Berlinale Dispatch (2013) #4: Camille Claudel 1915, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, The Look of Love, Love Battles, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Portrait of Jason

FILM, Film Festivals
Last encounters at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.

Camille Claudel 1915 is uncharacteristically restrained for a Bruno Dumont film; its knockout ending arrived at through a minimalist and empathetic approach. Having not seen Dumont’s previous two features (following Flandres, the last of his films to screen in New Zealand), I’m loathe to call this his most mature work, but the lightness of touch and emotional weight to the narrative is both surprising and impressive.

The film looks at Camille Claudel’s (Juliette Binoche) interment in a psychiatric hospital in the South of France. World War One is raging around her, her ex-lover Auguste Rodin (their relationship was the subject of an Isabelle Adjani/Gérard Depardieu film in 1988) is about to marry his on-off other lover, and the dismantling of her artistic output and reputation as a sculptor is beyond her control. Unexpectedly, Dumont rarely films the outside world. Instead, he focuses largely on Binoche’s face, as her ennui and suppressed artistic ambitions take over her existence. To her credit, Binoche to refuses to go down the histrionic route; her restraint a match for Dumont’s channeling of The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Dreyer’s Gertrud is also a thematic relation to this film.)

Dumont also shoots Binoche in amongst the other inhabitants in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or awkward. In the process, he studies the way in which human individualism, and in particular female expression, was suppressed and controlled. The film is also a potent account of the labeling of “madness”; the way madness is first catalogued, and then used to justify the suppression of human emotions and ambitions. It shows how religion fails to fill the void between the potentially competing demands of communal solidarity and individualism (shown via the depiction of Claudel’s brother, the politician and poet Paul Claudel). In fact, religious fervour, in Dumont’s eyes, was no different to the artistic fervour that got Claudel committed in the first place. The tragedy, though, as presented by Dumont, is what happens when this artistic fervour is prevented from being realised, and instead, is spent staring at walls.

For a film about mental torture and pain, Camille Claudel 1915 doesn’t feel heavy. Still, tedium (a natural consequence of a film about tedium) and claustrophobia make this a remarkably hard sell—a shame, as it’s an assured and powerful piece of filmmaking, and one that suggests a new breakthrough for Dumont.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is yet another enjoyable Hong Sang-soo film in a career of consistently enjoyable films. The reception to the film has been lukewarm; it’s as if people keep expecting a complete turnaround from Hong’s usual tales of impotence, soju-drinking, eating, and relationship incompetence. But while Hong makes what appears to be the same film over and over again, his delight in small pleasures and beady depiction of modern life is wonderful to watch on repeat. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon may not be as resonant as Hong’s sharpest work, but it was all-too quickly passed over when the festival accolades were awarded.

The film features a rare-for-Hong (In Another Country excepted) female protagonist. Haewon (Jung Eunchae) is a student carrying out an affair with her lecturer, but has decided to end it. Her mother is leaving for Canada for good. She finds herself lonely and forgotten. In typical Hong fashion, the protagonist finds herself battling between taking the plunge and starting afresh, or returning to what seems comfortable and easy. Of course, the latter option is what most of his characters choose—and it’s never as easy as it seems. Hong’s men are as useless as ever: drunkards, wanting one thing but settling for another, who string the females along. Only this time, Haewon is similarly useless. Feelings are repressed and only come out at inopportune moments (usually aided by soju). Meanwhile, Hong’s view of relationships is as cynical as ever.

Through Hong’s typically flat, unobtrusive shooting style, it can appear that his films go nowhere (or at least, that’s one of the big criticisms of his work), but to complain about that here is to miss the point of his entire career. Hong is more interested in repetitions and subtle variations in between the “nothingness”. It’s almost as if Hong is simply mocking societal belief (or its excuse) that modern life is constantly changing and fast paced. Hong’s use of repetition appears formally, for instance, in his use of music, locations, and narrative moments. The film is built around a circular and ultimately claustrophobic structure. In fact, it works in concert with the rest of his oeuvre (Beethoven’s 7th, the same streets, the discarded cigarette butts, the same kind of characterisation all reappear, for example). Nobody’s Daughter Haewon simply joins the merry-go-round of contemporary Korea, as depicted throughout Hong’s great career.

Another prolific director, Michael Winterbottom, premiered his latest in Berlin. Unlike Hong, Winterbottom’s oeuvre has been anything but rigorous. Social realism, art porn, grand biopics, political cage-rattling—he’s almost done the lot. The Look of Love is his latest collaboration with Steve Coogan. It’s a biopic based on the life of Paul Raymond. Raymond became reportedly the richest dollar billionaire in England via his property dealings in Soho, and, as depicted in the film, via his selling of sex to a Victorian-minded postwar England.

The film is structured almost like a Citizen Kane of sleaze. Raymond loses the thing that matters the most to him (his daughter), and his story is told via a series of flashbacks that show how despite all the money he made, he missed out on what was important. Of course, the comparison with Kane is certainly not intended to exalt this film. On the contrary, The Look of Love is a strangely flat affair despite all of its sex and rock‘n’roll. The changing period details almost signal the time shifts that occur, rather than via any sort of narrative momentum. It charges through Raymond’s life to the point that it lacks any sort of rhythm or moments of great power. While Coogan is as winning as ever (he really is an underrated actor), there’s no real sympathy or empathy gained for Raymond’s, or his daughter’s, life. A few moments of actual human emotion register—such as in a beautifully judged scene involving a forgotten son—but the rest is a carefree, and ultimately careless, portrait of someone who is hard to care about.

But at least it wasn’t tedious. Jacques Doillon, a man whose oeuvre is admittedly worthy of further consideration, really misfired with his truly dull Love Battles. A couple meet. She (Sara Forestier) is in a small village dealing with the property of her recently deceased father. He (James Thiérrée) tries to assist (?) her when she expresses her private frustrations. They fight. They fight until they have sex. Of course, they have sex while in nature, because violence, sex, animalistic behaviour, and the physical landscape need to be intertwined. The film typifies all of the worst stereotypes of art cinema, the stereotypes that are largely untrue: philosophical musings masquerading as conversation, thoroughly unlikable ciphers instead of characters, a healthy dose of sex, and not much else underneath. Forestier and Thiérrée are remarkably physical and impressive in their performances, but there is nothing underneath the nakedness that results.

I ended by time in Berlin with a couple of classics. Max Ophüls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman screened as part of a retrospective to show the Weimar Republic’s influence on post-1933 cinema. Ophüls must be seen on the big screen, and while Letter from an Unknown Woman isn’t as visually sumptuous as his final works (though not much is), it’s one of his more moving pieces. Based on Stefan Zweig’s fin de siècle novel, Lisa (Joan Fontaine) becomes obsessed with her neighbour, a promising concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). Her consequent decline—along with his—follows the typical Ophülian themes of individual sacrifice, inescapable fate, and circularity, the camera standing in for things unexpressed (desire, fear, suffering), and the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of love.

The other classic was the rarely seen—in fact, Berlin programmed only the second public screening this century—of Shirley Clarke’s 1967’s piece, Portrait of Jason. Long thought lost, it was rescued by a Kickstarter campaign and some stellar work from Milestone Pictures. Portrait of Jason simply films its subject (the eponymous Jason) as he yarns to the camera for an hour and a half. While it looks like it was shot in one sitting, Clarke constantly interrupts the narrative and momentum, to the point that the formal qualities of the film become inherently problematic. Jason is funny, infuriating, charming, tedious, a great raconteur, and hard to trust—essentially a typical human being, but also a constructed and “fictional” character for the film. With Jason, Clarke is playing with the supposed “truth” of the camera. In other words, cinéma-vérité used by an unreliable narrator to recount a personal (and potentially made-up) history. Clarke builds into the film’s structure the criticisms levelled at cinéma-vérité, before cinéma-vérité became the dominant documentary trend in American independent circles. The film was controversial at the time because Jason was black, homosexual, and did sex work, and Jason is frank in his discussion of his life (this, of course, was 1967). From a social point-of-view, it’s one of the more revolutionary pieces of American cinema. As a personal piece of cinema and art, Clarke’s film is impressive, intelligent, and well-before its time.

Like any film festival, there are always the titles that you end up missing and wish you had made time to see. Films that ‘trended’ included Nicolas Philibert’s La Maison de la Radio about Radio France, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s In Bloom, the Keisuke Kinoshita retrospective, Ulrich Seidl’s closing film in his Paradise trilogy, Wong Kar-wai’s much-hyped The Grandmaster, and many others. Another time, no doubt.

Nina Fowler previously covered the Berlin International Film Festival for The Lumière Reader. Alexander Bisley interviewed Juliette Binoche in 2007.