Even by the Berlinale’s patchy standards, this year’s Main Competition was an embarrassment, with Christian Petzold’s monumental Transit towering above a slipshod selection that otherwise ranged from forgettable to genuinely awful. Those critics who maintain that the festival’s best offerings are always found in Forum, the sidebar dedicated to more experimental fare (a loose categorization that starts just beyond the strictly narrative and stops short of the avant-garde), were certainly vindicated this time around. The program proved a goldmine, living up to its mission of showcasing new voices in international cinema and featuring several titles that would have more than merited a Competition slot.
Case in point: Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. Other than its almost four-hour running time, it’s difficult to imagine what could have disqualified such a formidable debut from the Competition (besides, the nearly equal runtime of Lav Diaz’s shockingly sloppy Season of the Devil didn’t prevent it from making the cut). The very opposite of sloppy, Hu’s opus is sprawling yet exceptionally focused, weaving an intricate networked narrative from the misfortunes suffered by four characters over the course of a single day in an economically depressed Chinese city. These desperate lives are captured in stunning Steadicam sequences whose delicate, sinuous motions reach deep into the characters’ subjectivities, composing a devastating portrait of a society in which the fallout from the state’s capitalistic voracity has eroded all solidarity and established a complete distrust of authority. With the social contract thus nullified, the individual is condemned to the sort of life envisioned by Thomas Hobbes: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The tragedy of Hu’s vision is compounded by the knowledge that the director took his own life last October at the age of twenty nine, shortly after completing the film, which isn’t so much a swan song as a thundering cri de cœur.
Two smaller-scale highlights from the program pulled off the seemingly impossible: rendering in-depth analyses of tennis and football into cinematic material that is not just palatable but veritably engrossing, even to those allergic to spectator sports. Julien Faraut’s In the Realm of Perfection is like a feature film version of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay on Roger Federer, coupling John McEnroe and auteurism instead of Federer and religion. Like Wallace, Faraut here acts as a passeur, to use a term coined by Serge Daney (who, as the film reveals, had a decade-long stint as a tennis columnist for the newspaper Libération): the film’s geeky enthusiasm is so extreme and genuine, it generates in the viewer a vicarious enjoyment of the other’s passion. Drawing from a treasure trove of 16mm footage shot over several years by Gil de Kermadec, a director of instructional tennis films who obsessively filmed McEnroe in the hopes of distilling his mastery for a didactic format, Faraut has composed a fluidly edited, often gorgeous, and consistently rich philosophical exploration of human compulsion and achievement that remains thoroughly entertaining despite the theoretical weight of its propositions.
Equally philosophical if more politically slanted was Infinite Football, Corneliu Porumboiu’s second film to excavate the sport’s allegorical potential. While The Second Game used an actual match from 1988 as a means of considering the scope of individual agency during the Ceaușescu years, Infinite Football’s dissection of the game’s rules extends these reflections to the present day. Shot in a drab documentary aesthetic, the film comprises a number of conversations between Porumboiu and Laurențiu Ginghină, a childhood acquaintance who has made it his goal to come up with a new and improved version of football. Although the revised regulations he proposes are ludicrously impractical, Ginghină describes them with such sincerity and oblivious conviction, his ambition transcends the quixotic to attain a utopian stature. As ever with Porumboiu’s outwardly mundane cinema, it’s difficult to pinpoint why the film is so funny and compelling, but Ginghină’s ever-more convoluted proposals, the contrast between his wide-eyed optimism and Porumboiu’s permanently impassive countenance, and the extraordinary featurelessness of the film’s locations all combine to create an absurd, borderline surreal scenario worthy of a Beckett or Ionesco play.
The collapse of belief structures also afflicts the twentysomethings adrift in the New York of Ricky D’Ambrose’s debut feature Notes on an Appearance, which in many ways feels like a contemporary adaptation of Bresson’s The Devil, Probably. Bresson isn’t the only palpable influence; the formal rigor, staccato editing, and muted affect of the performances are also indebted to Straub/Huillet, while the narrative, structured around the existentially charged search for a central character who mysteriously vanishes, borrows from Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Though cine-literate, the film isn’t derivative. Rather, the many overt references, which D’Ambrose reworks through his own assured aesthetic, reflect the characters’ attempts at making sense of their world by grasping onto the remnants of a time when reality seemed less fleeting and insubstantial. This yearning for tangibility is expressed through the documents—handwritten notes, diary entries, newspaper articles, postcards, maps, each photographed with loving attention to textures and typography—that the the characters use to try and trace their missing friend and, in a subplot, research the work of a fictitious dead political theorist whose revolutionary rhetoric feels not just anachronistic but downright mythical within the ideological void of the depicted present.
Grass, Hong Sangsoo’s first film to premiere in the Forum since his 1996 debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, is one of those charming minimalist exercises that the Korean auteur pops out with seeming effortlessness in between masterpieces—a “minor Hong,” to use festival parlance. As if to goad those who accuse him of recycling the same material in every film, Hong composed this one almost entirely of variations of his signature scene: two people at a café or restaurant, sitting at a table across from one another, having intensely emotional conversations. “Love is the best, nothing else can compare,” says one character; later, another exclaims, “Loving each other, what bullshit!” Grass explores the existential dialectic captured by these two statements, with the conversations revolving mainly around adultery, heartbreak, and regret. It would be a serious downer if it weren’t for Hong’s customary levity, which here often finds expression through the classical music constantly playing in the café where most of the non-action takes place. When a depressing heart-to-heart is accompanied by Offenbach’s Galop infernal (a.k.a. the music for the can-can) played much too loud, it certainly helps keep things in perspective.