This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:
This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly ‘help’ in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.
A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.
They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.
There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.
As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scène, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.
I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.
Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.
What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!
Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.
Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.
I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.
Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.
One of the magazines freely available at GFF is The Skinny and I read an interview with Mark Cousins about his 5-part Women Make Film which screened in the last few days of the festival. Cousins points out that people who haven’t seen many films made by women often generalise that “Women makes films about relationships” or “Women make films with more empathy”. He’s right of course. This kind of generalisation is damaging and stops many films directed by women for being seen as films by directors who are great filmmakers and who can make all kinds of films. However, it’s also true that when women write and direct films they sometimes do create narratives that have a strongly gendered perspective. Agnes Joy is a ‘comic maternal melodrama’, written by Silja Hauksdóttir, Gagga Jonsdottir and Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir. It’s directed by Silja Hauksdóttir as her second cinematic feature after several years working in television. I should also point out that the story idea came from Mikael Torfason, a novelist and film writer.
Rannveig (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) is a woman in her forties who we first meet at a family/clan gathering where she is searching for her 19 year-old daughter who is supposed to be entertaining the party by playing the violin. But Agnes (Donna Cruz) is hungover and reluctant. Rannveig’s problems are several. As well as Agnes she has to deal with Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), her husband who seems no longer interested in anything except watching Netflix and a mother who has retired from running the family business and now demands her daughter’s attention. Rannveig now has to run the family business, a small distribution firm. Here, she has lost interest but finds herself at loggerheads with the staff who want to employ cheap migrant labour (unionised and un-regulated). When she visits the surgery to get some sleeping pills she is angered when she receives a lecture by the young (female) doctor about the symptoms of early menopause. When Agnes announces that she doesn’t want to go on the long-planned holiday to the Philippines it seems like the last straw.
The disruptive element in the narrative is the arrival of a new neighbour, Hreinn who comes to borrow an electrical extension cable. Iceland has a population of less than 400,000 but produces a range of films and TV programmes. The same actors appear in several projects and must be easily spotted out and about. Hreinn is played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who appeared in all episodes of the first two series of Trapped, the crime fiction series shown internationally. Agnes Joy makes Hreinn into a jobbing actor and allows him to be recognised as in the cast of Trapped. This postmodern touch is ironic since Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig is also in all the episodes of Trapped, but she’s playing the owner of a business not an actor. I’m not sure how the Icelandic audience copes with this but it must be strange. Anyway, Hreinn appears looking not unlike a mid-career Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick 1987?) with stubble and a kind of tousled charm. Rannveig and Einar invite him to a barbecue and the booze flows. Mother and daughter are vulnerable.
I won’t spoil all the plotlines. As the film’s title implies, Agnes has at least equal screentime as her mother. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination towards her as an adopted daughter. The proposed Philippines trip is the only indication as to her background. The conflict with her parents is mainly down to her wish to leave school without passing all her exams. So far, Agnes has spent most of her free time working/hanging out at a local store with her friend Skari, who doesn’t seem too adventurous. The one aspect of Agnes’s identity that is foregrounded is her body image. Agnes is a powerfully built young woman, something which the script is careful to see as a positive feature. Unlike Skari, Agnes does have ambitions, the first part of which is to get out of the small town of Akranes and eventually move to Rekyavik. Leaving school is the first step. In one scene we see her seemingly asleep in class while the teacher tries to engage his students in a close analysis of the structure and writing style of the Norse sagas. It seems like a commentary of some kind on contemporary Iceland.
Agnes Joy is a conventional narrative with some darker moments leavening the predominantly comedic tone. The script is interested primarily in Rannveig and Agnes and the men are simply narrative agents to help create the situations in which the women’s stories can be developed. Nothing is particularly surprising but the comic situations work and the overall effect is that of a crowd pleaser. I certainly enjoyed it.
Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.
The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.
Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intracacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.
The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.
In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters.
This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching.
The clip released for Toronto below shows a short scene between husband and wife. The German trailer (no English subs) gives a better impression of the range of incidents in the film.
Most of my film choices at GFF20 attracted virtually full houses and I wondered whether I had made a mistake with this film when I had two rows at the front of the cinema to myself. The first few scenes suggested a familiar, almost neo-realist style, small scale Iranian drama. These are usually well worthwhile to watch, but it was the end of a long tiring day and I wondered if I would have the energy necessary to see it through. In the event, I found the narrative gripping with a real cutting edge. At the end I noted that it was scripted by Mohammad Rasoulof who won the Berlin Golden Bear a week ago for his feature There is No Evil. Son-Mother was in fact one of the best films I saw during my festival visit. The film was directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi, like Rasoulof a human rights activist as well as a filmmaker subject to arrest and harassment by Iranian authorities. I’ve been unable to marry up the contrasting accounts of Mohammadi’s career offered by IMdB, Wikipedia and other websites. What seems clear is that she has made several short and feature-length documentaries and that she has been arrested and gaoled at least once for her stance on rights, especially for women in Iran. This appears to be her first fiction feature and it is a terrific film.
As the title implies, the film is in two parts which if I remember correctly are oddly titled in the negative, so the first part ‘Son’ is actually the mother’s story and the second, ‘Mother’ is the son’s. I think this is because the central character in each is driven by thoughts about the other. In the first part we meet Leila (Raha Khodayari) a widow with two children who works in a factory. She is struggling to pay for her youngest child at a daily play group, pay rent, feed her 12 year-old son Amir and pay for his education expenses. She has been late for work several times and risks losing her job. The reasons for her lateness are soon revealed. Instead of catching the factory-provided workers’ bus she has tried to get to work by herself. Why doesn’t she take the bus? The bus driver is a widower who has proposed marriage to her, but in marrying him she would have to abandon her son for at least three years as tradition demands that a stepson can’t be in the same house as his new sister (who is roughly Amir’s age). Leila knows that the other workers are starting to talk about her and the bus driver. When economic recession hits the factory and workers strike, Leila finds herself in a perilous position, almost certain to lose her job. She is encouraged to go ahead with the marriage to Kazem (who is a self-employed contractor, not a factory employee) by Bibi, an older woman and neighbour who says that she can help by finding a way to look after Amir. Leila is in an impossible position and finally agrees to go ahead with Bibi’s scheme.
In the hope that you might eventually be able to see this film, I won’t outline what happens in Amir’s story. Suffice to say that Bibi is not quite what she seems and Amir finds himself in an unusual and at times quite frightening situation. He is not only an intelligent and resourceful lad but he loves his mother and he eventually understands what has happened. Nevertheless, his story is, in many ways, heartbreaking, but, we learn, not unusual in Iran. Amir is played by Mahan Nasiri with great skill. One of the important points about the film is its deep humanism. None of the three adults is a ‘bad person’. All have to survive and all are trapped by the social conservatism and traditional orthodoxies of Iranian society and especially its working class. Son-Mother is a social realist melodrama. In some ways the film resembles earlier Ken Loach films from the UK which might have got a screening at Cannes and international distribution. Son-Mother is being sold internationally by Beta Cinema, the German film company with a strong track record so there is some hope it will get released in several territories after its festival tour. I do hope we get to see it in the UK.