Film, Postcard: Berlin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm

It wasn't just the unusually good weather that dominated this year's Berlin International Film Festival. There was mischief in the air too at the 64th Berlinale which ran from February 6 to 16 - hardly surprising given Lars von Trier was making his first festival appearance since Cannes 2011 where he joked about being a Nazi and was banned by the festival officials.

The Danish director, who brought the extended version of Volume I of his two-part sex odyssey Nymphomaniac, kept to his self-imposed media silence but then he didn't need to speak: attending the photo-call in a black T-shirt that read "persona non grata" said more than enough.

Meanwhile, his star Shia LaBeouf tried to outshine him, leaving the press conference after one question, then arriving on the red carpet with a paper bag on his head that read "I am not famous anymore", a theme he's been inexplicably perpetuating on Twitter since the turn of the year.

But what of the film? This was Von Trier's unexpurgated "hardcore" director's cut (the shorter version, already playing in some cinemas in Europe, was not overseen by the director). In truth, the additional 28 minutes, bar a few flashes of explicit sexual contact, weren't so shocking. Yet the 145-minute version deepened the title character, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and, as a teen, by Stacy Martin), and whetted the appetite for the uncut Volume II.

At the awards ceremony, others, including members of the Asian contingent, took the limelight. This year's Golden Bear went to Diao Yinan's Chinese film noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (with lead Liao Fan snagging the best-actor prize). And to Zeng Jian, the cinematographer of Lou Ye's Blind Massage, a drama set in a massage institute run by the blind, went the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution, while Haru Kuroki was presented with the best-actress prize for her work in veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada's The Little House.

Richard Linklater was awarded the Silver Bear for best director (a prize he won in 1995 for Before Sunrise). An elegant meditation on youth and ageing, childhood and adolescence, his Boyhood is a remarkable work shot over the course of 12 years, during which it charts the growth of a young Texas boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Linklater's daughter, Lorelei), and sees his unsettled father (Ethan Hawke) on weekends.

Linklater's fellow American filmmaker Wes Anderson delivered his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and was duly rewarded with the Grand Jury Prize. Opening the festival, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a 1930s fantasy featuring a remarkable cast, led by Ralph Fiennes as the hotel's outgoing concierge, Monsieur Gustave. Funny, poignant and imaginative, it was a far brighter ensemble work than George Clooney's stodgy second world war drama The Monuments Men.

The best British offering at Berlin was Yann Demange's '71, set in Northern Ireland at the height of "The Troubles". Jack O'Connell (who also is astonishing in the forthcoming prison drama Starred Up) is Gary Hook, a rookie British soldier cut off from his platoon after a Belfast street riot. In part, it's a breathless survival story, brilliantly realised by Demange and his cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. But screenwriter Gregory Burke weaves a complex series of power plays, as Gary's survival becomes emblematic in the ever-shifting relationships between the British army and the loyalist paramilitaries.

The finest European film I saw in competition was In Order of Disappearance, from director Hans Petter Moland. Starring Stellan Skarsgård (who also can be seen in Nymphomaniac) as a father out for revenge after the death of his son, it's a coal-black comedy.

Ironically, the theme of familial vengeance was echoed in easily the worst film that I saw: Andreas Prochaska's The Dark Valley. An Austrian cowboy film (playing out of competition) starring English actor Sam Riley, it misfired more than an antique pistol.

Pascal Chaumeil's dreary adaptation of Nick Hornby's tale of four suicide cases, A Long Way Down, frittered away such talents as Toni Collette and Pierce Brosnan. The opening film of the Panorama strand, Yves Saint Laurent, was a biopic of the designer, superbly played by Pierre Niney; elegant and dazzling at times, it began to unravel at the seams by the third act.