Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a newly-married couple who find themselves homeless in "Love Is Strange".
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Unknown pleasures at the Berlinale, the young upstart of the film festival world

Ryan Gilbey reports from the Berlin Film Festival 2014, where a viscous thriller about a soldier separated from his unit in 1970s Belfast rubs shoulders with a tender comic-drama starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

This is Part 1 of Ryan Gilbey’s report from the Berlin Film Festival – Click here to read Part 2.

As the youngest in the triumvirate of European film festivals, the Berlinale, which has been running since 1951, is easily overshadowed by its elder siblings, Venice and Cannes. We all know how difficult it can be for stragglers to make their mark when the trailblazers have achieved so much. (I’m the eldest of three children. Why do you ask?) So it was a coup for the festival to secure as its opening film the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s candy-coloured caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has a delicious turn from Ralph Fiennes as a dandyish concierge embroiled in wartime intrigue. And the first half of Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit odyssey Nymphomaniac was shown in a slightly extended director’s cut – another premiere.

Having seen the two-part, four-hour-plus theatrical version (which I’ll be reviewing next week), I skipped this. Colleagues could be heard puzzling over what precisely had been added. The consensus seemed to be that there was a touch more chat and a few more of what Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein calls Schwanzstückers.

Talking of Schwanzstückers, one of the film’s stars, the volatile 27-year-old Shia LaBeouf, stopped by at the Nymphomaniac press conference briefly to repeat Eric Cantona’s gnomic quote about seagulls and sardines. He also appeared on the red carpet outside the Berlinale Palast with his face obscured by a paper bag on which was written the words: “I am not famous any more.” I was reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo being driven through the streets proclaiming through a loudhailer: “I vant to be alone.”

Celebrity meltdowns aside, Berlin does not always sport the most tantalising line-up. “We complain about Cannes because it always has the same old names,” a friend observed, “then we moan about Berlin because it never has anyone we’ve heard of.” The upside is that any pleasures are all the richer for being unheralded. Remember, the likes of Gloria and A Separation made their initial splashes here.

Five days in and nothing yet has been quite that revelatory. I enjoyed La Marche à suivre, a documentary about a provincial Canadian school. The film places equal emphasis on discord and fun, dropping in on tense teacher-student powwows but also incorporating stylishly shot sequences of teenagers at play. Think of it as Être et avoir: the High School Years.

The tender comedy-drama Love Is Strange features heartfelt performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a Manhattan couple who get hitched almost 40 years into their relationship, only to find themselves forced to lodge separately after they become unexpectedly homeless. While the lead actors are together, the film feels alive and vital; these characters deserve their own miniseries or chat show. Their rejuvenating reunion in a bar near the end of the movie is bliss for them and us alike.

The most encouraging hit of the festival so far is ’71, which played in the main competition. Yann Demange (whose TV credits include Top Boy and Criminal Justice) directs this sinewy thriller about Gary (Jack O’Connell), a squaddie separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. The plot could be engraved on the nose of a bullet – hunted by foes and supposed friends alike, Gary must stay alive – but the film is lucid about the tribal complexities of the Troubles. The pace is expertly calibrated, too. There is a terrifying riot sequence and a brilliant breather in which Gary is “adopted” by a 12-year-old Protestant urchin who’s cock-a-hoop at finding a soldier. Genre pictures rarely bag festival prizes but at the time of writing, ’71 is the most complete and well-crafted film I’ve seen here.

Also gripping is History of Fear, Benjamin Naishtat’s elliptical portrait of Argentinean society in which the poor are feral and oppressed, the wealthy contemptuous and paranoid. A string of disorienting vignettes and tableaux amplify the sense of dread, Michael Haneke-style. Alarms howl, children vanish, military choppers loom sinisterly over a shanty town grid. The tension was weakened slightly by the suspicion that the scenes could have been arranged in any old order to little detrimental effect.

Thrillers in general are making a good showing. Lee Yong-seung’s Ship Bun (“Ten Minutes”) concerns a hard-working intern who goes from rising star to scapegoat, outcast and bullying victim after he is passed over for a staff position. Less convincing but similarly occupied with claustrophobic economic pressures is Things People Do, in which Wes Bentley (the kid from American Beauty with the cliff-ledge brow) becomes a moralistic, Robin Hood-style criminal. The New Mexico locations remind you that, while it’s not exactly bad, it isn’t Breaking Bad, either. One of the stars of that series, Aaron Paul, turns up in an inept adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down. He plays one of a quartet of wacky misfits (Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette and Imogen Poots are the others) who arrive coincidentally on the same rooftop to commit suicide. Friendships are forged, tears shed. My body ached by the end. Not through laughing or crying but because I was rigid from cringing at each ingratiatingly zany line, flat joke and misjudged appeal to our sympathies.

Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer of Drive, makes his directorial debut with a fat-free film adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, about a US tour guide (Oscar Isaac minus his Inside Llewyn Davis beard) working in 1960s Athens. There, he is drawn to a con man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst). It’s as elegant and creepy as a Highsmith adaptation should be. And all those sun-dappled ruins and linen suits were bound to have a replenishing effect on those of us barricaded behind scarves and bobble hats around the concrete plains of Potsdamer Platz.
 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

ALAMY
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war