The paradox of film festivals, which must balance the commercial and the artistic without surrendering fully to either, is exemplified by two eye-catching world premieres in this year’s Berlin line-up. The festival snagged the first undressing – sorry, I mean unveiling – of the S&M potboiler Fifty Shades of Grey.
Any loss of prestige incurred to Berlin by screening Fifty Shades will have been compensated for by the premiere of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. Malick, who once let two decades elapse between movies, is now positively prolific; this is his third film in four years, with a fourth currently in post-production. Quantity has overtaken quality. Visually arresting Knight of Cups may be (Malick’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, also shot Birdman) but it finds the director at his most insipid.
Rick (Christian Bale) is a screenwriter. Rather than doing any writing, he wanders across beaches and deserts, pausing to marvel at the sky or assume a crucifixion pose on the ground. Clearly he’s successful because producers ply him with envelopes of cash and we first see him manoeuvring a convertible through sun-bleached Los Angeles while being kissed by two (two!) giggling Asian women. Then it’s on to a penthouse party where guests dress in animal masks and Rick crawls around on his knees. To reinforce the idea that mankind has given in to its base instincts, there are mutts dressed in Hawaiian shirts swimming in luxury pools. In the street, a woman in a fluffy meringue dress breezes past on a unicycle while billboard slogans offer comments on materialism (“Savages”, “Delivering Happiness”). Diagnosing degeneracy at every turn, Malick comes on like a censorious Fellini, which is no kind of Fellini at all.
It’s astonishing that the film is positioned as a corrective to the superficial when it has as much depth as a New Age bumper sticker. “We’re not leading the lives we were meant for”, “You don’t want love, you want a love experience” and “No one cares about reality any more” are among the stinkers relayed in the rolling voice-over. In Malick’s early films (Badlands, Days of Heaven) narration was a key disruptive element, complicating what the camera showed us, but it was still possible for characters to have conversations. In Knight of Cups, people do talk to one another, or at least shout, in the case of the rooftop arguments between Rick, his ex-junkie brother (Wes Bentley) and their belligerent father (Brian Dennehy). But we don’t get to hear what they are saying. Context is removed. We are left to wonder whose stupid idea it was to climb on to a nondescript and inaccessible rooftop to have a ruck.
Any women who aren’t strippers or prostitutes are beneficent angels played by stars (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman) who seem never to have asked: “May I have a character, please?” Unluckiest of all is Imogen Poots as a wacky Amélie type. Passing a man sleeping on a bench, she places a flower on his shabby boot; it’s certainly prettier than a $100 bill and requires less effort than accompanying him to the nearest homeless shelter. Her act could be said to epitomise the film, which similarly pays lip-service to reality while not engaging with it in any meaningful way.
It isn’t all bad news from Berlin. Andrew Haigh, the British writer-director whose previous work (Weekend and the HBO comedy series Looking) has been exclusively gay-themed, examines the fissures in an apparently cosy heterosexual marriage in 45 Years. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is a retired schoolteacher, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) a bumbling old radical. A crisis gradually consumes them after the body of Geoff’s former girlfriend, who perished in the Swiss Alps in 1962, is found, perfectly preserved – “like something in the freezer”, he notes. With the thawing-out of the corpse, historic resentments are also defrosted. Haigh marshals the tension carefully, well served by Courtenay, physically and emotionally dishevelled, and Rampling, infinitely freckled and fascinating. The song choices (“Happy Together”, “Go Now”) provide a sardonic commentary.
Two new documentaries offer contrasting approaches to delicate material. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, made with the co-operation of the daughter of the late Nirvana frontman, is a scrapbook of home movies, archive footage and talking heads. At over two hours, with Cobain’s every scrawled lyric and phone-pad doodle hauled in front of the camera, this is far too much of a quite good thing. Sinister animated inserts provide the macabre highlights.
Misfits drops in on the Openarms Youth Project in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rather than giving screentime to the plentiful bullies and Bible-thumpers who can make LGBT life insufferable, the film gives priority to the passion and pluck of people such as Benny, seen rough-housing happily with his formerly homophobic brother, who tells him: “You think you’re so fabulous.” “Not fabulous,” Benny corrects him. “Flawless.” Tulsa is known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. These kids put the shine on that buckle.