Can it be a whole year since debates erupted over whether Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is high-art epiphany or pompous tosh, and what to make of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s take on Fifty Shades of Grey? Yes, the Berlin International Film Festival – which hosted those 2015 premieres – has rolled around again, and has announced its 66th edition line-up. As Potsdamer Platz becomes a hub for the film-mad, here are just a few of the films that should have us talking this February.
It’s witty and exuberant with bonkers flair, riotously erotic, and fraught with politically charged outrage and sorrow. To put it another way: Spike Lee’s take on America’s problem with gun violence is many things, but never boring. Set in Chicago, the film is a loose adaptation of the much-adapted ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women hold a sex strike as a means to leverage their men to end a war. The vibrant, risqué rhyming verse volleying between the characters gives the film its energetic charge. As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris leads a spirited movement to unite the warring Spartan and Trojan gangs in a common cause for peace.
A Quiet Passion
American great Emily Dickinson penned poems of sparkling wit and innovation haunted by mortality. She lived in self-imposed seclusion in her room, and gained notoriety in the local community as a white-clothed eccentric. Much has been written about her life, some of which questions the assumption of a sad and quaint figure (Adam Phillips in a memorable chapter of Houdini’s Box celebrates a dazzling mental escape artist, who lived on her own terms). Following his gorgeously romantic Sunset Song, Terence Davies is now presenting his Dickinson biopic at the Berlinale, with Cynthia Nixon in the poet’s role. Well adept in empathy with an eye for the subtle textures of misfit melancholy, his vision is one to anticipate.
United States of Love
Tomasz Wasilewski’s pressure-cooker drama Floating Skyscrapers was a breakthrough success for the Warsaw director, and was groundbreaking for Poland in its frank depiction of an intense romance between two men opposed by society. Three years on, his United States of Love has made it into the Berlinale’s main competition, and promises this time "a story about women, starring women, and told by women". Four women seek out through taboo attractions more fulfilling lives in the Poland of 1990, right after the fall of communism when an air of euphoric possibility mingles with the palpable atmosphere of suffocation that persists.
Things to Come
Mia Hansen-Love, who directed nostalgia-fuelled Goodbye First Love and Eden, her downbeat take on the 90s French electro scene that spawned Daft Punk, has her highly awaited fifth feature Things to Come premiering in the Berlinale competition. Starring Isabelle Huppert and André Marcon, it’s about Nathalie and Heinz, two philosophy teachers who have been married for many years. The spark has gone from their relationship of habit and companionship, and as Nathalie’s over-possessive mother’s death becomes imminent and Heinz announces he’s moving in with a new lover, Nathalie embarks on a summer of radical, uncertain change.
Boris Without Beatrice
The kick of underground director and queercore trailblazer Bruce LaBruce cameoing as the Canadian Prime Minister is enough to pique interest in Boris Sans Beatrice, premiering in the Berlinale’s main competition. But the main draw is that it’s directed by Denis Cote, who has a track record of genre-bending films that are as quietly idiosyncratic as they are intelligent. His latest is about an accomplished, arrogant man (James Hyndman) whose government minister wife has taken to bed with depression – a situation he seeks escape from through a string of affairs. The appearance of a mysterious stranger (Denis Lavant) prompts him to take stock of his life.
The latest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, pegged as a mystery comedy, is the Berlinale opener. It brings together a string of stars – Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Dolph Lundgren among them – in its story of a fixer working in the Hollywood film industry of the 50s who tries to discover what has happened to an actor who’s vanished after a drinking bout. The Coen Brothers had the idea and title for the film more than a decade ago, with the details undergoing much mutation (it was initially going to be set in the 20s) until this final realisation.
Despite the Night
French director Philippe Grandrieux is always heavily divisive, and his latest undulating nightscape of extreme behaviour is part raw poetry and sublime atmosphere and part swaggering nihilism and violent shock. Alluring and gut-wrenching by turns, its shadowy world of doubles and ambiguities sees a man called Lenz return to Paris to seek out an old flame he still loves, only to be drawn into other sensual entanglements and a macabre underworld. Its visual experimentation is fresh and endlessly engrossing, even as its sexual politics are contentious. Ariane Labed and Roxane Mesquida are in the cast. The film will screen at Berlin Critics’ Week, happening alongside the Berlin Film Festival.
Russian cosmism – the esoteric, futurist philosophy that thrived in the Soviet era with dreams of transcending the human form to conquer the planets and stars – is revisited in this audaciously bonkers debut feature by Moscow video artist Daniil Zinchenko. Full of striking imagery, the film is set in a forest where partisan guerillas and cosmonauts roam about in a kind of swampland space-time glitch for lost souls, while a scientist working on an elixir seeks out their DNA as a vital ingredient. It’s a film that’s both grandiose with big ideas and wryly ironic, as it longs for nothing less than the resurrection of the Russian soul.
Starve Your Dog
Bursting with saturated colour, startlingly beautiful imagery and a hallucinogenic, morphing vigour, the low-budget latest from Moroccan director Hicham Lasri Starve Your Dog is Arab cinema gone punk. It’s hard at times to discern just what is going on amid the teeming visuals and cacophonous noisescape. There’s a plot around a journalist’s attempt to interview Driss Basri, a former minister, about that regime’s dark dealings. But the vivid and surreal experimentation reeling through that bizarre incident on the streets of Casablanca in a film that quotes both Shakespeare and Daft Punk is arresting enough, even if the political resonances are hard for non-locals to clock.
New York maestro of vintage mash-up Lewis Klahr gives us a hypnotic, gorgeously textured American pop dreamscape with his feature assemblage Sixty Six. Using cutout animation and subtle, inventive sound he merges figures from Greek mythology with comic superheroes, moody film noir atmosphere and the pulp novels of the 1960s. Created over a thirteen-year period, the dozen episodes that make up this intricate retro melody are almost sublime at points in their undertow of nostalgic longing and tracing of the remnants of collective anxiety. The film will screen at Berlin Critics’ Week, happening alongside the Berlin Film Festival.
The Berlinale runs from 11 – 21 Feb, 2016