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Berlinale 2020 Dispatch 2: The Salt of Tears, Siberia, Undine

The Salt of Tears

At the risk of being canceled, I’ll admit that in the days since I watched The Salt of Tears, I’ve found myself wondering, “Who will make films like this when Philippe Garrel is gone?” (The best answer I’ve heard so far: Louis Garrel.) By “this” I mean a stereotypically oh-so-French comedy with an existential bent. Or a season in the life of a dour-faced, impoverished young artist who beds every beautiful woman he meets and is too young and too myopic to realize he’s a gaping asshole. Or the story of a boy who loved, disappointed and mourns for his father. Or the perspective of an aging man who, to quote another now-aging man, wishes he knew what he knows now when he was younger. At the very least, I will miss the precision of Garrel’s and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s attacks. After the hero of The Salt of Tears cancels a rendezvous with one woman because a last-minute change of plans forces him to remain at home with another, they mock his stupid anger in ironic voiceover: “He felt his cowardice had benefited Genevieve without him deciding it.” Who will write that line two decades from now?

I suspect The Salt of Tears is the film we will most often point to when we discuss “late Garrel.” It’s a catalog of the director’s recent preoccupations and formal moves—among them widescreen black and white cinematography and joyous, kinetic dance sequences—all working to the best effect since Regular Lovers (2005). Logann Antuofermo is Luc, a provincial carpenter who, after years of apprenticing under his beloved, aging father (André Wilms), travels to Paris to interview for a position in the prestigious École Boulle and, while there, picks up Djemila (Oulaya Amamra). They meet cute, while waiting for a bus, which is an opportunity for Garrel to do what he does better than anyone: getting young actors to show the nervous excitement of first attractions. While Antuofermo and Amamra stand side by side on the bus, not quite touching, Garrel cuts away briefly from the two-shot to a stranger sitting a few feet away, our surrogate witness to what can only be described as a spark between two impossibly charismatic performers. 

I’m too new to Berlin to step into the debate over whether The Salt of Tears should be in the competition; I’ll add only that it is among my favorites of the eight competition films I’ve seen. That Garrel’s signature views on the sentimental educations of young men can now seem out of date doesn’t erase the exactness and wisdom in his filmmaking. The Salt of Tears ends suddenly, like a shot, after Luc delivers a line that I can imagine Garrel carrying with him since Maurice Garrel died a decade ago. It’s a wrecking ball of a line that destroys, in surrealist fashion, the possibility of this particular movie continuing to exist for even one more frame. The ending works only because of the filmmaking choices leading up to it, including a rare (for Garrel) and deeply merciful close-up of one of the actors and the unusual decision to leave the camera on a person who is delivering bad news rather than the person who is receiving it. It’s quite a feat—I don’t know of another director who could imagine the sequence, let alone pull it off.

Garrel’s problematic fixations seem quaint compared with those on display in another of my favorite competition selections, Abel Ferrara’s Siberia. In his official press notes, Ferrara reports that after making Pasolini (2014) he began collecting “crazy images” of an isolated wilderness, putting the ideas to paper as they visited him not in hopes of creating a typical screenplay but as the necessary next step toward discovering something more elemental in his filmmaking. “I have a great appetite for what cinema can be,” he writes. The result is Ferrara’s Mirror (Tarkovsky) or his Tree of Life (Malick) or possibly his L’Intrus (Denis)—an unshackled, shameless purging of the id. Siberia is rescued from laughable absurdity by Ferrara’s filmmaking, which is as moment-to-moment thrilling as any I’ve experienced so far at the fest. (To be clear, I’m in the minority opinion here; much of the press audience indeed found the film laughably absurd.)

Willem Dafoe returns as Ferrara’s alter ego, this time playing a loner named Clint, whose days are spent serving drinks in a remote, snow-covered cabin. Almost immediately, the narrative is interrupted by visions of violence and impossible shifts in perspective that suggest dream logic—a critical cliché that, in this particular instance, is essential. A Russian woman sits at the bar before transforming into an erotic embodiment of motherhood. Her babushka sips vodka and whispers untranslated secrets before mutating into a nightmarish creature on the floor. Or, at least, I think it’s the same old woman in both images. As in dreams, the transformations are often associative: that old woman later becomes another old woman, and both are somehow also Clint’s mother. Dafoe is game for it all, as usual, slipping into capital-s Symbolic disguises and declaiming self-aware lines like, “The only thing I’m guilty of is loving you too much.” Siberia will likely end up sitting alongside Showgirls and other films of the Campy But Deadly Serious sub-genre. Its devotees will be a small but enthusiastic crowd.

The most mysterious competition film I’ve seen is Undine, Christian Petzold’s retelling of a myth in which a hopeless man stands at the edge of a lake that is hidden deep in a forest and calls forth a mystical sprite who will love him forever with only one condition: if he betrays her, she must drown him with her tears and return to the water. We meet Undine (Paula Beer) at one such moment of betrayal. In the opening shot, as she learns that her lover is leaving for another woman, Petzold frames Beer in close up, which signals the director’s first crucial intervention. Rather than telling one more story of a desperate man destroyed by love, he shifts the tale to Undine’s perspective and imagines a scenario in which she chooses to resist her nature, as it’s been written by generations of male mythmakers, and break the curse. More simply, Petzold gives Undine agency.

For 25 years, Petzold has been perfecting his unique brand of genre-adjacent filmmaking that blends the pleasures of classical Hollywood cinema with whip-smart socio-political analysis. In his previous film, Transit (2018), he transposed World War II refugee crises and police crackdowns onto 21st-century Europe. In Undine, he reunites the stars of that film, Beer and Franz Rogowski, and tries with less success to repeat the trick, throwing them into a fairy tale world tethered awkwardly to everyday reality. I’m not convinced it works. For example, Undine is a contract tour guide at the Senate Administration for Urban Development, where she lectures on the history of Berlin as she leads visitors through a room of maps and large-scale models at the Berlin City Museum. That Berlin was built on swamps and has a long tradition of demolishing its past resonates with the myth but in fairly schematic ways. The lecture scenes, like too many of Undine’s narrative turns, will be of great interest to academic discussions of Petzold’s work, but they lack the tense coherence of his best films. 

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