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17 February 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:15pm

Wayward priests and sexual neuroses: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

There was far more to the festival than Fifty Shades.

By Ryan Gilbey

It is my lot in life to always miss out on the prizewinners whenever I attend a film festival. (There may be some truth to the rumour that bookmakers place the shortest odds on whatever festival titles I haven’t managed to see.) I arrived in Berlin this year too late to catch Taxi, the latest film from the banned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who remains under house arrest in Tehran. Darren Aronofksy’s jury awarded it the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. It was for the same reason that I missed the German thriller Victoria. Its cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, took home an award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, and with good reason by all accounts: this German heist thriller, more than two hours long and set in around 20 different locations, pulls off the trick of being shot in one unbroken take—all without resorting to the digital trickery of Birdman, which achieved the same effect through cunningly concealed edits.

But at least I saw the acutely-observed British drama 45 Years, which won acting prizes for its superb leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. (I’ve reviewed the film, along with some other Berlin titles—Terrence Malick’s disappointing Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, and two documentaries, Cobain: Montage of Heck and Misfits—in the current issue of the NS.) And my Berlin highlight was The Club by the Chilean director Pablo Larraín. His previous pictures released here have looked at Chile’s bloodstained history from an off-kilter perspective: Tony Manero, for instance, was about a 1970s serial killer whose blood-lust takes second place only to his obsession with Saturday Night Fever, while No was a brighter tale focusing on the advertising campaign behind the 1988 plebiscite held to establish whether Pinochet would stay or go.

The Club is no less unusual—its dramatis personae are a group of disgraced or wayward priests living in a house on desolate coast. It finds Larrain at the height of his powers. The mood is murky, emotionally fraught, philosophical, but not without wicked humour. The movie won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.

Elsewhere the standard was far higher than last year. There were some treats away from the main competition. I admired Wim Wenders’s Every Thing Will Be Fine, about the effect of a car accident on a novelist played by James Franco. Despite spanning around a decade, the film is intimate and intricate, which made it all the more bold for Wenders to shoot in 3D.

Ned Rifle is the latest from Hal Hartley, the 1990s indie darling who was referencing Bande à part before Tarantino and making deliberately stilted, archly funny relationship comedies several years before Whit Stillman started doing likewise. Ned Rifle is the third in a trilogy (preceded by Henry Fool and Fay Grim) about the same set of messed-up characters, including an amoral writer and flaneur (Thomas Jay Ryan), his jailbird ex (Parker Posey) and her brother (James Urbaniak), a former poet turned atrocious stand-up. New cast member Aubrey Plaza (from Parks and Recreation) adds some extra comic fizz as a stalker whose true identity links this last instalment neatly to the first.

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Though much of the coverage from Berlin was dominated by the world premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey, a far sexier and more edifying adventure into the risqué could be found in the director’s cut of 54, the 1998 disco drama cut to ribbons on its original release by its executive producer, Harvey Weinstein. The writer-director Mark Christopher has restored this film about the staff and clientele of the notorious Studio 54 club to its original glory; as with the neutered version, Mike Myers still dominates in a leering but lovable turn as the club’s co-owner, Steve Rubell, but now the action around him has an Altmanesque looseness freed from commercial compromises.

Fifty Shades of Grey was indisputably not the film to turn to if you wanted to see the subject of young women fighting for agency over their bodies being addressed with any rigour. Dora, or the Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, about a mentally disabled teenager (Victoria Schulz) who initiates a sexual relationship to the horror of her family, and My Skinny Sister, in which the anorexia of a young figure-skater is viewed through the eyes of her helpless younger sibling, did a better job. Both featured strong performances and sensitive direction. But while Dora oscillated between issue-of-the-week blandness and ostentatious sensationalism, My Skinny Sister cleverly used its protagonist’s naïve perspective to evoke the damage that eating disorders can wreak on family life. It won the Crystal Bear for Best Film in the youth-oriented Generation section for its troubles.