Berlinale 2011: Dispatch 1

The Devil's Double

Pamela Jahn and Alison Frank send their first report from the Berlinale. Check this section for more on the festival in the coming days.

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, 2010)
The title of Monte Hellman’s feature comeback after 20 odd years could serve as a tag line for the 61st edition of the Berlinale. The official programme is patchy as ever and relies on a number of high-profile American headliners in the competition, with the Coen brothers’ True Grit leading the way, while Hellman’s Road to Nowhere sadly only screened at the European Film Market. Deftly blurring the line between cinema and reality, the film depicts a young director shooting a crime drama based on a true story, using the actual locations as a source of inspiration. During the shoot, he falls in love with his lead actress, who uncannily resembles the real-life crime’s femme fatale, and soon things get alarmingly tangled up, especially in the mind of one imaginative member of the crew. Although there is no denying that its decidedly artificial touch and wooden dialogue make this a flawed film, the director’s approach feels way more complex, intriguing and worthy of attention than the equally film-focused Silver Bullets/Art History, Joe Swanberg’s latest Mumblecore outing, about a troubled filmmaker sabotaging his own work out of jealousy and creative frustration, which screened in the Forum strand. Ultimately, Road to Nowhere amounts to a series of bravura noir scenes in which the tension and emotion sometimes build up too slowly, but a great meta-B-movie feel and fitting cinematography make it an enjoyable watch. PJ

The Devil’s Double (Lee Tamahori, 2011)
A more rigorous yet not necessarily more rewarding genre treat was Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double. The film pulls us headlong into the hubris, immorality, waywardness and brutality that dominated the life of Uday Hussein, the elder son of Saddam, in his heyday before and after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Tamahori focuses on Uday’s efforts to recruit a body double to protect him at public appearances, following his father’s example. Uday finds the perfect match in Latif, an army lieutenant and former school mate, who has no choice but to consort with the devil. Latif has a hard time watching Uday’s brutal and humiliating actions, and matters become complicated when he gets off with one of his boss’s favourite lovers. Based on a book by the real Latif Yahia, the film paints an uncompromising picture of Uday, and recounts events that may or may not have happened. Dominic Cooper plays both Uday and Latif, a double role that is used as much for cheap comic effects as to create an air of captivating, effortless cool. This is backed up by a punchy soundtrack and top-notch production design, which cover up the flaws in the narrative and characters. For what it’s worth, The Devil’s Double shows that a different view of the Iraq war is possible, from a different end of the aesthetic spectrum. PJ

Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)

Ten-year-old Laure moves to a new flat with her parents and little sister. When the neighbourhood kids assume from her clothes and haircut that she is a boy, she doesn’t correct them, and introduces herself as Mika&#235l. In its aesthetics, this film is primarily about childhood, and the instinctively tactile, visual and direct way that children interact with the world: cuddling with their parents or tumbling about together in physical play, sensitive to the shapes, colours and textures of their stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, markers and modelling clay. Outside the apartment, when Laure plays with children of her own age, adult concerns of gender begin to intervene: the boys playing football look like miniature men, with their shirtless swagger and high-fives. While Laure does her best to adopt these mannish mannerisms, the point is not that she is a garçon manqué. It is that society focuses on the unimportant trappings of gender, like make-up and dresses, forgetting that more important human qualities are not unique to either gender. Laure’s father, for instance, is kinder and gentler than her mother. In Sciamma’s world, everyone should have the opportunity to play, be creative and show affection, whatever their sex. AF

Dance Town (Jeon Kyu-hwan, 2010)

Jung-Nim and her husband live in Pyongyang, and the little we see of their life together seems happy, unusually affectionate even. The husband’s job allows him to travel and bring home foreign products unavailable in North Korea, like pornographic DVDs, which they watch together. When a neighbour snitches on them, Jung-Nim’s husband is arrested: his last words to her come in a phone call, instructing her to escape to South Korea, where he hopes to join her later. When she arrives in Seoul, the South Korean government gives Jung-Nim a fresh start, but she can’t stop thinking about her husband.

Some of Jung-Nim’s new friends are curious about the difference between the two Koreas. Foreign audiences may also choose this film out of curiosity, and it does offer an engaging portrait of daily life in Seoul. But this film will resonate most for its universal themes about urban life and immigration. Some locals are jealous that refugees seem to have it easy, with a free apartment and stipend from the government. Jung-Nim, while grateful, seems underwhelmed by the advantages of life in the South. If you are lonely (as many urban dwellers are), nothing else matters. AF