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Dispatch from the Berlin International Film Festival: Part Two: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin


BERLIN

“Somebody has to defend the French films,” a friend says during the middle of the 58th Berlinale.

As an ardent Francophile, I take the plunge. The films offer the best rebuke. And they’re not all French technically, but they are animated by the realist impulses of the nouvelle vague.

My favorite competition film is Night and Day, by the great South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. Hong studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and also spent a year living in Paris in 1991. His rueful and melancholy restoration comedies like Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach are among the most beautiful works of the last decade.

His theme is a great one: Virtually all of Hong’s films explore the emotional and sexual geography of men and women. His sophisticated comedies of manners cut like a knife, and stick in the mind. Almost all of the director’s protagonists are filmmakers, writers or artists. Night and Day is about the romantic travails of a celebrated painter named Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) who flees to Paris to avoid being arrested on a possession charge. A chance encounter with a former lover initiates an elaborate and dense roundelay among a group of stunningly beautiful and defiantly individualistic women. The most elusive and captivating is a young art student (Park Eun-hye). She’s put off by the fact he’s married and considerably older. Her mixture of insouciance and vulnerability makes each of their encounters tense and highly suggestive. Their banter, often predicated on formal uses of language, has a wounding precision. Hong evokes attitudes and complex feelings about identity, isolation and assimilation found in the story’s darker vein of death and loss. Like Tale of Cinema, he annotates feeling and desire with painfully funny uses of the zoom.

“I am so unlucky,” a major character says at the film’s crucial scene. The moment crystallizes the power and tenacity of this director’s work, where the seemingly throwaway — the digressive — reveal the sharpest truths. Of the founding New Wave filmmakers, Hong is generally most closely aligned with Eric Rohmer. Night and Day draws on the Paris landscapes and architecture in a manner closer to Jacques Rivette. The film’s erotic tangles, built on ideas of duration and disruption, turned off some viewers, though I was mesmerized. Very few directors, men or women, could transform the sight of a young women’s bare feet jutting from underneath a blanket into such an ecstatically beautiful moment.

Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, premiered on the same day as Night and Day. The British director is often inaccurately described as having an improvisational working style, when in fact his scripts are painstakingly developed out of collaborations with his actors. After the dark and miserable All or Nothing and the majestic Vera Drake, Leigh is also working in a much different emotional register. The work is a jaunty, free-flowing mixture of the crude and the riotous. The title refers to a North London primary school teacher named Poppy, miraculously incarnated by Sally Hawkins. She’s been in Leigh’s last couple films and recently had a turn in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream.

Leigh’s working method always produces its own style and rhythm. The most invigorating aspect of his new film is how he’s successfully liberated the story: The film has no plot to speak of, just a series of intertwined movements and actions orchestrated around the buoyantly optimistic personality of Poppy.

In a Leigh film, character is both action and conflict. Hawkins is quick and natural, and her delivery is disarming. The brilliant, bitter interpolation of British slang and how it colors and shapes conversational rhythms and emotional interactions exerts its own musical fluidity. Leigh regular Eddie Marsan is brilliant as a tormented driving instructor.

The gallery of characters and their relationship to Poppy, like a black chiropractor or a hilariously unsettled Spanish flamenco dance instructor, lend the movie a colorful humanism in which the everyday — the predictable — achieves a looser, offbeat quality. (There are couple of scenes that don’t play quite right, particularly Polly’s encounter with a homeless man.)

At first sight, the film moves so nimbly it might mistakenly be thought of as light, even disposable; it has depth and weight. Even before the first press screening was over, Miramax finalized a deal for the American rights.

Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, about Abu Ghraib, is the first documentary ever shown in competition in the festival’s history. “I wanted to make a movie about pictures,” Morris said immediately after the press screening. Morris managed to secure firsthand interviews with five of the seven MPs who were indicted. The movie was composed in widescreen, and the subjects’ faces loom — and almost overpower — the physical space. Their testimony is the only compelling reason for the film’s existence: Morris’ aesthetically and morally questionable tendency and use of reenactment has never seemed so egregiously off. “All of my movies are about the quest for truth,” he said, defending their usage. The manipulation or distortion of the image is acceptable in fiction films, but not here. Morris bludgeons the work, particularly a ridiculously overwrought Danny Elfman score that circumvents a larger sense of discovery.

Standard Operating Procedure is insistent on accountability and punishing the guilty of their monstrous behavior. (A couple days into the festival, a young German woman introduced herself to me at a party. “I’m from Nuremberg. Do you know where it is? It’s in the south.” Yes, I said , I know Nuremberg.) Expiation does not necessarily make good art, or lead to interesting filmmaking. Despite the artistry and intelligence behind it, Standard Operating Procedure feels strangely bloodless and unconvincing.


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