To the Wunder

Nicolas Rapold on the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival

Carla Simón, Alcarràs, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 120 minutes. Iris (Ainet Jounou).

AFTER SUNDANCE CALLED OFF its physical edition just two weeks before opening, it was a comfort and a joy that the Berlinale had the good fortune to take place on a streamlined schedule. When the festival’s Golden Bear went to Carla Simón’s Alcarràs—a handsome, serviceable portrayal of a Catalonian farm’s fade-out—I couldn’t help but sense a “just happy to be here” feeling in the air. The Competition jury’s lineup—which put M. Night Shyamalan and Ryusuke Hamaguchi in the same room—was arguably more exciting than the stubbornly even-keeled Alcarràs. But good films at the 2022 edition were where you found them, and they were legion.

Where Alcarràs seems to cut away the moment any scene gets interesting,The Novelist’s Film, the Competition runner-up, merrily hopscotches through a droll comedy of contingent friendship and creative happenstance. Hong Sangsoo’s nimble, black-and-white feature begins with an acerbic writer (Lee Hye-young) visiting a former friend, now a bookstore owner, and daisy-chains encounters until an off-duty actress (Kim Minhee) enters the picture. Kim brings a delightful lightness of touch to her game character, connecting perhaps unexpectedly with Lee’s obscurely driven writer, who pushes ahead with her dream of making a short film. From another headlining auteur, Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade (to be released this summer as Fire in the US) was like the dark side to Let the Sunshine In, sharing a cowriter in autofiction author Christine Angot and hewing to a more linear tack than some of her past slipstreams. Comfortable couple Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche (again bringing a wobbliness to Denis’s cool rhythms) are upended when a phantom from her past—Grégoire Colin as an old flame—consumes her completely, her obsession turning from misterioso to just plain messy.

Claire Denis, Fire, 2022, 2K video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Jean and Marie (Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche).

Denis won best director—incredibly, her first prize in a major fest competition, I was told—and I was thrilled when another such award went to one among the festival’s crop of strong first- and second-time directors. Cyril Schaüblin’s Unrest is the rare historical film to tap into the strange energies of a buzzing moment when it feels like “everything changed.” The setting sounds comically sedate—the watchmaking Jura Valley of Switzerland in the 1870s—but it’s ground zero for both industrial power and anarchist revolution, attracting the attention of Russian cartographer and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin. I saw the film in a nearly empty press screening on a tranquil Sunday morning, and felt completely transported by Schaüblin’s off-kilter frames of village workers, Kropotkin (on the cusp of a new political phase), two border patrol officers, and one breezy factory owner, as they negotiate a small society thrumming with multiple time zones, newfangled but immediately popular innovations like the telegraph and photographic postcards, and a mania for measurement.

I had a similar reaction to another film from the Encounters section, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, which was destabilizing in the best, mind-expanding way. Canadian filmmaker Ashley McKenzie, whose debut feature Werewolf (2016) walks alongside a heroin-addicted couple on the margins, here zeroes in on Star (Sarah Walker), a teenager hospitalized after ingesting poison. The patient’s dazed affect is more of a state of being than a momentary shock response. Wide-eyed, slack-jawed, cherubic, Star reacts to the world at her own pace and from her own place, often with askew humor and a neurodiverse outlook. Walker’s dreamily self-narrating delivery and McKenzie’s lucid close-ups and soundscapes foster a profound, abiding sense of Star’s subjectivity (and creativity). Not that the film is all Star—she bonds with a sweetly mischievous hospital volunteer, An (Ziyin Zheng), who faces their own social exile as a queer immigrant from Shanghai. Assimilating avant-garde influences and incorporating eruptive animations, McKenzie’s daring film makes many other such depictions of difference look studied or precious.

Ashley McKenzie, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 122 minutes. An and Star (Ziyin Zheng and Sarah Walker).

Alexander Zolotukhin’s Brother in Every Inch has its own insular quality as it follows two air-force cadets, twin brothers, at a small training base in Russia. It initially resembles an entry in the nearly century-old genre of Glory-to-the-Motherland films—strapping lads horsing around, impressive machinery —so much so that I nearly bolted, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine imminent. But Zolotukhin finds something eerie and tragic in the brothers’ lopsided connection, and even musses up the requisite flight sequences, with one twin’s blackout mid-air and a squall that obscures the wild blue yonder. Also in Encounters, Small, Slow But Steady builds out a fine, unfussy portrait of a deaf boxer from the Arakawa neighborhood of Tokyo. Bucking just about every other film about boxing, director Sho Miyake eschews The Big Fight run-up to tune into the quietly confident rhythms of Keiko (Yukino Kishii) amid the pandemic decline of her old-school gym. On the lighter side, Quentin Dupieux’s Incredible But True wrangles its subject—the secret time-bending capabilities of a couple’s newly purchased house—to greater laughs than Flux Gourmet, Peter Strickland’s latest extended hermetic riff, this time on the tribulations of a performance group (seemingly inspired by his own Sonic Catering Band) on a maddening retreat.

Dry Ground Burning and Afterwater were two highlights of the more experimental Forum section, as was Alain Gomis’s Rewind & Play. Gomis’s modest found-footage study deconstructs Thelonius Monk’s performance on a French TV show in 1969, as he’s called upon for tedious reshoots and deeply uncool banter. Among other varieties in documentary experience, Mitra Farahani’s See You Friday, Robinson arranges a refreshingly irreverent epistolary exchange between Jean-Luc Godard and Iranian titan Ebrahim Golestan while offhandedly nailing Godard’s own jarring edits and including the work of Godard DP Fabrice Aragno. (Launched with the festival, an exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt domesticated Godard’s 2018 The Image Book by spreading it across forty screens mostly perched on workmanlike shelving units.) And in Mutzenbacher, Ruth Beckermann conducts a vertiginous, often damning inquiry into sexual mores by holding an all-male casting call for a movie based on a 1906 pornographic novel featuring an underage girl. Tough and efficient, Beckermann seizes the opportunity to draw out the men—their candid personal histories, their sometimes surprising critiques of the shocking book, and, most unnerving, their discussions of forbidden fantasies. Her film maps out a landscape of desire that queasily intermingles the repugnant with the banal. It wins the award for the film you least want to watch and then lock eyes with the grandfatherly moviegoer next to you, but it also won best movie in Encounters—well deserved for an especially fearless film at an impressive edition.

The 72nd Berlin International Film Festival took place from February 10–20.