Ella Kemp, Culture Editor, reflects on the Berlin film festival and how it impacted her view of the films made in 2018.
Film festivals feel like a jungle. Beautiful, luscious layers ripple before your eyes, onscreen and off. People and words are loud, overwhelming and constant. There’s an incredible sense of opportunity, and a huge risk – “what am I doing here?”, I wondered, at my first Berlinale.
In February 2018 I went to Berlin for the first time, to explore the city and cover the film festival. My plan was to review every film I could for ITF. I ended up watching a lot, talking a lot and wearing a lot of layers. If you’re going to Germany over Winter, pack heavy.
You might have seen, I spoke to Michaela Coel, but I didn’t review every film for ITF. In a period where everything is on offer, but only to you, and not to the rest of the world, there is – or at least I felt – a great amount of pressure in showcasing the best of the best for everyone else, when I didn’t even know for myself. Something that feels exciting and miraculous can fade in time, context can weaken the product or a lack of sleep might just wreak havoc on your critical faculties. Several months later now, laying out the cards reaps tastier fruits. Behold, the bitesized lowdown of this year’s edition, the wisdom that could only be acquired with the gift of time.
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animation, opened the festival. Critics loved it, audiences found it fun. Controversy arose around Anderson’s understanding and affection of Japanese culture, but at the end of the year now, the storm remains at bay. Universal acclaim in awards season remains to be seen, but there’s no ruling out the Oscars yet.
Madeline’s Madeline and Unsane spun two very different webs from a similar thread. A young woman’s life is manipulated to more or less violent effect, through the relationship with a nondescript mental illness. Josephine Decker uses this premise to explore the threat and necessity of a complicated mother-daughter relationship and the twisted exploitation of psychology in the name of art in Madeline’s Madeline. Steven Soderbergh goes down a more seemingly schlocky route on Unsane, boxing Claire Foy in an iPhone frame as her character deals with the horrors of gaslighting in a more genre-heavy, shock-loving nightmare-world. Madeline’s Madeline seems to be preparing a slow-burn release, giving us something to look forward to in 2019 already. Unsane was met with predictably divisive reviews, but cemented Foy’s reputation as a queen, even when she’s not in the palace.
Gael García Bernal, Robert Pattinson and Joaquin Phoenix all proved their comedic chops in smaller offerings. Actors who are more mature than the Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges figures of the world, they still find themselves at home in smaller movies to have fun with. Museo let the Mexican actor travel home to pay a crime-loving Peter Pan figure in the heist that changed the country – after a pleasant run in Germany, Canada and London, we can hope for a wider release in the new year for García Bernal’s wonderful film.
Phoenix’s transformative turn as cartoonist John Callahan in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot received a surprisingly quiet response, over Summer in America and just last month in the UK. His brilliant performance leaves room for an unrecognisable turn from Jonah Hill as his mentor/friend/cult-leader-type-aquaintance Donnie which, back in February, I would have backed for every award nomination there is – and yet, the focus now lies on Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s and the anticipation building up to another shocking role for Phoenix, as he plays the Joker in the DC Universe. And, well, quippy Western flex Damsel had its moment in the US, and came and went. It’s a shame Pattinson’s pantomimic performance remains hidden, but we can look forward to a juicy, intergalactic odyssey in Claire Denis’ High Life for him next year.
There is one film that has stayed in my mind since Berlin, even if few people have seen it since. L’Animale tells the story of a teenage girl, Mati (Sophie Stockinger) as she faces her final year of school and the emotional turmoil that inevitably comes of it, as she deals with friendship, sexuality, family and education in rural Austria. It’s a humble and loving effort, letting Mati convey the struggles of female adolescence without limiting it to stereotypes. Attractive visuals show off dazzling colours and well-drawn frames of longing and loneliness – and they boast a terrific cat as well.
The film works because it’s reminiscent of other coming-of-age films (Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird most recently) while telling a very specific story in a place lesser seen on the big screen. Whether it is this specificity that hindered the film’s wider reach remains unclear. But, nine months down the line, it still feels like the most important moment of the festival. For us to catch up on and take into the next year, when it’s never too late to spread the word of a worthwhile story, and to celebrate and honour our first venture out to the Berlin Film Festival.
Chilly winds, busy days and unpredictable years can’t keep us away. For all its ups and downs, the Berlinale kept a piece of our heart.
Words: Ella Kemp