A big beast with a split personality, the Berlinale likes to parade big Hollywood names while playing films of serious political intent. In that sense, Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey is exemplary — what could be more Berlin than a directorial debut by a major movie star with the Bosnian war on its mind? Suffice to say here that Jolie’s gauche portrayal of a Night Porter-type relationship between a Serb soldier and his Bosnian captive strains for significance. But it does illustrate Berlin’s main problem: how to stay relevant when the better films are all held back for Cannes.
Any event that can line up Jolie, Jake Gyllenhaal (on the jury), Christian Bale (in Zhang Yimou’s (張藝謀) very weak Rape of Nanking epic The Flowers of War), Meryl Streep (receiving a lifetime achievement Golden Bear — and brandishing a Russian doll with her face painted on it), can guarantee itself big audiences, and the crowds do come. What’s more of a problem is that the films often trail bad reviews after them.
Take Jayne Mansfield’s Car, actor Billy Bob Thornton’s latest stab at directing. It’s an ambitious Tennessee Williams-like Vietnam War era portrait of a southern US family of three grown-up sons (Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick) and a daughter (Shawnee Smith) ruled by paterfamilias Robert Duvall. When the body of Duvall’s long-gone wife is shipped back from England, they’re forced to meet her second husband John Hurt, his son (Ray Stevenson) and his daughter (Frances O’Connor). Much culture-clash absurd comedy ensues, some of it outrageously black, not to mention crazy. Tone is all over the place, there’s too much “signature” acting, strange musings on war and family abound, yet it has a wicked sense of sharp humor. Many critics deemed it a complete failure; I thought it a constantly surprising hoot.
As the competition jury, led by an amiable Mike Leigh, soon discovered, Berlin usually favors rather conventional stories, but one strong exception was Tabu, from the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. This intricately structured memoir of a love affair among whites in Africa in the 1960s borrows its title and some of its technique from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent film set in Tahiti. Gomes’ Tabu starts, in black-and-white silent mode, with a droll tale of a jungle explorer so haunted by his dead lover that he feeds himself to a crocodile who then becomes a melancholy ghost. The film proper begins (with sound dialogue and modern shooting techniques) in present-day Lisbon as Pilar, an elderly woman, frets about her neighbor, Aurora, who is frittering her savings away at the Estoril casino. Unfolding in a gentle manner full of wry humor, this section leads us to Aurora’s torrid 1960s past, which returns to a silent cinema mode of piercing looks between the gorgeous young Aurora and her Errol Flynn-like beau, and expressionist lighting as the voiceover explains the action and quotes from exquisitely purple love letters. This sleight-of-hand card game of a film was easily the festival’s best.
A different kind of invention was at work in the notorious Finnish black comedy Iron Sky in which a colony of surviving Nazis prospecting gas on the dark side of the moon decides to return to earth to “cleanse” it. Best characterized as a melding of ’Allo ’Allo with Star Trek, the film revels in broad performances and a high-school kind of kitsch that’s endearing enough and would have taken the film to Galaxy Quest levels if it only had some decent gags. The audience I saw it with gave it a somewhat muted reception, the cause of which is easy to imagine.