The author, who served on the critics’ jury at the festival, profiles the late Alain Resnais and his award-winning final film, along with several works by other directors.
This Berlinale will be remembered for one last film by the most surprising and formally innovative of directors: Alain Resnais, who died two weeks after the end of the festival. How wonderful that at the age of 91, Resnais should win the Silver Bear for a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art”: an award traditionally given to a promising young director inaugurating a fresh style. But in the last twenty years of his life, Resnais became the most forward-looking of filmmakers, creating a new definition of drama with his intense emotional scenes played against unreal settings.
From our critics’ jury, Resnais received the FIPRESCI Prize for his final work, Aimer, Boire et Chanter (Life of Riley). As our jury head, Positif editor Michel Ciment, wrote, the film is “at once rigorous in its stylistic devices . . . and wildly free,” testifying to “an artist who loves to play games, to give free rein to his imagination and, above all, to celebrate life, even in the presence of death.” For Resnais, modernism was never dead: he would trot out the same old songs and tired games and give them an unexpected twist, so as to delay exhaustion and bring pleasure instead.
In Aimer, Boire et Chanter, Resnais announces the arrival of “newness” in a hundred different ways: via a tinny sound effect, the use of an atypical font, or a zany tone of voice from Sabine Azéma, Resnais’ wife and great comic muse. Each scene promises uncanny formal surprises, in a way that keeps our nerves on edge and our eyes wide open. The jolt of a new look, a new mood, induces a childlike feeling of wonder (rather than naiveté) in the viewer, as we wait for more to come. As the title of Resnais’ penultimate film put it, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) – and you’re not going to believe what’s heading your way.
Once again, Aimer, Boire et Chanter sees Resnais crafting cinema from old and new parts. Bits of trompe l’oeil scenery cut into live action; the use of stage machinery is obvious; a very English play by Alan Ayckbourn is partly adapted into a French film, and partly not. In Resnais, it is the friction between static and mobile elements that creates energy: the burst of spontaneity that is all the more striking for its contrast with rehearsed lines and predestined plots.
What there is of a “story” concerns a group of old theater friends who are worried about their terminally ill friend, George Riley. They are determined to create an ideal life for Riley’s last months and give him a graceful, happy ending off-stage. Throughout the film, this never-seen Riley will be discussed and praised at length. He enjoys the favors of every woman; he will have all of life’s treasures heaped on him. Like Oscar Wilde’s Ernest, he is a convenient receptacle for everyone’s ideals: the very mention of his name will bring all manner of fantasies and virtues to life. Riley is seen as some kind of incorrigible artistic spirit, someone who must be humored and indulged on the verge of death.
From the beginning, the film disorients us in a number of ways. Resnais opens with one of his amazingly stark opening credits, with the actors’ names printed in boxes that temporarily black out their surroundings. There is a sense of amnesia and wooziness here, which is enhanced by the use of a strangely plain font – the kind used in a Powerpoint presentation. Maximum suggestiveness is paired with absolute impersonality: a dizzying combination.
Each dramatic sequence unfolds in a certain way: first, there is generic location footage, in which the camera pushes us down the path toward an English cottage. Then a pen-and-ink drawing of the cottage appears. Finally we arrive at a soundstage with live actors, who we assume to be the characters in the cottage. This strange pattern of shots launches us into multiple versions of the same reality, since the filmed footage carries very different associations from the twee sketch. Rather than establishing shots, these are misleading shots, which give us no clue as to where we will be deposited next. Nevertheless, the strong push of the dolly shot at the start gives us the expectation of going somewhere.
It becomes apparent that Resnais’ camera withholds the information we get from just about every other narrative film. Long shots and location shots do not orient us, while “exterior” shots are just another form of illustration, no less opaque than the sketches. A close-up gets us no deeper into the action – instead it throws us into a new, cut-away space with an altered backdrop. When a character turns to the camera in the middle of a scene, her close-up confession is played against a background of black pen strokes, rather than the original set that we saw in long shot. Like Raul Ruiz, Resnais makes a style out of these continuity “errors,” replacing explanatory shots with completely new images. Instead of moving us toward the heart of the drama, the film continues to project us outward, ever more fantastically.
Resnais’ genius is to blend theater with film and drawing with live action – but very unevenly, so that there are lumpy bits in the mix. Actors react to props that are sometimes visible, sometimes not. Characters keep alluding to worlds off-camera and off-stage, which we are forced to imagine for ourselves. Ayckbourn’s play has been translated into French, but all the newspapers and references remain British! Realistic sounds blast through painted scenery, while film actors use stage poses to “explain” their gestures to the audience. In this film, as in the remarkable Bewitched (2005), it is as if the deepest emotions can only be felt against the fakest of cardboard settings. Nothing can break the spell his characters are under: the more incongruous an effect, the better.
This is the “wildly free” aspect of Resnais’ filmmaking, where any device can be used at any time. A new subplot or voice-over can be introduced in the third act – there are no rules as to what can emerge. And then, just as we’re immersed in the film, Resnais plays the most unexpected gesture of all: “FIN,” a sudden stamp rather than a closure.
No one does a better-placed or more resonant “FIN” than Resnais, and one of the most sublime occurs in his film Coeurs (2006). In Coeurs’ final scene, André Dussollier frantically scans a videotape for footage of Azéma, willing her image to appear on his TV. Under the spell of this desire, we stare into the screen and the character stares into the screen, but instead, a word comes out: FIN. The gaze that was sucked into the screen is suddenly pulled out, and not through an event or a character, but by an act of the story itself. A brilliant ending is perhaps the best surprise of all.
The Berlinale’s opening film, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, also played with flatness and depth, but in much less intriguing ways. As with most Anderson films, this one is jammed like a postmodernist novel with subplots and esoteric pursuits. The film is like a volume of McSweeney’s literary journal, with its old-fashioned curiosities and bookish affectations. There is a lot of visual detail, but all of it is opaque: the fine typography, the mix of pastels and primaries, and the colonial imagery have the same patina of shabby chic, so that no one element stands out. As such, I tend to feel that Anderson’s work is based on a vision of lifestyle rather than an aesthetics of cinema. Everything looks so soothing, and nothing provokes the eye.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, people have names like Zero and Pinky and are limited to a single tic or gesture, showing us that we should know better than to fall for the fiction of personality. An arch stylist such as Tilda Swinton benefits from this treatment, but the likes of Lea Seydoux and Adrien Brody are lost. Rather than Brody or Jason Schwartzman, what Anderson needs is an actor with the manic fire of Emma Thompson: someone to wobble the sets, and wiggle her way out of the film’s tessellations.
Not that a film shouldn’t coast on the way things look. As an introduction to the director Noboru Nakamura, the Forum screened three films including The Shape of Night (1964), a melodrama about a prostitute’s downfall, which features a striking use of neon color against blackness. This may not be a great film, but it looks like one, and that’s important. In the 1960s, Japanese studio directors such as Nakamura, Yuzo Kawashima and Yasuzo Masumura hit upon a style that combined abstraction and photorealism, setting nuanced faces against blocks of primary color. In The Shape of Night, the colored shapes create the feeling of a garish, denaturalized world. But as in Resnais’ films, a patently artificial set is able to seem universal; a limited stage can paradoxically stand in for all locations.
The combination of shadows with bright pigment still seems modernist and startling today; it lends an automatic resonance to each scene, no matter what is happening plot-wise. This is what occurs when directors and studios discover a look that is both beautiful and suggestive, and use it across multiple films. Even when an individual film flails, it hits the right triggers: the décor and lighting speak, if nothing else does. Examples of looks that “work”: 1980s Hollywood films about night and the city, the alarmed look of ’70s Italian thrillers, and the muffled gray tones of Gainsborough pictures.
The Shape of Night shows Japanese cinema on the verge of losing its look. Made when the local studio system was declining, films of this era seem slightly strained, in a way which mirrors the late Hollywood western or musical. While the use of color and light seems perfectly right, there are also elements that appear “wrong.” Next to the blocks of pigment, the bodies seem a little crude: the camera captures too much texture on the flesh, and there is a veil of greasepaint on the faces. Sweat looks obscene on the powdered skin – these bodies seem too real and too particular, rather than just vehicles for the imagination. Even as its theme of sexual masochism wears thin, this film remains meaningful for its expression of a visual beauty in decay.
In the main Panorama, our jury offered a second award. Historically, the Berlinale Panorama specializes in films that are stylistically challenging and happen to be topical – or is it the other way around? Either way, given the fact that this section is generally devoted to “confronting” works, we were shocked to find that the best of the bunch was a film that could be described as (gasp!) a feel-good movie with commercial prospects, not to mention a coming-of-age picture that deals with sexuality. But before describing the winning film, Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro’s The Way He Looks, I want it to compare it with another contender in the Panorama.
In this section, two films featured blind characters: The Way He Looks and Eskil Vogt’s Blind. The latter was an elegant Norwegian film I had problems with. Its protagonist is Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a willful author who is determined to torture herself (and others) with her fictional creations. Among the characters she invents are Elin (Vera Vitali), a luscious avatar she dangles in front of her husband, and Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt), a creepy guy with a fetish for unsighted women. It’s an interesting setup, but the innovations in this film are all plot-based: visually, it is disappointingly conventional. This is one of those movies that uses blindness as a stylization device, to enable desaturated color and blur.
I am uncomfortable with the use of disability to determine a film’s style: for instance, featuring deafness and muteness as an excuse to play audio tricks, autism as a metaphor for ultra-sensitive vision, or mental illness as a pretext for jump cuts. Blind touts Ingrid as a dominant figure, with a strong-boned face and a sarcastic manner, but it is not shy about using her condition for suspense and cool effects. When the camera stares mercilessly into her unseeing face, it is the audience who feels powerful – too much so, in my opinion. It is clear that the movie was made because, as the director said during his Q&A, he realized that “blindness had filmic potential.”
In this context, it was a relief to come across The Way He Looks: a film that is notably relaxed, and not only in the way it deals with disability. From the first frame, you can tell that Ribeiro is a director of talent. As he moves the camera over two bodies by a pool, he creates Hockney-style images that divide the screen into sections: skin, grids, flowing water. Throughout the film we will see this kind of attention to surfaces, as the camera gives us multiple textures to digest at once: a stucco wall, a plush bed, imperfect teenage skin, the velvety touch of a slack balloon. All this is done without being overly arty or suffocating. For all its formal inventiveness, the film is very sensual and laidback; it doesn’t pause to admire its own compositions. The overall sensation is of fluidity: of gestures, sexuality, and the flowing naturalness of conversations. The film’s lapping sounds give us a sense of lazy afternoons and malleable bodies, attention drifting in and out.
This is how we float on into the mind of Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), whom we may not even notice is blind at first: we are invited to identify with him on a tactile level, rather than gawking at his eyes. The film is curious about bodies in general, capturing them from strange angles, so that we get a delicate slice of ear, a shred of hair, or the slender muscles in a back. I admire the fact that the camera can take in Leonardo’s unusual look (he has the face of a preoccupied little bear) without fetishizing it. This is in opposition to the stricken, symmetrical gaze that marks Blind (not to mention Wes Anderson’s films).
How does a film feel this good without being a cop-out? Part of it is the dialogue, which features believably witty teenagers with a fresh sense of humor, rather than the hardened sitcom kind. There are also eccentric and inexplicable touches, such as when a teacher divides a class by gender, insisting that girls should write on Athens while boys must study Sparta – is this the most random instance of stereotyping ever? The romance operates on a Shakespearean level, with its stolen kisses, rendezvous and mistaken identities, as well as the presence of Gabriel (Fabio Audi) as Leonardo’s beautiful Italian love interest.
Most of all there is a sense of irrepressible excitement in the camera and in the characters, which transcends labels such as gay teen or coming-of-age film. My own theory is that Leonardo may not be exclusively gay; partly as a result of being blind, he is attracted on the basis of vitality – in this case, the delight of being on Gabriel’s bike and going to blockbusters with him, purely to feel the rush of the sound. From the start, there is an erotic but good-natured energy between these two bodies, which Ribeiro depicts with a loose feel and a light touch. It’s not often you see a charmingly unforced film like this at festivals, and we gave it the jury prize.