Berlinale 2017 Diary #5
Kaurismäki, Lelio, Arslan.
Aki Kaurismäki's uneven but irresistibly amusing The Other Side of Hope, dedicated to the late film historian Peter von Bagh, plays like a sort of greatest hits compilation. As with Le Havre (2011), Kaurismäki's last and, frankly, stronger feature, Hope grapples with Europe's ongoing refugee crisis and, as with all of Kaurismäki's films, the palette, props and costumes are impeccably vintage—it's as if one of the vampires from Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) has designed the production. And of course, Kaurismäki's characters still deliver the deadliest deadpan in contemporary cinema.
As he emerges from a vast mound of coal, all we see of Khaled (Sherwan Haji) at first are the whites of his eyes. Once he showers off the black dust and finds a police station where he can formally request asylum, his story begins to take shape. In brief, he's lost nearly all his family, save the sister he's desperately seeking now, to a bomb and, as he emphasizes, it doesn't matter who dropped it on Aleppo, the Syrian army, the Russians, the Americans, ISIS. He's wound up in Finland pretty much by accident but places his hope in Finns' historical memory of their own displacement. When the Finnish let him down, he goes underground.
On a parallel and seemingly unrelated track, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), late 50s, maybe early 60s, leaves his wife, ditches his job selling men's shirts on the road, bets his savings in a superbly staged poker game and invests his winnings in what's got to be the most hopeless restaurant in all of Scandinavia. It's here, as we see in the scene that opens the trailer, that Khaled and Wikström meet.
Hilarity actually does ensue. So, too, do a few pauses for Kaurismäki's beloved rock 'n' roll and a bit of gang violence handled so clumsily you can't help but wonder if the amateurishness of these sequences is intentional, as if the thugs of the "Finland Liberation Army" deserve nothing more. The bottom line, though, is the solidarity of another one of Kaurismäki's ad hoc communities of what Khaled calls "good people." The Other Side of Hope is a little too spotty to go down as one of his best, but it's the Kaurismäki movie we need now.
More from Michael J. Anderson, Yaron Dahan (Notebook), David Ehrlich (IndieWire, A-), Dan Fainaru (Screen), Kenji Fujishima (House Next Door), Ryan Gilbey (Guardian, 4/5), Owen Gleiberman (Variety), Nick James (Sight & Sound), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, A-), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), Giovanni Marchini Camia (Notebook), Paul O’Callaghan (Exberliner), Rory O'Connor (Film Stage, A), Michael Pattison (RogerEbert.com), Tim Robey (Telegraph, 5/5) and David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter). And Birgit Heidsiek interviews Kaurismäki for Cineuropa.
Seems to me a few critics are going a little overboard in their enthusiasm for A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio's undeniably solid followup to Gloria (2013), the movie that introduced the great Paulina García to the world outside of Chile. This fantastic woman is Marina Vidal, marking Daniela Vega's onscreen debut. In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey suggests that a Silver Bear for best actress—García won one for Gloria—"would be not only deserved but unprecedented, since it would make Vega the first transgender performer to scoop a major acting award."
Marina sings. She's got a lovely voice and a commanding presence and A Fantastic Woman opens and closes with her performing, first as a sort of nightclub chanteuse, then in full evening glam. Her lover, Orlando, 20 years older, is mad for her, and she for him. One night, Orlando suffers a brain aneurysm and doctors are unable to save him. From here on in, as we learn that Orlando had left his wife and daughter for Marina, Lelio tracks two struggles, one on several exterior fronts, the other, internal. Even as Marina battles the usual forms of discrimination facing trans people, violent or merely insidious, she also demands recognition from Orlando's family of their love. Marina also has to contend with two impulses within herself, the essential need for dignity vs. the realization each time she fights for it, they win, taking a little more away.
The pace of A Fantastic Woman is not slow, but it is deliberate, as if Marina were on a long march toward reconciliation with her new life without Orlando. Also, I'm no expert by any means, but from the opening credits through to the final performance, I was enthralled by the score and the sound mix overall.
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), David Ehrlich (IndieWire, B+), Ed Frankl (Film Stage, B+), Ryan Gilbey (Guardian, 5/5), Thomas Humphrey (ScreenAnarchy), Wendy Ide (Screen), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, A-/B+), Diego Lerer, Guy Lodge (Variety), Giovanni Marchini Camia (Filmmaker), Paul O’Callaghan (Exberliner), Joseph Proimakis (Cineuropa) and David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter).
The danger inherent in overrating a good film like A Fantastic Woman is that it raises expectations to an unwarranted degree. The danger in underrating a very good film like Thomas Arslan's Bright Lights—and many critics so far have been outright dismissive, though the scores on Critic.de's Berlinale jury grid are, on average, encouraging—is that a major work in an undeservedly overlooked oeuvre will be reduced to a footnote. For the time being; I have a hunch that, in the long run, Bright Lights will come in for the recognition it deserves.
Yes, the story is simple. And yes, it has been told many times before. When his father passes away, Michael (Georg Friedrich, an odd but ultimately brilliant stroke of casting) must see to the usual arrangements—the closing of the house up in Norway, where his father spent the last years of his life, the paperwork and so on. Having lost touch with his son, Luis (Tristan Göbel), Michael invites him to tag along—without telling him that he's arranged for a little more father-son bonding than the 14-year-old might have agreed to.
Summer in Norway. The sun never sets. No darkness, no cover. There's no escaping for these two from each other, nor from themselves. And don't let the clip fool you; dialogue is sparse. Some have suggested parallels to Toni Erdmann, as if its narrative were retold after being stripped down to its barest outline. Another opposing example would be Arslan's own Gold (2013). In Bright Lights, Arslan's deft framing conveys the vastness of all this useless natural beauty, only without overpopulating it with characters and subplots. There is one standout shot, quite clearly calling attention to itself if for nothing than its sheer length alone, that could be read as a statement of principle for Bright Lights, a country road climbing a hill, winding at a steady speed as a fog gathers, depleting visibility to a blazing white.
More from Michael J. Anderson, Giovanni Marchini Camia (Filmmaker), Lee Marshall (Screen), Paul O’Callaghan (Exberliner), Rory O'Connor (Film Stage, C+), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa), Boyd van Hoeij (Hollywood Reporter) and Jay Weissberg (Variety). And Fabien Lemercier interviews Arslan for Cineuropa.