The 69th Berlinale runs from February 7 – 17. Our own Joe Biglin is there, and will be filing dispatches from the fest. The first dispatch includes his takes on new films from French auteur Francois Ozon and New York-based filmmaker Dan Sallitt, as well as the debut film from German director Nora Fingesheidt.
Grace a Dieu ends with a title card describing events that have yet to take place, as of February 2019 — and for a film that’s just generally more what happens next rather than why or how these things happen, the decision is instructive. Of course, if you’re looking for a feel-good film about the comeuppance that befalls child-molesting priests, there are other options: 2014’s Spotlight and 2004’s La Mala Education. That angle isn’t necessarily better or worse than Francois Ozon’s is here (though La Mala Education is in fact a much better film), but those films do have something that Grace a Dieu generally lacks: a strongly presented perspective. Ozon’s film begins with a panoramic shot of Lyon over which Cardinal Barbarin (Francois Marthouret) looms, but then belies the pretense of this grand scope by focussing on the life of Alexandre Guerin (Melvil Poupaud). Ozon makes sure that his film engages with the contemporary moment — #MeToo looms just as large as the Cardinal — but Grace a Dieu doesn’t really get going until Alexandre’s confrontation with Father Preynat (Bernard Verley). Alexandre’s trauma (he was fondled and propositioned when he participated in his parish’s “scouts” program) goes uneased by the Father’s words, so he begins to seek out others who’ve been through the same experience. Ozon’s shift in attention to these other victims’ trauma takes the form of vignettes that touch on questions of internalized pain, generation gaps, toxic masculinity, the normalization of abuse, and personal responsibility. These are big and important themes, but as Ozon’s film grows to encompass them, it also begins to feel centerless, and even weightless — often scratching the surface of one difficult subject, then pivoting to some other polemic. The final line of Grace a Dieu — which finds Alexandre’s son asking his father if he still believes in God — is indicative of this hollowness, as the crisis of faith that it prompts is just another big idea gestured at without being explored.
Another portrait of trauma, Nora Fingesheidt’s debut feature revolves around the social condition indicated by its title: Systemsprenger, or System Crasher. The film follows problem child Benni (Helena Zengel), whose violent clashes with the foster care system leave her to fall through the cracks of society. If you’re beginning to draw mental parallels to Taika Waititi’s eminently silly The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, don’t: Fingesheidt’s film opens with an ear-piercing scream, and has no intention of being ‘fun.’ This is an emotionally draining portrait of trauma, one largely held together by a fireworks lead performance from the 11-year-old Zengel. While the film doesn’t abide by strict subjectivity when limning Benni’s experience, neither does it present a savior narrative; the adults in System Crasher are often well-intentioned but offer little in the way of help to the children, nor do they make any effort to fix the conditions that create a systemsprenger child. There is a fun montage of surrogate-parent bonding, built around Benni’s aid Micha (Albrecht Schuch) — the most admirable, if conflicted, adult in the film. But System Crasher’s levity is always succeeded by huge challenges, so much so that one begins to wonder how anybody ever grew into a functional adult in this society. Then again, the brusque reality is that adults are often incapable of taking responsibility — and if nothing else, Fingesheidt’s unflinching portrait of this neglected pocket of society deserves credit for recognizing that sad truth.
In Dan Sallitt’s new film, focus is put on personal, rather than systemic, emotional responsibility. Fourteen is about an unbalanced friendship, one that might look familiar to most urbane twenty-somethings: Jo ( Norma Kuhling) is the ‘self-destructive one,’ while Mara (Tallie Medel) is the ‘one who picks up the pieces.’ A conversation early on demonstrates a deep mutual history, covering territory that these women have cleary trodden before. (“So my eccentricities and anxieties are not a part of who I am?” Jo tells Mara.) Sallitt’s film accrues its power by upending viewer expectations, frequently deemphasizing — even slyly disguising — its various temporal ellipses. This push-and-pull between the predictable and the unexpected is the film’s defining tension. Sallitt generously provides enough ambiguity that viewers aren’t forced to come to any particular conclusion about these women, and Medel’s understated depth plays beautifully against Kuhling’s more bombastic performance. As the film (and the lives of the two protagonists) progress, Jo’s increasingly limited presence balances our identification with the initially stoic and (ostensibly) over-critical Mara. Sallitt’s development of the characters through time might often recall the zeitgeist-y millennialhood of Lena Dunham’s Girls, whose characters’ minor victories and defeats led them towards alternative life paths. But Fourteen goes even further, demonstrating that, yes: we can and will be memes of ourselves when we think we’re being bold and original. If that in itself isn’t enough of an emotional reckoning for audiences of a certain age, then Fourteen’s ending will be.