James Mottram goes from Grey to Greenaway at Berlin film festival

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm

Film festivals always throw up bizarre juxtapositions, though it's going to be hard to beat this year's Berlinale. Going from the chaotic Fifty Shades of Grey preview to the civilised official screening of Peter Greenaway's exuberant Eisenstein in Guanajuato was memorable: the two films couldn't have handled the subject of sex more differently.

Compared to the ultra-coy Fifty Shades of Grey, Greenaway's look at 10 days in the life of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, when he travelled to Mexico and lost his virginity to a man, was a liberating, life-loving experience.

Greenaway wasn't the only established auteur at the festival. The reclusive Terrence Malick was back with his seventh film, Knight of Cups, a work very much following the hushed, reverential style of his last effort, To the Wonder. Christian Bale plays Rick, a screenwriter who spends most of his time wandering around soulless Hollywood parties or empty studio back lots, moping about past relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman). It will surely irritate his detractors, but his touch with imagery still astounds.

One director who didn't make it was Jafar Panahi. Under house arrest since his 2010 conviction for conspiring to create anti-Islamic propaganda, the Iranian's Taxi, made in secret without the knowledge of the authorities, was awarded the Golden Bear by the jury headed by Darren Aronofsky. All set inside a cab, driven by Panahi, this Tehran cross-section was a sly tale about the difficulties of artistic expression in an oppressive regime.

Also impressive was Andrew Haigh's 45 Years. Lead actress Charlotte Rampling and actor Tom Courtenay came away from Berlin with a Silver Bear each. Set in Norfolk, in eastern England, the story follows a couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when an unsettling piece of news involving an old flame overshadows their preparations.

Two of the festival's most high-profile films were driven by female characters enduring inhospitable landscapes. Opening the event was Spanish director Isabel Coixet's Nobody Wants the Night, the story of Josephine Peary (played by Juliette Binoche), the eccentric socialite spouse of early 20th-century explorer Robert Peary. When he set out to conquer the North Pole, she resolved to catch up with him and share the glory, leading her into a mission of madness as she tried to survive the harsh Arctic winter.

It's a typically flowery performance from Binoche. But the film scores in the casting of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi as Alakka, an Inuit woman who has clearly developed a relationship with the unseen Peary.

Far less convincing was Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert, the story of 1920s archaeologist and explorer Gertrude Bell. Nicole Kidman was entirely miscast in the title role. Likewise, Robert Pattinson caused unintentional giggles in his cameo as Lawrence of Arabia, and James Franco - as Bell's first love, diplomat Henry Cadogan - fared little better.

Happily, there were a number of other films led by cast-iron female characters - from Alex Ross Perry's ultra-indie story about entitlement, Queen of Earth, starring Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss at her most unhinged, to Benoît Jacquot's saucy Diary of a Chambermaid, featuring Léa Seydoux, to an out-of-competition berth for Kenneth Branagh's lavish but affectionate take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella, with Lily James, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter all dominating the screen.

As is often the case, the festival sidebars held the best surprises - notably in the "Generation" section dedicated to films featuring younger characters. Mark Noonan's You're Ugly Too is a miniature Irish gem starring Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen as an ex-con who is thrust together with his recently orphaned niece, Stacey (Lauren Kinsella). It's spiky, frequently surprising and driven by two great performances.

Also impressive was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, adapted with great skill by director Marielle Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel. Dealing with an adolescent's sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco, she's fearlessly played by British newcomer Bel Powley. And as far as films about sex go, it knocks Fifty Shades of Grey for six.