Berlinale 2016: Meryl’s Choice

Last Saturday Meryl Streep and her 6 co-jurors presented their list of 8 prize-winners in the Berlinale Palast at the 66th Berlin Film Festival awards ceremony. Personal circumstances have sadly prevented me from being able to post this piece earlier, but here we go. Now that emotional tensions have abated, let’s take a look back at this competition line-up with its highs and lows, utterly subjective as they may be, and let’s see what we’ve learnt about the current state of the world through Dieter Kosslick’s politically-fuelled selection. After an outstandingly solid start, the hunt for the Golden Bear didn’t totally succeed in maintaining the same level of artistic excellence throughout its second week, but it did manage nonetheless to deliver three visually arresting, thematically bold and challenging films (Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery and Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love). Cherry on the Strudel, none of them left the Berlinale empty-handed on Saturday thanks to Meryl Streep’s impeccable jury.

Despite the glaring omission of André Téchiné’s splendid Being 17 (my personal Golden Bear recipient, by an extensive margin, but more on this later), the awards list Meryl and her jury fomented was light years away worthier and more inspired than the highly questionable picks from the Coen Brothers’ Cannes 2015 jury (poor Nanni Moretti and Jia Zhang-ke) or the rather idiosyncratic choices made by Cuarón’s jury in Venice, completely overlooking the superlatively well received works by Aleksandr Sokurov or Amos Gitai and Marco Bellocchio, Jerzy Skomilowski or Laurie Anderson to a lesser extent. There was no such travesty in Berlin this year with the blatant exception, at the risk of repeating myself, of André Téchiné’s heartrending coming-of-age masterpiece (review to be posted shortly).

If the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuarón had inexplicably crowned Audiard’s weakest film in years and a fragile formalist debut feature from Venezuela respectively, the first film fest jury ever led by the legendary American actress ended up giving its top award to the most unanimously praised film throughout the entire competition, leaving thus little room for protest, be it artistic or political.

Because of a conflicting schedule and a competition completist tendency – I did see all 18 entries after all – I never had the chance to catch three of my pre-Fest most anticipated titles, namely Terence Davies’ raved A Quiet Passion, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s enigmatic Creepy and Patrick Chiha’s Brothers of the Night (the latter being compared to Fassbinder, Schroeter or Pasolini by some of my Berlinale friends, no less!). I’m working on another article for the non Golden Bear chasing films I saw in Berlin, but let me just add that in each sidebar section there was an embarrassment of riches culminating with Philippe Grandrieux’s furiously carnal Despite the Night at the Woche der Kritik and Eugène Green’s mirthfully spiritual fable Le Fils de Joseph in the Forum section.

Pardon this digression, let’s review and assess now the eight prizes that the jury presented on Saturday night in a strikingly articulate fashion with thoughtfully prepared introductions by each juror for each award.

To say that the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize was tailor made for Lav Diaz would be a major understatement and while some vocal dissenters of that award claimed that it’s a niche one (Tarantino would say ghetto, but you get the picture) for the artiest film in the running for the Golden Bear, I still maintain that more often than not it throws light on some astonishing, albeit demanding films that would have gone more unnoticed otherwise, thus gaining momentum and recognition ultimately. The first director to ever receive the Alfred Bauer Prize was Léos Carax for Mauvais Sang (aka The Night is Young) in 1987 (one of my ten favourite films of all time), and over the years one finds beloved auteurs such as Alain Resnais, Tsai Ming-liang or more recently the critics’ darling Miguel Gomes as its flamboyant recipients. The Alfred Bauer Prize is to Berlin what the (Special) Jury Prize is to Cannes, namely the passion prize, the one that Thai Joe won for Tropical Malady, Cronenberg for Crash (for Audacity, Daring and Originality  according to Jury Prez Francis Ford Coppola) or the one Jean-Luc Godard and Xavier Dolan shared in 2014, THAT one. Paraphrasing the official statement of the Prize that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art”, Lav Diaz’s black and white splendid wanderings in the Philippines of the late 19th Century under Revolution was the quintessential film in this competition to fulfil that goal above and beyond.

The auteur theory may already be 62 years old (merci François Truffaut!), it reached a perplexing climax during this Berlinale with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery through a priori judgments and frantic critical hysteria prior to the film’s World Premiere. How professional critics could behave in such a preposterous manner is beyond my understanding. I’m referring to a Twitter posting of a Lav Diaz ticket for instance (note that this was the only competing film that required a ticket for critics due to the film’s exceptional running time of 8 hours 5 minutes, hence the press and gala screening all in one) saying this will be worth gold some day and calling the film a groundbreaking masterpiece sight unseen. Conversely the knives were out for other critics who didn’t hesitate to label Diaz as a pretentious filmmaker just due to his habit of directing extremely long films and once again sight unseen! This is reaching a new low and a disgrace to film criticism, or what is left of it nowadays. Expect my ICS review on Lullaby in the coming days. Let’s move on to the next prize, otherwise this piece will never end.

The Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went unsurprisingly but deservedly to Mark Lee Ping-Bin for his arresting cinematography in Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent and with the Golden Bear, the Alfred Bauer Prize and the Silver Bear Best Actor Prize, this one was one of the 4 prizes I had correctly predicted. Not too bad! Sixteen years after his (shared) win in Cannes for In the Mood for Love, the Taiwanese DP of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien impressed immensely once again with his atmospheric lighting of the banks of the Yangtze River. Just when you thought the cinematographer couldn’t surpass his colossal work in The Assassin (for which he won the ICS award just last week), he mesmerized us even more with his monumental and lavish shots on and around the cargo boat sailing up the Yangtze River in Yang Chao’s spellbinding love roving. The film owes him…everything.

The likely battle and discussions for the Silver Bear Best Actress Prize must have been rather heated for there were no fewer than 8 serious viable contenders this year and they would have all been deserving winners. However, given that Meryl Streep herself presented that very prize and seemed to be pretty passionate about it when reading her jury’s pre-statement, it is quite obvious she had a real say in this choice and retrospectively this comes as no surprise seeing the type of subdued, albeit devastating performance Trine Dyrholm delivers in Thomas Vinterberg’s manipulative The Commune. At times reminiscent of early Gena Rowlands under the influence, the Danish actress saves Vinterberg’s light dogma opus from ennui with her shattering portrayal of a betrayed woman who tries to overcome her grief by accepting the love intruder under the communal roof only to realize later this is nothing but an impasse when having to suffer her husband’s and his new ingenue’s lovemaking in a room nearby. Despite the director’s irritating ploys leaning towards sadism and voyeurism and his inability to give all his supporting cast any form of psychological arc, our attention is miraculously sustained thanks to Trine Dyrholm’s multifaceted performance in her descent into hell.

Isabelle Huppert was an early frontrunner for Things to Come as well but we’ll get to this one later with Best Director. Julia Jentsch wouldn’t have demerited either for her harrowing portrayal of a woman facing an impossible dilemma in the abortion drama 24 Weeks, but the 4 lead actresses in United States of Love would have had my vote ultimately. The Polish drama under Kieślowski and Mungiu influence (they even share the same DP with the latter: Oleg Mutu) offered to the Berlinale one of the most poignant choral female driven portraits I’ve seen in eons, probably since Volver. It’s an ode to womanhood and a love declaration to the women of Poland fighting for their desires and their freedom in the early 90s right after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

On the other hand, the Silver Bear Best Actor competition paled in comparison to the ladies’ one with a rather stale field of contenders. Hadn’t Majd Mastoura received that prize for his sensational portrayal of a young man facing his true desires in a post Arab Spring Tunisia in Hedi – Mohamed Ben Attia’s impressive debut feature co-produced by the Dardenne Brothers – I don’t see any other actor who could have given him a run for his money, save for Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila, the co-leads of Téchiné’s Being 17, who would have made an ideal joint award. But just as the Cannes Coen jury was reluctant to reunite on stage Blanchett and Mara and had to insult the lesbian couple by singling out only one and worst of all making her share her prize with another actress from another film (I won’t even bother naming her, ask Xavier Dolan), Berlin wasn’t there either for this devastating and flamboyant young gay couple in the making. #JurySoStraight

By giving its Silver Bear Best Script Prize to the young Tomasz Wasilewski for United States of Love, the jury ratified with aplomb the emergence of an explosively talented new voice in Polish cinema. Read my comments above concerning Best Actress. The Silver Bear for Best Director went to one of the only two female directors in the competition, Mia Hansen-Løve and her rapturously received Things to Come. Meryl Streep’s touch here was undeniable and this prize cannot be but read as a feminist statement in a (film) world massively dominated by male directors. You can read Ankit Jhunjhunwala’s Berlinale review of the film for ICS here . Hansen-Løve has re-enchanted French cinema with her intellectual Rohmerian ballad on a middle-aged Philosophy teacher, played by the always impeccable Isabelle Huppert (what else could one possibly say?), heading towards unknown horizons after the general collapse of her family life. Blissfully yours!

The less said about the Grand Jury Prize for Death in Sarajevo, the better. It’s not even a bad film per se but the film amounts to nothing but a collage of tedious verbal sparring. It hurts to see it so high in this awards list but that’s the only blatant faute de goût Streep and her cohort made ultimately. While I get the jury’s desire to acknowledge once again a political situation, I completely fail to understand the artistic merits that could propel the said jury’s decision to give this one the …Golden Bear runner-up award, no less (a rose is a rose is a rose). This also happened to be one of the most tepidly received films ever to receive such a prestigious prize in Berlin. Death in Sarajevo was ranked 12th in the final Screen Jury Grid with only ONE perfect score given by Rolling Stone’s David Fear who gave no fewer than 4 perfect scores out of only 13 films, for he didn’t see the last 5 comp entries. In other words Danis Tanovic is to Berlin what Naomi Kawase is to Cannes, a peculiar local favourite who wins prizes left and right (3 for Kawase, 4 for Tanovic), but hardly ever makes any wave outside of their nurturing fest. There’s no shade here because this is coming from someone who considers Shara to be an absolute masterpiece (I wish I could say the same about No Man’s Land though. I revisited it a short while ago and this one has aged pretty badly). This Grand Prize is pure overkill for Tanovic.

Last but not least, the Golden Bear went to Gianfranco Rosi’s Lampedusa-set tour de force doc Fire At Sea on the migration crisis, which managed to sustain its buzz throughout the entire competition despite playing very early in the Fest. This is a very strong artistic and political statement made by Streep and her jury and Dieter Kosslick should be proud of such a bold selection. The film topped the Screen Jury Grid and was the only one this year with an average above 3 (3.3 precisely), way ahead of its 3 direct followers tied with a 2.9 average (Hedi, Midnight Special and Things to Come). The Italian documentarist made history by becoming the first doc director ever to win two of the trifecta top prizes after his Golden Lion in Venice in 2014 for Sacro GRA. To complete the trifecta, Cannes will be tougher but stranger things have happened, despite Thierry Frémaux’s infamous reluctancy to include docs in the comp (only one title under his belt,  Fahrenheit 9/11, since he became official selector in 2004, and please Colossal Youth was NOT a documentary!). More on Gianfranco Rosi’s devastating doc on ICS next week.

Finally, while Streep’s announcement as Jury President was tepidly received by the Godards and the Apichatpongs of the film spheres a few months ago due to her supposed lackluster auteur résumé over the past couple of decades, Meryl’s Choices turned out to be the most inspiring ones since Tim Burton’s Cannes 2010 jury that ended up giving its Palme to…Apichatpong himself. We’ve come full circle!

Fire at Sea - Gianfranco Rosi