I start the day at a screening of L’Arbre et La Foret, wittily (as it turns out) translated as Family Tree rather than The Tree and the Forest, by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. I’ve seen a couple of their earlier films (brightly-hued musicals and comedies), and–truth be told—I’m just hungry to see a French film. (Part of the allure of a festival film orgy is the inevitable mix of nationalities, budgets, and genres that weave themselves through your day.)
The story unfolds slowly, deliberately and talkily. Assorted family members, visiting the chateau-like home of their parents set in the forests that support them, are full of pain and recrimination after the funeral of the eldest brother, which the father did not attend. In an ocean of Eugene O’Neill-like conversation, secrets from the past are revealed, revolving around the internment of the father in a WWII Nazi concentration camp.
Gene Hackman famously said in Night Moves that watching an Eric Rohmer movie was like watching paint dry (also, famously, untrue), but Rohmer’s films are like sparkling MGM musicals compared to the somber L’Arbre et La Foret. Reader, I liked it – but over the days I have found myself liking most of what I’ve seen, without quite loving anything. What I most enjoy is the strong, intelligent, sensual presence of Francoise Fabian (yes, with the inevitable echo of her indelible presence in Rohmer’s Ma Nuit Chez Maud, a character, I hasten to add, nothing like this one).
Next up, Monga, an overlong (140 minutes) epic about a 5-member boy-band group of baby gangsters who rule the streets of a lively old eponymous quarter of Taipei. A few flashy set-pieces are separated by stretches of boredom (it’s surprising how little character revelation can be accomplished in 2 hours and 20 minutes). By my lights the best action sequence was a densely-populated street brawl running through the street market arcade and spilling outside. Alas, it’s the pre-credit sequence – granted, the credits come some time into the film – but I waited in vain for another as spectacular. Complicated betrayals and reversals (plus the obligatory, frequently-seen-in-other-movies-right-here-in-this-festival prostitute with a heart of gold, virginal beauty slightly obscured by her rather decorative birthmark of blue) end in the long-anticipated bloodbath. It’s apparently the biggest Taiwanese hit in decades. Afterwards one of the producers crows onstage: “Twice as much as Avatar!” Two of the young stars are on hand, and I find them difficult to tell apart in the flesh (easier onscreen, with distinctive haircuts and huge closeups). A strong homoerotic subtext in Monga hasn’t seemed to dull the appreciation of a large contingent of squealing adolescent girl fans who approach ever-closer with their flashing cameras.
Afterwards the official competition screening of Shahada (Faith), an episodic film about three young expatriate Muslims living in Berlin, the first movie directed by young film school graduate Burhan Qurbani. The film apparently began as his final project. It’s kinetic, well-shot, and well-acted, and I find the twists and turns of the three stories unpredictable (for once). The young girl who takes a pill while clubbing – it’s to induce abortion, not Ecstasy – becomes more doctrinaire than her father, a religious imam. A handsome young Senegalese who works in a food hall struggles with his emerging sexuality. And a married Turkish cop finds himself inextricably entangled with a young Bosnian woman who works in the same market. Comparisons with Paul Haggis’ Crash are inevitable. Afterwards the slickly-suited, emotional Qurbani brings 18 members of his cast and crew onstage: it’s something like a very chic class reunion.
I get back in line at the same theater, the glittering Berlinale Palast, for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Once again feeling guilty for squandering a festival slot to see a movie that will be released in the US, I justify it because (a) I’ll never get to see it on such a huge screen, so perfectly projected, and in the company of a sold-out, excited, and committed audience; (b) it’s not opening until July, by which time I will have somehow absorbed from the ether every beat of the plot – I already feel I know too much from its successful Sundance appearance; and (c), what the hell. The red carpet entrances are projected for the entertainment of the audience, and we learn that the pale-skinned Julianne Moore is left-handed as she smilingly signs autographs. Despite the near-zero-degree Celsius temperatures these first few nights, assorted red carpet strollers wear amazingly scanty outfits (and correspondingly amazingly high heels). Moore is wearing a strapless long black number with rather bulky, fluffy feathers around the bust. I don’t think the scholarly journals that deconstruct red carpet outfits, such as People and Us, would give this dress an A, but to me she looks amazing. Her red carpet companion, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, seems almost ostentatiously underdessed in dark coat and pants, with the inevitable serious-person severe dark-framed glasses.
Is it valid to announce the screening onstage as its international premiere -- after Sundance? Would calling it the European premiere devalue it in Berlin’s eyes? By now everybody must know that Julianne plays half of a lesbian couple, partnered with Annette Bening, and that the crux of the film is the introduction into their happy home of Mark Ruffalo, their 18-years-and-nine-months-earlier sperm donor. Emotional highjinks ensue. At least one plot twist is new to me, thank God. I like it quite a bit. (Is this getting monotonous?) To me it’s a more successful, more well-observed How We Live Today New Yorker short story than yesterday’s Please Give. And, having discovered the young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska on In Treatment (OK, along with everybody else), I enjoy anticipating her imminent appearance as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (not to mention, apparently, Jane Eyre and the currently-filming Gus Van Sant project that’s kept her away from Berlin).
I have a ticket for a 10:30 screening of Sylvain Chomet’s animated The Illusionist, which I could just make if I took a cab – I’m too tired to figure out the subway option. And then there’s the cab home afterwards, too – I’ve left the hotel to stay with friends in a more unfamiliar neighborhood. But I've learned in the many years I’ve attended the Toronto film festival that the chances of my staying awake through the next day’s lineup were probably doubled by skipping the midnight screenings (much as I loved them). And now I’m afraid that, with the passage of time, this painful truth might extend to post-10-p.m. screenings, too. (The frequent film festival joke, exchanged by jet-lagged attendees: ”I figure if I don’t sleep at night, I can always sleep in the movies.”) The lure of seeing a script authored by one of my film gods, Jacques Tati, is offset by the realization that (shhh!) I was not such a fan of the rather relentless The Triplets of Belleville, which one would have thought would be right up my alley. So I steal a last regretful glance at my ticket and head for home, where I discover a missed invitation to a festive dinner at a Turkish restaurant that I wish I could have joined, having, I realized, spent an entire day trudging from movie to movie entirely on my own.