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I Want to be Kidnapped!, By Ewa Wildner
When you make a comedy, half the battle is to choose a cast well. With Michel Houellebecq as a leading actor, the filmmakers didn't have to struggle much to absorb the viewers who laughed their heads off during the screening.
It all started with a rumour spread in 2001 that the famous writer was abducted by Al-Qaeda. There were some who claimed that it was aliens from outer space responsible for his disappearance during the promotional tour for a new book. It may sound far-fetched, but with Michel Houellebecq everything is possible. Just look at him. With hair pointing in every possible direction and absent eyes, he walked into the Delphi cinema, arresting the attention of the cameras as well as the audience. The I-don't-really-care look on his face ultimately convinced me that in the movie he plays himself.
He doesn't care when three sturdy, self-appointed mafiosi tie him up and put him in the trunk of a car. He doesn't care that an iron chain constrains him when he goes to sleep. He seems to be indifferent to the fact that the call for ransom is not even announced. All he cares about is his lighter and cigarettes on the bedside table. And maybe a sandwich in the middle of the night? Oh, and a glass of good wine of course, every once in a while. The kidnappers don't even notice when this fragile man starts to manipulate them, criticizing their disorientation and simply turning the kidnapping to his own advantage.
THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (L' ENLÈVEMENT DE MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ, France), shown in Berlinale Forum, is a very simple low-budget picture basically shot in one apartment. Director Guillaume Nicloux fills the flat with utter eccentricity when it comes to the setting (a meter-high porcelain doll in the bedroom), as well as conversations ("Thank you for making my captivity enjoyable"). You might expect that such dry humour would soon tire, but the overtly illogical dialogues make the story delightfully quirky and absurd to the very last moment. This deadpan mockumentary surely is a welcome refreshment in this year's Berlinale programme.
The number of women working behind the camera has traditionally been very low, and in most countries it still is. But in France, things are more hopeful, and Agnès Godard, who has worked behind the camera for more than thirty years, is still seeing new opportunities. Experimenting with style and format, fearless in the face of gendered challenges and determined to discover something in a new technology, Godard gives hope to a new generation of up and coming women determined to make their own mark onscreen.
Most acclaimed for her collaborative work with Claire Denis, Godard has now earned her place as one of the most revered female cinematographers in the business. But it wasn't always smooth sailing. "I met some difficulties, of course", she says, "I decided to consider the difficulties as work difficulties." In taking the word "misogyny" out of the equation she had a far easier battle to fight, "because how can you fight that? It's a mentality. And everybody knows it's very difficult to change a mentality."
Her career trajectory, moving very quickly from camera assistant and focus puller to camera operator and then to cinematographer, was enabled by both her determination and an industry that, while still predominantly run by men, was more open to women, "I think I've been really lucky to be French because the French have remained, I think, the most open country to this."
While gender politics still bubble behind the scenes and simmer in her past, it is always the final image that Godard has her eye on, "I am not so keen to try to separate female cinematography and male cinematography, because for me an image doesn't have a sex."
Having shot for most of her career on 35mm, and having established herself within a man's world, Godard's challenge has since shifted to mastering digital technology, a format she wasn't initially convinced of, "at the beginning I had the feeling that all film shot in digital – digitally – looked the same. I thought, ‘This is a disaster!‘" But it is now just another opportunity to discover something new: "I'm ready to look for something else – to search, to try. And it's good."
The Norwegian director/screenwriter Eskil Vogt who participated in Berlinale Talents in 2003, returns to the Berlinale this year with his directorial debut BLIND. Vogt first came to prominence as a screenwriter, having written two successful films for the director Joachim Trier (REPRISE, OSLO 31 AUGUST). For BLIND, which was awarded Best Screenplay at Sundance, the writing is essential: the narrative blends real experiences of the protagonist who's lost her sight, and an imagined version of her life that she puts into writing.
The main challenge for Eskil Vogt was to visually transmit the experience of a blind person: "One option is showing black screen, and I do it at one point. But when you do that, you lose contact with the character. What is left is your reaction to the sounds, not the character's reaction. I felt that the best point of departure for capturing the feel is to stay on the protagonist with close-ups. You hear the sounds without seeing what's happening, but you see how she reacts. You're as blind as her but you get access to her emotions."
We don't get to see many blind characters in cinema – given that this subject allows for the possibility to make some points about the nature of visuality, such reluctance to explore the topic is odd. "Most films about blindness are about a woman who's lost her sight and who becomes stalked by a killer or something", says Vogt. "Women are always victims in horror films because they are weaker, and a blind woman becomes an ultimate victim. I avoided that purposefully."
For Vogt, blindness is a very cinematic subject. "I'm more drawn to cinema portraying people's thoughts and feelings rather than documentation of what's happening in front of a camera", he says. "I've always felt that when we speak of cinema as a realistic medium, it's true in many ways, but we forget that we experience life in one continuous take. Editing is the essence of cinema, and you don't have it in life, but you have it in your dreams, in your thoughts, your imagination."
Academy Award-winning sound designer Eugene Gearty from the United States, best known for his collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee, and British filmmaker Peter Strickland, director of the films KATALIN VARGA (2009) and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012), gathered at the Berlinale Talents panel "The World of Shouts and Whispers", moderated by film historian Peter Cowie. Although both filmmakers work with sound, their respective approaches are marked by a significant difference: Gearty collaborates with directors and helps them bring their concepts to life, unlike Strickland, who actively works with the sound engineers of the films he directs.
Regardless of the tasks various directors demand of Gearty, he stresses the value of good co-workers: "I'm gifted with a great team; Marko Constanzo and George Lara are my foley artist and engineer, and we've been together for 25 years." However, it all comes down to serving the filmmakers' ideas. "The most important thing to directors is how the sound is used", Gearty said in reference to a clip from Martin Scorsese's adventure-drama HUGO, which earned him an Oscar for sound editing in 2011. For example, he said, "Marty is sensitive to details", and while working on this film "he fell in love with the production sounds and their emotional content."
Strickland, for his part, explained why, as a director, he is so focused on sound – his latest feature BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO even takes place in a sound studio. "I'm obsessed with it", confessed the filmmaker, who is considered a master at combining diegetic and extra-diegetic sounds and is also known as a lover of music, especially the avant-garde. "Basically, music dictated those shots", he said. He also explained how he directed a particular sequence from the film, one in which vegetables are being boiled. He revealed that in terms of sound, "hardly anything was created in postproduction" because a lot of his friends helped him to create sound effects beforehand. "It's all fake in this film", Strickland said playfully.
Before closing the panel, both directors implied how convenient it is to design sound in an era of so much technological advancement. In that respect, most directors who influenced them weren't as privileged as they are, and that's why they admire those filmmakers – figures like David Lynch and Carroll Ballard – so much. "Anybody before me", Gearty affirmed, "had a lot less to work with to achieve great things." Strickland agreed, saying, "Their methods were so experimental, and their sounds are such a part of our language now; I can't imagine what it took to get those things."
"You're on earth. There's no cure for that." (Samuel Beckett)
Here's a lifesaver for you: grab on to the best film you've seen in the whole festival like it was the last day on earth. And make that film the standard of how all other films must be judged. The new ÕUNPUU (THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY) is not only, I dare say, one of the best films of Berlinale, but it will in time, be recognized as a timeless masterpiece.
A filmic paradise for a cinephile, FREE RANGE (BALLAAD MAAILMA HEAKSKIITMISEST) was wonderfully filmed in 16mm and musicalized by the Estonian filmmaker with a batch of his own vintage albums (a soundtrack that includes artists as varied as Arvo Pärt or Scott Walker). But, beyond the formal aspects of the film, this dark existential comedy carries an enormous weight of Dadaism, a game of the absurd that ignites from the first frames of the reel.
What would happen if, against the weight of regular life, we would put the absurd as a manifestation of existence? Beckett, among others, tried to answer that question many years ago, and so many art forms have dealt with the same question. ÕUNPUU makes a manifestation of purpose: life sucks, films that celebrate life suck (THE TREE OF LIFE sucks, according to Fred, the lead character, a film critic who is fired after he writes a very picturesque review of the film), and there's no meaning whatsoever in this life, only space for partying, alcohol, confusion, nothingness.
But in all this darkness, the filmmaker finds such a unique angle to treat his film, derived from 60s hippie films (which of course would read as the ultimate oxymoron). With the photography and mood of a deliriously upbeat life-affirming film (full of slow motion shots), ÕUNPUU finds in contradiction the tool he needs to make his film work wonderfully, and in that resides the talent and mastery of the filmmaker.
What is this film about? White horses appearing through green fields in slow-mo. And the meaning of life, or the lack thereof.
Many often ask cinematographer Christopher Doyle how he chooses his movies. His answer is simple: it's always the people. "Why would you spend time with someone you don't love?", he asks. Here are some of the people Doyle has worked with, people whom he considers important in his life and whom he counts among his friends: Wong Kar Wai (their collaborations include IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and DAYS OF BEING WILD), Tilda Swinton (Doyle has known the actress since she was 19) and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
The celebrated Australian cinematographer, who sat down for a brief interview after attending a special Berlinale Talents session called "Every Picture Tells a Story" on Tuesday, said he likes to think people are good until proven otherwise. That's how he makes his friends, who also happen to be some of the most celebrated cineastes and artists today. "If you approach people that way, then you discover some amazing things", Doyle said. "That's what film is about. That's how you engage with whom you work with. They sense that I care, they sense that they can give something to me with confidence. Then actors' performances become more open, more energized and more true."
Doyle, who is 61, is best known for his collaborations with some of the most iconic Asian filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. He grew up in Sydney and moved to Asia at age 18. While he was attending University of Hong Kong in the late ‘70s, his professor gave him a Chinese name: Du Ke Feng. Doyle, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, said that Du is the ideal version of Christopher Doyle. "I think Christopher Doyle wants to be Du Ke Feng", he said. "But he'll never get there. And that's okay. I think it's always good to aspire to be more than you are."
Doyle said that he is a city person, and he loves the sea. Both Hong Kong – which Doyle describes as "the place I became what I am doing now" – and Sydney, where he grew up, are harbor cities. He thinks his optimism has a lot to do with growing up by the seaside, and with a lot of women in the house – he has four sisters. Cities (especially Hong Kong) and water have been his main source of inspiration. "I think the sea to me is women, the sea is a possibility. It embraces these depths, these wonderful rhythms that men don't have," he said.
Doyle, who has traveled extensively, said that being a filmmaker is similar to being multilingual. "As a filmmaker, you have to get into this polyglot kind of a space," he said. "You have to get into a space where you are able to speak other languages. Other languages might be a film language, might be a language you structure a film. The more you travel, the more different kinds of people you work with, the better your films will be." When asked what Wong Kar Wai looks like when he's not wearing his sunglasses – Doyle said that, apart from Wong's wife, he is the only person who has seen Wong's eyes – he gave an answer that was short and clear: "Lost."
In conversation with Anja Marquardt on her debut feature, SHE'S LOST CONTROL.
German-American director Anja Marquardt premiered her debut feature film, SHE'S LOST CONTROL in this year's Berlinale Forum. An alumna of Berlinale Talents, Marquardt used Kickstarter to help fund her project, successfully reaching her goal of $50,000 – though she admits that she disliked being in the spotlight, preferring to "stay behind the camera".
Marquardt weaves a sparing, naturalistic depiction of a professional sex surrogate, Ronah (Brooke Bloom). Using long zoom lenses and many close-ups on Brooke Bloom's expressive face, the emphasis is on Ronah's compassion and commitment to her work, as well as a growing fondness for one of her clients, Johnny (Marc Menchaca). With an understated style and a steady rhythm, the film articulates a tension between the containment and chaos in Ronah's life, something Anja addresses. "We tried to use available daylight whenever possible, but, with some kind of edge, an aesthetic perspective. We wanted her life to feel contained in some respects, and on the edge in others."
I met with Anja after a screening and Q+A about the film, to discuss her approach to filmmaking, her experience at the Berlinale, and the concept of "professional intimacy" that pervades her film. She previously mentioned that she had made a tough decision in postponing principal photography for six months following a last-minute change in casting. I queried her on the topic, wondering if, as a first-time female filmmaker, people second-guessed her choices. "You do have people second-guess you, and it may come from people who don't know you or it may come from people you know, but in the end you really can't allow it to effect your work. If you allow people to second-guess you, then you second-guess yourself, and that's a dangerous path."
The performances are central in SHE'S LOST CONTROL, and in such a carefully constructed film, I ask Anja what approach she took in directing her actors, and using improvisation. "Brooke, Mark and I sat down and talked about the script, and the intention behind each scene, and I think we were very much in agreement about the emotional trajectory of the characters. There were some scenes we adjusted, but there wasn't a lot of room to improvise. We did have a few scenes where I really wanted to, but those were booked into the shooting schedule. Most scenes, we just did them, and mostly shot them in rehearsal. Brooke and Marks first takes were often really great."
Aided by such performances, the film successfully interrogates modern alienation and the controversial use of "partner's therapy" as an idiosyncratic answer some turn to, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Born and raised in Berlin, Anja comments on premiering at Berlinale: "It's amazing, and Berlin is my home, so it was such a wonderful experience to premiere at the Berlinale. It was really the best I could have dreamed of."