2020 got off to a fine start. In February I made my first visit to the Berlinale, where I interviewed a couple of filmmakers and indulged in the competition lineup, a King Vidor retrospective and the 50th anniversary of Forum. Like all of my festival trips, I considered it a working vacation—a chance to see friends, explore a city and escape for a few days from my suburban, white-collar life. At the last press screening I attended, another critic asked if I was Italian before taking a seat a few feet away. Even in the cloistered environment of the festival, we were all tracking the spread of a virus from China to Milan. I’m sure I’ll never forget the way I downplayed her concerns, assuring her COVID-19 was just another media sensation that would fade away once cable news audiences got bored with the story. Earlier that week we had announced the film lineup for Big Ears, a music and arts festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had spoken a day earlier in Berlin with Claire Denis who confirmed, after four years of back and forth, that she and Stuart Staples were coming. That the virus might affect our plans was inconceivable. But then, a week after I returned home, SXSW was cancelled, and five days later Big Ears had no choice but to do the same.
On one of my last days at the Berlinale in 2020, as I was walking toward the Palast, I passed Hong Sang-soo and Kim Minhee walking arm in arm under a red umbrella. That night I got a drink in the hotel bar after filing a festival report and basked for a few minutes in the romance of it all. Film festivals had been a soul-restoring part of my life for nearly two decades, and this had been an especially good one. Often over the past two years I’ve thought that if things never return to normal, or if the film world returned but I was no longer able to participate in it, the sight of Hong and Kim under a red umbrella would be a fine grace note to exit on.
Hong and Kim returned to Berlin this week, as did many, but not nearly all, of the people I’d hoped to see there. The decision in early January to move the European Film Market, Berlinale Co-Production Market, Berlinale Talents and World Cinema Fund to online-only events; the cancellation of all parties and receptions; and the ongoing spread of Omicron in Germany and elsewhere inevitably affected attendance and dampened the spirit of the fest. It was obvious in the uncrowded streets of Potsdamer Platz, the half-capacity theaters, and the mostly-empty press lounge (about one-third as many credentials were issued this year). Despite all of that, the organizers of the Berlinale managed to stage an event that felt like a real film festival, and god bless them for it. I know I needed it. For press, each day began with a free stop in one of two buses outfitted and staffed for rapid tests, followed 20-30 minutes later by a second stop at a nearby tent where we showed our negative result in exchange for a colored wrist band that granted us hassle-free access to every venue. KN95 masks were required everywhere, and so were seldom commented on. The online ticketing system worked perfectly, eliminating any need to wait in queues (a rare net positive of COVID times). And while I’ve heard rumors of positive cases, the only one I can confirm by name is Isabelle Huppert, who had to cancel her trip to Berlin after contracting the virus elsewhere. If the in-the-flesh Berlinale is any indication, 2022 is off to a promising start. (I hope these will be the first and last words I ever publish on the subject of the virus.)
Hong and Kim have certainly done their part to restore some sense of normalcy to this corner of the film world. The Novelist’s Film, which took the Competition Grand Jury Prize, is a story of chance encounters, artists in search of inspiration and drunken confessions—in other words, a Hong Sangsoo film, and an especially affecting one. Lee Hyeyeong plays a highly regarded novelist, which is to say she is the type of Hong character who is recognized on the street by admiring fans and envied by less successful colleagues. When she visits an old friend who has given up her own writing ambitions to run a bookstore, Lee meets an actress (Kim) who has likewise chosen to step out of the spotlight (“I’ve been dealing with some things”) and strikes up an immediate rapport with her. Within minutes, she invites Kim to star in a film that Lee proposes to write and direct herself, and Kim tentatively accepts, both of them rejuvenated by the possibilities of this new friendship. Their conversation gives Hong an excuse to put into Lee’s mouth ideas about art and filmmaking that are familiar to those of us who have followed his career. It’s become “embarrassing” to “pretend” as a writer, Lee says. Instead, she wants to try her hand at movies: “The most important thing is an actor I can freely look at.”
Lee’s presence—both here and in Hong’s previous feature, In Front of Your Face—seems to have freed him somehow to be more direct in his expression of sentiment and anger. When she first meets Kim, she is with a film director (Hong regular Kwon Haehyo) who tells Kim her semi-retirement from acting is a “waste.” It’s an off-hand line, suggesting a compliment, but Lee finds it infuriating. “How can you say that to her?” she asks, her body language punishing the man for assuming the right to assign value to a woman’s choices. “How can you say that to her!” Like so many of Hong’s men, the director tries to talk himself out of his gaff and fails badly. It’s too easy to imagine Hong relishing the opportunity to dress down the type of person who would make similar comments to Kim for her decision to forego mainstream success by working exclusively with Hong. As with many of their collaborations, Hong makes his affection for Kim a subject of The Novelist’s Film, particularly in a formal turn near the end that works aesthetically (there was a palpable change of energy in the theater) while also forcing viewers to reconsider the shape and strategy of the larger film. It’s a lovely, shamelessly romantic moment, as close as Hong has come to expressionistic melodrama.
Claire Denis also took home a Silver Bear, for directing Both Sides of the Blade—her first major award at a European festival since Nenette and Boni won the Golden Leopard in Locarno 25 years ago. There’s a much longer piece to be written about how Denis’s late career has been reshaped by her creative partnership with novelist Christine Angot, with whom she first collaborated on the 2014 short, Voilà l’enchaînement, and again three years later on Let the Sunshine In. Discussing the latter, Denis said, “The line I told Christine was: ‘We don’t have much time. We don’t have much of a budget. Let’s film your words.’” That shift from the mostly silent, expressionless, gestural performances that characterize Denis’s work with screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau to the rapid-fire dialogue of Angot’s scripts—delivered by Juliette Binoche no less—has not been greeted with universal enthusiasm by long-time Denis fans, but I find this other style of Denis’s fascinating. Her earlier work is populated with unconventional women—Yekaterina Golubeva’s self-determined, misanthropic immigrant in I Can’t Sleep (1994) and Valérie Lemercier’s searching Laure in Friday Night (2002) are two favorites—but with Angot, Denis seems to have found a comrade and confidante with whom she can sympathetically and dispassionately dissect the modern woman of a certain age.
In Both Sides of the Blade (retitled Fire for IFC’s U.S. release), an adaptation of Angot’s novel, Un tournant de la Vie, Binoche plays Sara, a radio talk show host who has for the last nine years lived with ex-con, ex-rugby star, currently-unemployed Jean (Vincent Lindon). Throughout the first act of the film, Denis emphasizes, with the subtlety of wrecking ball, that the couple’s relationship is loving, supportive and affectionate. In one especially strange sex scene, Binoche, who plays nearly every moment big, cries, “Mon amour! Mon amour! Mon amour! Mon Amour!,” gradually elevating the scene to Buñuelian absurdity. And that’s the fundamental problem with the film, which tries on several different tones but never quite succeeds in bringing them into balance. Midway through, in a miraculous sequence that evokes the sensual pleasures of Denis’s very best work, Sara is reunited with her former lover François (Grégoire Colin) and for a moment I settled in happily to what I assumed would be a Pre-Code-style romance, where psychological realism is thrown off for ecstatic passions and genre plot mechanics. (Tindersticks’s strings-and-woodwinds score certainly implies we’ve entered the heightened reality of old school noir.) Instead, Both Sides of the Blade culminates with extended arguments between Sara and Jean, in which she reveals herself to be a shameless gaslighter and he absorbs her abuse with the solid, quietly threatening resignation that is Lindon’s specialty. The film is another messy but worthy experiment with Angot’s words—made quickly during quarantine, with faces framed in tight closeups and with a spirit of generous curiosity about the crazy-making stupidity of love.
The Robe of Gems, winner of the Jury Prize, opens with a long duration shot that begins in darkness before slowly fading into an image of a sparsely wooded landscape. An elderly laborer approaches, stooping down and hacking at weeds with a sickle as the soundtrack becomes a fury of insects. A reflection in the image reveals it’s been shot through a window, which sets up the first cut to the reverse angle, where we see Isabel (Nailea Norvind), a middle-aged, light-skinned woman, whose breasts are being fondled from behind by her husband. It’s a transgressive rather than erotic sequence, that ends with the couple furiously breaking wooden furniture in their well-appointed home. It’s also a bold opening statement from first-time director Natalia López Gallardo that establishes the key dynamics of the film: the intersections of race, class, violence and injustice in provincial Mexico. Having edited many of husband Carlos Reygadas’s films (she also plays his wife in Our Time), López Gallardo will inevitably be burdened with comparisons to his work, but they seem justified in this case: both filmmakers are working in a similar milieu, sharing distinct formal approaches (for example, using extreme anamorphic lenses that distort the edges of the frame), and her slow fade-in recalls the memorable opening of Silent Light. I suspect the success of The Robe of Gems might change the critical conversation about both of them, perhaps elevating López Gallardo’s status as co-auteur of her collaborations with Reygadas.
Isabel has moved with her family to the countryside to escape the drama of her divorce and the social niceties of her privileged upbringing, embodied by the dyed-blond hair and sun-beaten, surgically-tightened skin of her disapproving mother. “I’m sorry, but you don’t get how things work here. We see things differently,” the locals say. Rather than being only a film about a naïve, terrorized outsider (although it’s partly that), The Robe of Gems divides its attention among Isabel and two other women of a similar age: María (Antonia Olivares), a poor housekeeper whose sister has gone missing and who has no choice but to work for the local mafia, and Roberta (Aida Roa), a police commander who accommodates corruption until it threatens the safety of her teenage son, a wannabe social media influencer and gangster. That all three stories take a tragic turn comes as little surprise; from the opening shot, The Robe of Gems announces itself as the kind of contemporary art film that transforms liberal guilt and the incomprehensible brutalities of socioeconomic inequality (“As you know, we find bodies every day”) into a signature style. López Gallardo’s is marked by the staging of action along multiple planes (while two people talk in the foreground, a girl circles them on a bicycle; while two girls sit in a parked SUV, their heads turned away from the camera, an industrial belt churns in the background); by bursts of unmotivated expressionism seemingly plucked from López Gallardo’s unconscious (three gangsters move in slow motion under fluorescent light to the throbbing drone of EDM); and by aggressive sound design. López Gallardo has said The Robe of Gems is about “what we carry inside after years of accumulating, in our minds and dreams, infinite images of torture.” Her style instantiates that idea by drifting between the subjectivities of her characters. At its best, the film is a disorienting and thrilling experience.