Berlins French breeze

57TH BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, February 8-18. Rating: NNNNNBerlin - We get no sympathy, but the film types.


Berlin – We get no sympathy, but the film types who flock to Berlin in February like to complain about the weather. This year we’re in heaven: first came sleet and frigid winds, and now snow sits caked all over Potsdamer Platz like makeup on an old diva. It’s grisly.

Weirdly, there’s a balm blowing in from France. Weird because Germans typically sneer at French films (the feeling’s mutual), but now there’s a new detente. This year the Berlinale opened with the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose and reached a crowd-pleasing peak with the new comedy directed by and starring Julie Delpy . It’s only a matter of time before Berlin’s leather lesbians start knotting their Hermes scarves just so.

After years spent building its reputation as the festival of anti-imperialism, anti-militarism and all things anti-Nazi, Berlin has suddenly swooned for love and music. A sweet look back at Brazil in 1970, The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is the best-reviewed Competition film so far. Politics has mostly been left to the Americans, in the form of that Steven Soderbergh-Robert De Niro double bill The Good German Shepherd.

It’s a relief, really. As strong and vital as the Berlinale’s selection has been in recent years, it could use a little France. With Edith Piaf, it got loads. Director Olivier Dahan serves up a concentrated cocktail of giddiness and torment, charting the life of the legendary French chanteuse from Dickensian childhood through massive stardom to premature decline. (Piaf died a physical wreck at 47.)

But instead of following a tragic arc, the film shuttles drunkenly between years, knocking infant Piaf against middle age against youth. The sliced-up chronology means La Vie En Rose never gathers the emotional momentum it could.

Still, Marion Cotillard is a marvel as Piaf. At the film’s press conference she looked like an actress in the classic French style all creamy angles but her acting in the film is from the Anglo-American school. This is a physically demanding, fully inhabited performance played without an ounce of vanity.

Cotillard nails the tight, forceful vibrato of Piaf’s speaking voice and the impulsive marionette moves of her body. Her work is easily on a par with what Jamie Foxx or Charlize Theron did lately to win Oscars. But, then, Americans are even sniffier about the French than Germans are. Whether she gets recognized or not, this is a movie to watch for it’s due for a summer release in North America.

The Julie Delpy film is even better. Last seen in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, she showed she could push open her role as the ideal French girlfriend gorgeous, brainy, adorably maddening to give it depth and even melancholy. She co-wrote that film with Linklater and Ethan Hawke, and she had already directed a Dogme-style feature of her own, Looking For Jimmy. But Two Days In Paris has no right to be this good. It actually improves on Before Sunset.

Delpy and Adam Goldberg (also seen in Linklater’s Waking Life and Before Sunrise) play lovers two years into a relationship on their way home from a Venice vacation. They stop off in Paris at an apartment upstairs from Delpy’s parents (played by her real-life showbiz parents) and fall into 48 hours of squabbling, jealousy and classic couples’ neuroses. It’s hilarious.

Delpy keeps the pace crackling and gives herself and Goldberg one-liners like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the old days. She’s also got a taste for the sour-sweet paradoxes of being in love. At film festivals, you have to have a movie to rave about. Two Days In Paris is mine.

As at any festival, there have been misguided annoyances to sit through, and odd disappointments like Park Chan-wook ‘s I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK . Park seems hell-bent on pushing away his Oldboy fans with aggressive whimsy. Apparently taking his ideas about mental illness from old Warner Brothers cartoons, he’s turned in a loony-bin love story that’s retrograde and frequently idiotic. Casting Korean pop star Rain didn’t help, even in Korea, where the film has already bombed.

Still, you like to see directors keep taking chances. That’s the story of Bruce McDonald , whose new film, The Tracey Fragments , opened Berlin’s Panorama section. Ellen Page stars as a pissed-off 15-year-old suffering a meltdown at the hands of psycho parents and predator guys. But McDonald’s dizzying, multi-frame technique it’s like zipping through a Mondrian flip book draws all the attention. McDonald introduced the film with a nicely turned phrase in German, then harked back to his first Berlinale experience 15 years ago, when he drank beer standing on top of the newly breached Berlin Wall.

The opening-night party for The Tracey Fragments was DJed by Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene, who also contributed music to the film. As snow flew outside and Peaches lounged around inside, Canning’s playlist tore through rock, indie, retro and pop. At one point he dropped a Brian Eno track from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and suddenly all thoughts of France were gone and we were deeply back in Berlin.


Canadian connections

Bruce McDonald leads a massive charge of Canadians this year in Berlin. Also premiering in the Panorama section: Clement Virgo ‘s Nova Scotia boxing drama Poor Boy’s Game , and the European premiere of Sarah Polley ‘s Away From Her .

Toronto avant-garde stalwart Deirdre Logue mounts her award-winning installation Why Always Instead Of Just Sometimes inside Berlin’s Canadian Embassy as part of the Forum Expanded section.

And in the boundary-pushing Forum section, the official hot ticket is Guy Maddin ‘s Brand Upon The Brain! with a full orchestra at the Deutsche Oper.

Montreal director Catherine Martin screens two films, The Spirit Of Places and In The Cities , and Garine Torossian ‘s Stone Time Touch , an intimate chronicle of visits to Armenia by both Torossian and Arsinee Khanjian , has its European premiere. This intoxicating film immediately drew the theory adjective “haptic” from Forum programmer Stefanie Schulte-Strathaus . Torossian, interestingly, located her formal style in a need to “tear things into pieces.”

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