Berlinale Dispatch #1:
Farewell, My Queen; Hello, Berlin

FILM, Film Festivals
Benoit Jacquot’s new film sets the tone at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

The red carpet is out at the Berlinale, the first major European film festival of 2012, and I’m not sure quite what to make of it yet.

Berlin sits alongside Cannes and Venice for scale and prestige: 400-odd films, ten days, over twenty venues, a €19.5 million annual budget and, according to the festival website, about 4000 journalists. The European Film Market runs alongside the festival and attracts nearly as much attention, with big deals announced daily.

So far, it’s a festival of contrasts. Hollywood stars (Diane Kruger, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jake Gyllenhaal on day one) rub shoulders on the red carpet with relative unknowns. This town has a passion for film, judging by demand for online sales, but the formidable ticket queues must keep many away.

This year’s programme seems to be the usual mix of studio productions, experimentation, drama, action and documentary (here’s the Hollywood Reporter’s take on the headliners). Meryl Streep will receive an honorary award, there’s a series of food-with-film pairings, and tickets to Nazi spoof Iron Sky are selling like hotcakes.

Quite a few Kiwis in town, too. Robert Sarkies’s Two Little Boys and Pietra Brettkelly’s new doco Maori Boy Genius both premiere this week. Short films Lambs, Meathead and Snow in Paradise have also made the cut.

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There’s a theme of upheaval across this year’s selection, including several documentaries about the Arab Spring. With that in mind, Benoit Jacquot’s big budget historical drama Les adieux à la Reine (Farewell My Queen) proved a sound choice as festival opener.

The film takes a servant’s eye view of the fateful few days between the storming of the Bastille and Louix XVI’s march on Breteuil. As the royal household begins to panic, Marie Antoinette’s young reader Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) finds herself caught between the Queen (Diane Kruger) and her court favourite (Virginie Ledoyen).

Jacquot’s intimate, gritty Versailles is a world apart from the pop glamour of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). In the telling first scene between Seydoux and Kruger, the Queen gently rubs rosewood water on her reader’s infected mosquito bites. This sparks a dangerous infatuation for Sedonie, though the script and Seydoux’s sparse acting leave us guessing how deep her devotion really goes. Is she a simple groupie or carefully playing the only cards she has to get ahead?

Kruger’s animated, erratic Queen is the emotional heart of the film, despite appearing only in vignettes. The famous cake line doesn’t make it but there are plenty of nods to it (“the people not only want bread, they want power” etc.) as well as some splendid one-liners from court archivist and supporting character M. Moreau (Michel Robin).

This is Jacquot’s 20th film and his first using digital. “Digital does make some changes, all for the better,” he told journalists yesterday, comparing the use of chemical stock to riding a horse in the age of the car. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go back.”

(Note: To hear the likes of von Trier, Lynch and Scorsese take sides on the chemical versus digital debate, make a note to check out upcoming doco Side by Side, also screening this week in Berlin.)

Nina Fowler’s dispatches for The Lumière Reader will continue throughout the Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from February 9-19.