Another Berlinale, another set of surprise winners/bad predictions! I did slightly better than last year by nailing at least one winner of the lot. Elsewhere on the list, I find some of the jury’s picks marvelous, others… shall we say confounding.
So, according to Juliette Binoche and her fellow jurors, these are the crème de la crème of the 69th Berlinale:
Outstanding Artistic Contribution: cinematography of OUT STEALING HORSES
Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s generation-spanning tale of betrayal and remorse kind of came and went in the middle of the festival without much fanfare. It’s a decent enough drama with solid if thoroughly unextraordinary production value. As such it came as a bit of a surprise that the jury should single out the camerawork here as the artistic achievement of the festival.
Don’t get me wrong, Thomas Hardmeier and Rasmus Videbæk’s work is classically elegant and pleasing to the eye throughout. But if we’re talking about awe-inspiring screen language and visual expression, you probably would not be thinking of OUT STEALING HORSES. For my money, ÖNDÖG and A TALE OF THREE SISTERS are robbed.
Best Screenplay: PIRANHAS
Oh dear, what have you done, Juliette? The Naples-set youth gangster drama PIRANHAS is easily one of my least favorite films of the festival. Without further criticizing that movie, let’s just say that there are any number of more original, perceptive and just better-written screenplays in competition. Even excluding all other prize winners, this would hardly be my pick. Particularly jarring is the cold shoulder given to GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA, whose story provokes and invigorates in ways PIRANHAS never does.
Best Actor: Wang Jingchun (SO LONG, MY SON)
This is the one category that I correctly called, so of course I find it highly justified! But in all honesty, Wang’s performance as a man coping with the loss of his only child and his own subsequent, ill-advised decisions is a true heartbreaker. Kudos to the jury for noting such subtle, beautifully controlled work. Which brings us to…
Best Actress: Yong Mei (SO LONG, MY SON)
Yeah so the jury appears to really like SO LONG, MY SON, and it’s only right that both leads should be recognized together. Yong, who plays the grieving mother, has a showier part and may have erred on the side of over-sentimentalism in the later years of the character. But she definitely brings that very era-specific temperament as someone coming of age after the Cultural Revolution in China. Between her and Wang Jingchun, a traditional Chinese couple going to hell and back comes vividly alive.
Incidentally, last time both acting prizes went to the same film, it was also for the portrayal of an on-screen couple: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 YEARS.
Best Director: Angela Schalenec (I WAS AT HOME, BUT)
Even though I WAS AT HOME, BUT is a film that I cannot in good conscience recommend to maybe more than 10 of my friends, I’m ok with this pick. Schalenec makes (at times punishingly) austere films but it’s never less than evident that you’re witnessing a uncompromisingly disciplined director at work. Her last film, THE DREAMED PATH, is somewhat easier to follow and left me both wonderstruck and hugely impressed. This new one might be just a tad too obscure for my taste but I welcome the jury’s decision to acknowledge an artist with such integrity and vision.
Alfred Bauer Prize (for a feature film that opens new perspectives): SYSTEM CRASHER
This is unexpected. SYSTEM CRASHER screened at the very start of the festival and did not stay in the conversation long afterwards. Personally I liked it just fine as a passionately made social drama with a message it wears on its sleeve. The unaffected, genuinely explosive performance of its young lead Helena Zengel is memorable. That said, I’m not sure if the film opens any new perspectives per se.
Grand Jury Prize: BY THE GRACE OF GOD
To a lesser extent, this is also unexpected. I liked Ozon’s meticulous, consistently engaging drama a lot. Compared to some other late arrivals in the lineup, however, it is a decidedly quieter affair with a straightforward narrative that would almost appear tame. Well I guess the jury simply can’t deny the quality of filmmaking involved here. And indeed, judged on its own merits, you can hardly fault a film this skillfully written, acted and directed. Bravo.
Golden Bear: SYNONYMS
I did not expect the Binoche-led jury to show so much love for French productions but here we are. Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s star has been rising ever since his Locarno-winning narrative feature debut POLICEMAN. In 2014, he broke through internationally with THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, subsequently remade with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead role. I’m among the minority who was not fully on board with THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER and with SYNONYMS, Lapid lost me a little bit more. It’s another contemporary drama preoccupied with language that further takes on issues of identity – the losing and regaining of it – via an autobiographical tale about a young Israeli man bent on becoming French.
In many individual scenes, including the electrifying opening sequence, you can tell Lapid is a gifted storyteller. He knows how to surprise you with suggestive, radical framing and visual cues. The movie on the whole, however, did little for me in terms of intellectual provocation or emotional involvement. It probably has to do with many of the cultural references not translating well though, especially considering the verbal focus of the script.
So that is it, Berlinale 2019. As always it’s hard to tell if any of the films would be in the Oscar race a full year later. Depending on whether they get submitted by their respective countries (which is of course a huge if), I’d keep an eye out for SO LONG, MY SON, SYSTEM CRASHER and perhaps SYNONYMS.
Time to start looking forward to the 70th Berlinale with brand new festival director Carlo Chatrian in February 2020.