off in 1899 São Paulo and ends in modern-day Brazil, the difficult story of a rich family from the white majority attempting to exploit a former slave requires an enormous amount of patience that eventually pays off – the slow and talky first hour slowly gives way to a deeply chilling second half with a strikingly bold narrative twist.
Set in Zaragoza with the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games roaring in the background, Pilar Palomero’s first full-length feature Las Niñas (Schoolgirls) might be the best film in this year’s Generation section. Highly informed by the director’s own experience in Catholic school, the story follows a friendship between shy 11-year old Celia (Andrea Fandos) and Brisa (Zoe Arnao), a new girl with a rebellious streak who helps our young protagonist navigate the treacherous world of strict nuns, first bras and shady bullies. Aside from a little TV/radio noise and music that timestamps the early 90s era (Chimo Bayo, a Eurodance cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night”), Palomero shows admirable restraint with period details and never resorts to cheap nostalgia. The boxy 4:3 format nicely adds to the vintage vibe, and the entire cast of young actresses have such natural and unforced chemistry, it feels like they’ve known each other their entire lives. Leads in teen films are often directed to have a constantly blank and passive demeanor, and can be boring to watch – Fandos, brilliant in only her second film, is always expressive, even in the quietest moments. The lovely third act highlights the importance of familial honesty in a healthy adolescence by addressing tension between Celia and her mother (the always-radiant Natalie de Molina), and Palomero ends the film by circling back to its opening scene in a way that’s both sweet and optimistic. There’s not a lot of plot here, but that’s not a problem – it’s a beautifully calm and nuanced character study of a young person learning to process emotions and use their own voice as they enter a crucial phase of development.
90s alterna-teens and Rayanne Graff stans will find plenty to identify with in Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Goddess of the Fireflies, a woozy adaptation of Geneviève Pettersen’s 2014 novel about a teenage girl whose parents’ divorce triggers a destructive mescaline addiction. Opening with a vicious family fight and closing with Soap&Skin’s moody cover of Desireless’ worldwide smash “Voyage Voyage,” Barbeau-Lavalette’s film knowingly captures a very specific moment in time when grunge was king and the internet was just becoming a thing. Our pre-smartphone-era heroine Catherine (Kellly Depeault) may not be likable, but she’s hardly passive or boring – she will snatch your man, beat your ass and then boogie down to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack like nothing happened. While never didactic or judgmental, Barbeay-Lavalette also seems careful not to glamorize all the bad behavior onscreen – we’re merely witnessing someone spin further out of control as they withdraw from reality into a blissed-out haze of nothingness. Heavy on atmosphere and light on plot, the film hums along confidently regardless as it wraps itself and the audience in a druggy cocoon, and the music choices (Portishead, The Breeders) stay consistently on-point.
After last year’s Sound of Metal, a film about a drummer losing his hearing, Riz Ahmed returns with Mogul Mowgli, another intense look at a musician facing a life-changing health crisis. Ahmed, who co-wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq, plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper based in New York. On the eve of a game-changing European tour, Zed returns to London to visit his conservative family. Following an alleyway confrontation with a fan, he ends up in the hospital and learns of a life-threatening autoimmune condition that forces him to put things on hold. On the surface, Tariq’s film could be taken as unfocused, but the somewhat messy and chaotic energy perfectly reflects all the warring thematic factions – Zed’s struggle to accept his illness, his inability to give up pieces of his work to a goofball rapper (the hilarious Nabhaan Rizwan), not to mention unresolved familial and cultural identity issues. Ahmed earnestly commits to a demanding performance that requires equal amounts of anger and vulnerability, and his ferociously political talents as an MC are impossible to ignore. The film gets more and more feverish as it moves along, and Annika Summerson’s lyrical cinematography during hallucinatory flashbacks of a mythical masked figure from partition-era Pakistan has a mysteriously lingering effect.
There’s a Sydney Pollack joint from the late ’60s starring Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They) about a grueling Depression-era dance competition that lasts for weeks. German director Bastian Günther’s One of These Days hits a similar mood with his new film about a Hands On A Hardbody contest run by a Texas car dealership. Led by Emmy winner Carrie Preston (The Good Wife, True Blood) and British actor Joe Cole (A Prayer Before Dawn), it’s a well-acted ensemble piece that gradually turns its focus on one person while offering a great amount of empathy for the struggles of its working-class characters. Though not overtly political, this is a town where capitalism appears to have failed pretty much everyone, and some form of toxic masculinity has poisoned most of the men. After a surprising twist late in the film that’s neither unearned nor implausible, Günther takes a huge narrative risk, and while kinda brave and amusing, it really sticks out like a sore thumb. The film gets into a little more trouble with an odd choice in storytelling structure – a long-winded epilogue that serves as an introduction to a key character feels like it belongs in the first hour. Minor problems aside, still a highly recommendable film.
Deliberately frigid and oblique, Melanie Waelde’s unpleasant teen drama Nackte Tiere (Naked Animals) attempts to humanize a gang of disaffected German high school seniors, but fails to leave much of an impression. Two minutes in, Katja (Marie Tragousti) punches Sacsha (Sammy Scheuritzel) and he responds by throwing her headfirst into a locker bay. The film spends the rest of its scant 80 minutes with these two and their posse of equally dead-inside friends as they flirt and do martial arts and whatnot. While Tragousti and Scheuritzel indeed have an undeniable spark, the violence and sexual dynamics within the group feel so random that they become meaningless – their characters intentions seem as muddled and vague as the rest of the film. Waelde seems more concerned with creating an anonymous and foreboding world with no discernible rules than providing characterization and story. We never really get to see the demons lurking within these people, or what causes their odd behavior. Parents? School? Sexual Tension? Seasonal Affective Disorder? Nothing really happens, nothing is answered, and we’re left feeling more confused than the people onscreen.
Stay tuned for more WoW @ Berlinale coverage, including a roundup of the best queer films at the festival.