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Critic’s Notebook: The 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Comme le feu (Who By Fire)

Off-screen at least, Berlinale was a political mess this year. The final edition of director Carlo Chatrian, who came from Locarno six years ago and brought his adventurous taste with him, was marred by conflict. The festival began with prominent and necessary protests against genocide in Gaza and controversy over the invitation (later revoked) of leaders from Germany’s far-right AfD party. And it ended ugly, when No Other Land co-director Yuval Abraham, who made his film with a Palestinian-Israeli collective of filmmakers and activists, received death threats and had his family in Israel menaced after his acceptance speech for its win as best documentary. German politicians – including the mayor of Berlin – denounced his words, which called for a ceasefire and an end to an apartheid-like system, as anti-semitic. In a co-authored letter with head of programming Mark Peranson, Chatrian attempted damage control, declaring, “No matter our individual political convictions or beliefs, we should all keep in mind that freedom of speech is an essential part of what defines a democracy,” amid other comments on Twitter more pointedly aimed at German media and politicians. Regardless of what happens next, this all sets an uneasy stage for incoming director Tricia Tuttle, formerly of the BFI London Film Festival.

Onscreen, the sprawling festival had a full spectrum of auteurist (and otherwise) endeavors, if apparently a bit subdued on Hollywood glitz, despite bowing the new ones starring Adam Sandler (Netflix’s Spaceman) and Kristin Stewart (Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding).

I’d somehow overlooked nearly two decades of work by Québécois director Philip Lesage, but the scenario of his Comme le feu (Who By Fire) feels consistent with my perception of contemporary French-Canadian cinema as a haven for verbally expressive, wine-fueled, desire-riddled ensemble narratives in unsafe spaces. Offering all that and more, the film takes its title from Montreal’s patron saint Leonard Cohen and throws in a rowdy conga-line dance to the B-52’s Rock Lobster” across an absorbing, two-hour-40 minute runtime. A volatile web of character dynamics unfolds inside a superficially cordial cabin in the woods—in actuality, a pressure cooker of lacerated egos, midlife artistic insecurities, grandiose marathon meals and clumsy young lust. Screenwriter Albert (Paul Ahmarani) is on a road trip with a late-adolescent trio: his son Max (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon), daughter Aliocha (Aurélia Arandi-Longpré) and Max’s best friend Jeff (Noah Parker). The droning soundtrack and overhead shots signal something auspicious, if not vaguely threatening, to come as they arrive at a remote forest cabin. They’re delivered there via seaplane by Blake (Ariel Worthalter), their hirsute Alpha Male host and fabled movie director who once collaborated with Albert before their careers veered in separate directions. The getaway appears to be an effort to repair some ruptures in their friendship and is a fruitful diversion for Blake, who, like Albert, appears to be struggling with his professional direction. (Blake’s entourage also includes a private chef, a film editor and another sidekick, who mostly blend into the literal woodwork, as do some additional guests, including an actress played by Kieslowski star Irene Jacob).

What initially appears to be the primary source of tension—a passive-aggressive, often cruel pissing match between the two men—shifts to the film’s background. The driving pulse of the story belongs to Jeff, an aspiring filmmaker enthralled by Blake’s work—but even more so by Aliocha, achingly nearby in the intimate proximities of the cabin, yet all too remote from Jeff’s affections. His wild overreaction when an after hours pass at her goes badly sideways sparks a crisis as the tortured cineaste flees into the rugged wilderness outside, lost to a very cold, lonely night amid the howling beasts. Everything else pivots from there: Drunken dinners go off the rails and Jeff’s habit of furtive observation reveals more than he’d like to know about Blake, whose general dickishness is enjoyably played by Worthalter. His character is happiest leading his tenderfoot guests on hazardous expeditions, bow and arrows slung over his shoulder. In its nods towards manly manliness, rites of passage and mortal peril, there’s an unexpectedly visceral Deliverance vibe, just enough to offset the dialogue’s intellectual pretensions. For all the wordiness and petty subterfuge, Lesage also is keen to pepper the frame with surprises, whether that’s a spontaneous Louisiana Acadian sing-along or a three-way dream sequence. The film’s poetic coda, a recitation of lines by Emily Dickinson, allows this supposedly fun thing no one will ever do again to recede on a graceful, philosophical note.

No heavy drama afflicts the French-speaking artistic types chilling in the countryside of Olivier Assayas’s Suspended Time, his belated contribution to the now-predictable “pandemic movie” genre. A kind of auto-fiction bracketed by the director’s narration over images of his childhood home in north-central France, the film once again summons Vincent Macaigne, previously in Assayas’s HBO remake of Irma Vep, as his comically neurotic surrogate, fretting away while sequestered during lockdown in a “pod” of four adults. Despite some domestic sibling bickering between Macaigne’s uptight Paul and Micha Lescot as his hang-loose brother Etienne, a rock’n’roll scribe with the hipster vibe of a frontman, there’s not a whole lot of crackle. Though Paul, a filmmaker, is navigating a divorce and the stresses of co-parenting, his romantic liaison with the younger Morgane (Nine d’Urso) is pretty sunny—laced with witty chat and games of tennis—as is Etienne’s with his companion Carole (Nora Hamzawi). It’s enjoyable enough as a hang-out flick, but laughs built around COVID anxiety, Amazon delivery, podcasting and Zoom therapy sessions aren’t as compelling as the family matters transpiring in Assayas’s similarly situated Summer Hours (2008). It’s a feel-good movie whose enviable hideaway locale and eloquent company serve up a comfortable nostalgia for a difficult time. I wonder if Assayas lists the place on AirBnB?

Bruno Dumont’s films often have been characterized as polarizing, prior to 2014’s L’il Quinquin usually due to their extremity (Twentynine Palms), severity (Hadewijch) or both. His latter-day emergence since Quinquin as an unalloyed goofball may be even more off-putting to some in his audience, but he continues to double down. LEmpire could be the most outrageous of all, a deliriously flippant parody of Star Wars set primarily not in outer space, but a desolate beach town on Normandy’s Opal Coast. This empty terrain, a common setting for the filmmaker, is a cinegenic expanse for intergalactic forces to combat for global domination through surrogate human bodies—an unlikely and decidedly unheroic assortment of lumpen caricatures, played mostly (but not exclusively) by non-professional actors embodying the sincere awkwardness of an impromptu community theater troupe.

The grandiose, comic-strip dialogue sounds even more ridiculous coming out of the humble mouths of this cast, which includes some French actors recognizable beyond the Dumont Cinematic Universe. The leader of the malevolent Zeroes is played by Fabrice Luchini (a regular in the films by Éric Rohmer), while the good-guy Ones are commanded by Call My Agent’s Camille Cottin, who takes the guise of the beach village’s mayor. The primary dynamic is embodied by Jony, a rough-edged fisherman (Brandon Vlieghe) whose blond male toddler Freddy (known as “The Wain”) is destined to become the very manifestation of Evil. He’s pursued relentlessly by a devoted follower, and cell-phone glued selfie addict Line (Lina Khoudri, doing Bardot beach babe), but even more ardently by his mortal enemy, Ones warrior Jane (Anamaria Vartolomei). As my Berlin friend Andrew Grant tweeted, “Imagine Star Wars, but with Darth Vader and Princess Leia sharing an insatiable urge to fuck each other.” The gags pile up throughout this Silver Bear Jury Prize winner, not least the extremely French imaginings of the rival entities’ spaceships (a gothic cathedral for the Zeroes, a virtual Versailles for the Ones), and the inept handling of the de rigueur light sabers. If you always found everything about Star Wars silly, or consider Mel Brooks’ 1987 spoof Spaceballs too subtle and intellectual, LEmpire is at once a conceptually crackers and shamelessly low-brow indulgence.

Dominican writer-director Nelson Carlos de Los Santos Arias (Cocote), who won the Silver Bear for best director, takes audiences even further into the gonzo with Pepe. Buzzed about as a “see it to believe it” spectacle, the film carries docu-drama into the improbably fantastic as the title character, a tragically deceased hippopotamus, narrates the colorful saga of his life and death from beyond the grave. Pepe’s basso profundo voice is as thick and dank as the muddy havens of his natural habitat, which he hasn’t seen since being captured in sub-Saharan Africa and transported to the nature park of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Escobar, of course, died in 1993 after a fatal encounter with his nation’s anti-drug forces, but Pepe and his fellow hippos who resided on the fallen narcoterrorist’s land roamed free. Pepe, most of all, commanded a fearsome reputation among farmers he encountered; in 2009, he faced the same fate as his former owner and was gunned down.

In De los Santos Arias’ retelling, Pepe becomes an ideal anti-hero, and a prism for a kaleidoscopic hybrid saga that feels both expansive and peculiar. At times you feel you are watching an old-fashioned National Geographic special while smoking weed; at others, the film veers off into parallel episodes of Colombian village comedy. The mix of facts and fancy also yields to spontaneous formal play with sound and light effects. Whenever it all gets a bit puzzling, Pepe himself (voiced by an array of actors) drops in with some lugubrious philosophizing, which somehow knits it all together. Given the recent drama in New York City of the escaped Central Park Zoo owl Flaco and his tragic death, it’s a narrative (however playfully fractured) that obviously generates empathy and solidarity with the animal kingdom. If Pepe can’t be free, how can we?

An exquisitely haunted gothic tale from Portuguese director Magarida Gil, Hands in the Fire (Mãos no fogo) evokes deep and troubling inner worlds through a sometimes rapturous engagement with light and texture of an old manor house, the focus of a would-be documentary made by young film student Maria (Carolina Campanela), who arrives and begins spending time with each of the house’s residents: a crusty cook, a nanny given to masochistic ritual, two kids and the seductive, rakish owner. Maria’s project is dedicated to “the real,” but of course her sense of groundedness in the matters of fact is progressively conjured away as she goes deeper into the house’s mysteries—and undergoes her own transformation. The light itself, given painterly application by cinematographer Acácio de Almeida, grants the interior spaces an uncanny otherness, much as encounters between Maria and her subjects begin to take on a surreal staginess. Gil draws loosely from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella that has inspired endless “old dark house” productions. The filmmaker invests it all with a heightened attunement to the sensory that elevates the material into its own plane. “There’s a movie inside one another,” she says in a director’s statement. “What one sees and what one senses.”










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