Berlinale Capsule Reviews: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jack, Seaburners

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel  is like a lovely film from the silent era, superbly crafted with today’s technology. Not that the film lacks a wonderful musical score or witty dialogue (there is plenty of both), but its narrative logic is reminiscent of classics from the pre-sound period. That is to say, some characters are distinctive figures with strong physical presence (they can be thought of as cartoon characters in the best sense of the word) even if they are not fully developed individuals, and the fast-paced story is told in a highly visual manner. Anderson is well-known for the exquisite (and sometimes exhausting) design of his films and The Grand Budapest Hotel  is no exception; all the memorable scenes are skillfully choreographed, with impressive attention spent on even the most minute details. While thematic concerns seem secondary, it is easy to note that Anderson is very fond of the graceful old times. The story is framed by multiple narrators, each going further back in time to tell us the (mis)adventures that occur more than eighty years ago. The sadness caused by the passing of time and a desire to return to the beloved past are also conveyed through a series of cinematic references, with the ones to Ernst Lubitsch being chief among them. In fact, the film’s relentless pace and chaotic humor somehow work against it in this regard. Anderson does not attempt to create (or sustain) the strong sense of melancholy his themes demand. That is also because the jokes get surprisingly violent (even gory) at times, diminishing the overall elegance of the film a bit. But the film’s sheer creativeness, its ambitious mise-en-scène, and the joyful-yet-sad tone of the story more than make up for these minor issues.

Jack (Edward Berger, 2014)

The work of the Dardenne Brothers will definitely be mentioned by many when talking about Jack, Edward Berger’s sensitive and kinetic competition entry in Berlin. Not only because the film follows its protagonist very closely with a hand-held camera and presents a socially conscious character portrait with unexpected intimacy, but also because it is structured much like an action film. What I mean by action here is the physicality and urgency of the filmmaking rather than a large-scale, fast-paced spectacle. When Jack is trying to find his loving but irresponsible mother, he runs around the whole city, survives a dangerous attack in a forest, breaks into car parks to find shelter and does many other physically demanding things of a similar nature. That is a particularly important point because the film plays out as an unsentimental tale of survival as opposed to a too-emotional or exploitative take on familial ties. With amazing performances enhancing the sense of realism, Jack  never becomes melodramatic or sentimental thanks to its focus on its leading character’s efforts to keep going rather than his obvious struggles. Berger’s film lacks the precision that distinguishes the work of the Dardenne Brothers: Jack  gets repetitive at times and could have benefitted from tighter editing. And while the story remains gripping enough to hold the viewer’s attention for its entire running time, it hardly breaks any new ground. It is important not to mistake familiarity with flatness, though. Jack  manages to be surprising and ultimately rewarding, even if you have seen most of it elsewhere before.

Seaburners (Melisa Önel, 2014)

Seaburners (Kumun Tadi)  is a mysterious and confident debut feature by Turkish director Melisa Önel, ambitiously sparse in its narrative and notably rich in well-composed visuals. The story concerns a foreign botanist working on the Turkish Black Sea coast and her lover, who keeps his role in human trafficking a secret from her. While the film is rewarding both as a political story about illegal immigrants and as an exploration of more universal themes (or conditions) such as being stuck in a place where you don’t belong, its pleasures are primarily sensory. Önel is able to create a powerfully bleak, hopeless atmosphere without drowning her film in endless miserabilism, thanks to her skillful use of the distinctive landscape. Bright colors are nowhere to be seen in this ever-cloudy environment, the undeniably beautiful nature is oppressive rather than welcoming, and the sea forms the greatest border which no character seems able to pass. These elements describe the psychological state of the characters, all of whom are imprisoned in the middle of the vast nature that surrounds them, in a highly cinematic manner. The story unfolds layer by layer, taking its time to share important details with its audience (this makes the viewing experience quite demanding, even alienating in the first half), but many pieces fall into place when the film completes a cycle and reaches its poetic conclusion. With its reliance on a powerful, enigmatic atmosphere and a non-linear, fragmented approach to storytelling, Seaburners  brings the films of Claire Denis to mind, announcing the emergence of a very promising director.