Credit: Lilies Films
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7: Petite Maman, Fabian — To the Dogs, Language Lessons

March 9, 2021

Petite Maman

Celine Sciamma’s characters have always existed on a precipice of some essential awareness, riding the ebbs and flows of emerging self-knowledge, and arriving at necessarily unsettled places. Specifically, her films explore that bardo between childhood and adulthood — often, but not always tethered to sexual awakening — and the griefs and doubts and knowledge that become bedfellows in this space. Petite Maman finds Sciamma further evolving and refining her preoccupations. After her past three films saw central characters ascend in age with each subsequent effort, interrogating their disparate dramas with a kind of linearity, the director here retreats to early childhood, a period of more profound innocence, and follows eight-year-old Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) burgeoning awakening to the world in the aftermath of her grandmother’s death. The young child is immediately established as perhaps preternaturally empathic, attuned to the gravity of her mother’s (Nina Meurisse) emotional disruption, while remaining in the firm clutches of youthful ignorance; sitting in the backseat of the family car, she first observes, with clear concern, as her parents embrace in the immediate wake of this loss, and then attempts to provide her mom with the balm of a snack offered from the backseat.

Petite Maman reaches not just across these spaces — physical, and also emotional — but across time, too. All of these expanses are haunted in their way, with loss and memory, yes, but also with the people we share them with; more than in any of her previous work, Sciamma is here interested in the small ways that we become specters in each other’s lives. Relationships become fragile in the face of individual griefs, while the individual too easily recedes when met with collective ones. If such notions seem weighty, the director executes them with a gentle touch, building a kind of gossamer fairy tale. After her grandmother’s passing, Nelly and her parents retreat to the family cabin in order to clean out its contents (and perhaps find some kind of closure), but after her mother disappears overnight — rising emotions proving too much — Nelly and her dad are left to finish the business alone. DP Claire Mathon captures the autumnal wood in painterly, often static compositions, lush clusters of scarlet and orange and olive leaves punctuating the dull, naturally-lit interiors. It’s a palette rich in melancholy and infused with a small bit of magic, and in exploring the surrounding forests, Nelly finds a bit of both in the form of a new friend, a fellow eight-year-old girl, Marion (played by Sanz’s twin, Gabrielle), who is constructing a hut of teetering sticks. Following Marion home, we find that she lives in a cabin identical to Nelly’s, shot from the same fixed angles, the same kitchen table, the same bedrooms, the same bathroom on the hallway’s right, and it’s here that Petite Maman’s fabulism reveals itself. But rather than diminishing the film’s second half, the easily understood fantasy conceit here enriches its deep, abiding humanism: a daughter’s quest to understand her mother as a person outside of her maternity.

Production notes cite Hayao Miyazaki as a guiding influence, and, indeed, the film’s delicate marriage of whimsy and wistfulness has perhaps no greater touchstone than My Neighbor Totoro. Sciamma is likewise interested in these moments where innocence abuts experience and youth’s solipsism suffers the first of its many small deaths. But she balances such heady ruminations with a distinct levity, reveling as much in the youngsters’ beyond-their-years philosophizing as she does their bouts of joyous play; this latter bit ushers in another absolute mic drop of a musical sequence for the director (after Girlhood’s all-time “Diamonds” scene), interrupting the film’s scoreless sound design for a last hurrah sequence set to the exuberant electro pop of Para One’s fittingly-titled “La Musique du futur.” But here, the future is always in dialogue with the past, and the two beautifully twine in a few scenes during the film’s second half, in which Nelly and Marion perform a drama together. Breaking character to compliment each other’s skill, Marion then announces, “I’d like to be an actress…It’s my dream.” It’s a suitably fanciful childhood ambition on the surface, but one that here, within the context of both the film’s reality and fantasy, speaks volumes to the performative shape our lives irrevocably take, recalling, in its casual way, nothing less than first-wave feminist theory. To that end, the film’s title likewise takes on multiple meanings, and if one feels weighted more heavily, it’s largely, in the way of life, a matter of perspective. And so, while Sciamma is still fundamentally interested in the same exploration of self, Petite Maman represents something of an expansion, moving both further forward into adulthood and backward into youth than ever before. Across its brief 70 minutes, Petite Maman proves to be both Sciamma’s most intimate and epic work yet.

Writer: Luke Gorham

Credit: Hanno Lentz / Lupa Film

Fabian — To the Dogs

Early on in Fabian — Going to the Dogs, a young doctoral candidate with utopian dreams, and a rather less promising destiny, quotes Blaise Pascal to his university friend, the eponymous Fabian, as they totter around his ramshackle apartment: “Order is a deadly omen.” Dominik Graf surely agrees. The German director has cut a unique path among contemporary film artists, working largely in local television, producing a theatrical feature once or twice a decade, and in all instances adopting the ethos of the armed infiltrator, disrupting the conventions of genre and good taste from within. His newest film, the first made for the cinema since 2011’s Beloved Sisters, adopts the framework of a historical epic — a Weimar Republic revel to match his earlier treatise on Weimar Classicism — and resolutely, even petulantly, refuses to play by the rules. But no matter their stance of aesthetic revolt, Graf’s forays into the past are not prankster-ish put-ons or a smuggler’s attempt to cloak his outsider art in the costume of respectability — or at least not exclusively those things. The history films occupy a unique and rather indispensable position among Graf’s work, acting something like prequels to the world found in his TV movies and police procedurals, which, when taken together, function as a near complete (though stubbornly termite-like) taxonomy of contemporary German life, but which offer the viewer no preface, no footnotes, and certainly no historical outline. If you want one, you typically have to bring it yourself.

But Graf is a little more generous in the cinema than he is at home, and Fabian rather bluntly literalizes the director’s approach in its opening image: an uncharacteristic tracking shot, eerily smooth and digital, slinks through a contemporary Berlin subway station, as people stare lazily at their cell phones or rush to their tech jobs, before the camera emerges from the underground and goes screaming into 1931. “The age of human dignity is dawning,” we are told amidst a hurricane of drugs, alcohol, and sex parties. To be clear, there’s no contradiction here: Fabian establishes a kind of libertine paradise familiar to Graf’s cinema, in which the essential utopian unit is the ménage à trois — no one believes in the power of the threesome as earnestly as does Dominik Graf. And while the roundelay here is more spiritual than sexual, it is — as is typically the case — the thing struggling to be born, a tenuous promise of liberty held aloft by Graf’s furious style, but which is, inevitably, snuffed out by that unyielding German taste for order. Perhaps a thin thesis, as far as historical dialectics go, but there are precious few partisans committed to the dignity of disorder these days, in life, and especially in cinema. Fabian, in its ribald, chaotic way, tells us that the perpetual promise of a better, more stable present to come is — to cite another Graf title — just the lie we call the future.

Writer: Evan Morgan

Language Lessons

Among the many effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is how it has radically transformed every aspect of cinema, including the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of its creation. One artistic response is to lean right into these changes, allowing them to shape the aesthetics of the work. This is the tack taken in Language Lessons, the debut feature of actress Natalie Morales, who’s also one of the film’s two onscreen cast members, the other being co-screenwriter (with Morales) Mark Duplass. Language Lessons consists entirely of simulated online interactions between its characters, both direct real-time communication and exchanged video messages. Although the pandemic is never explicitly addressed, the film succinctly captures how its attendant safety concerns have forced human interactions into the virtual realm, blurring the distinction between the personal and professional; the glimpses of domestic life framed in these interactions can engender an ersatz intimacy that often challenges personal boundaries that used to be more clearly defined.

With scenes broken up by bilingual chapter headings mimicking a language-learning lesson plan — “Immersion,” “Comprehension,” “Context,” “Grammar,” “Fluency,” “Extra Credit” — and charting the evolving online relationship of its two characters, Language Lessons begins with Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher Cariño (Morales) logging on for her first lesson with Adam (Duplass), who lives in Oakland. Adam initially has no idea he’s about to become a student; these Spanish lessons are a surprise birthday gift from his husband Will (Desean Terry, heard and seen in photographs, but never fully shown on camera). Adam and Cariño’s awkward initial meeting is the first of many examples of how the film both follows and subverts rom-com conventions. Will, to Adam’s shock, delight, and faint dismay, has paid for 100 weekly Spanish lessons, based on Adam’s expressed wish to improve these language skills, grown rusty since high school. 

The stark contrasts between Adam and Cariño are emphasized throughout, starting with the disparate living situations that are backgrounded in their Zoom meetings: Adam lives on a palatial estate, complete with a large swimming pool, while Cariño resides in a cramped apartment. He’s white; she’s Latinx. He’s gay; she’s straight, precluding any kind of romantic relationship, making this the film’s most radical subversion of rom-com tropes, turning the narrative into a relatively rare examination of burgeoning platonic friendship. 

It turns out Adam hardly even needs the lessons; although his speech is often halting and broken, he can hold a conversation in Spanish fairly well. Still, he continues with the lessons, warming to Cariño and enjoying her virtual company, and it seems those sentiments are mutual. Early on, a personal tragedy befalls Adam, and he clings to his sessions with Cariño as comfort and distraction from his grief. Cariño is a willing consoler at first, but she balks when Adam gets too inquisitive about her private life, at one point accusing Adam of having a white savior complex when he suspects her circumstances are far from ideal and offers to help. 

Films of such minimal design, such as this, often lean heavily on performance, and here, that piece impresses mightily, especially Morales’ turn. It’s a movie consisting mostly of close-ups, and the way Morales is able to run the gamut of her character’s emotional transformations almost solely through facial expressions is mesmerizing and profoundly charismatic, easily the most compelling aspect of the film. Although Language Lessons never entirely shakes the sense of essentially being a feature-length acting exercise, it nevertheless succeeds at interrogating, in poignantly affecting terms, the gulf between online and offline personae, and questioning what’s left of our identities and relations with one another when computer images and physical distances are interrupted.

Writer: Christoper Bourne

Credit: Paula Gaitán

The Path is Made for Walking

Parting with the geographical scope and pedagogic address of her past output, Paula Gaitán’s short film/video-installation Se hace camino al andar (literal translation: The Path Is Made By Walking) inks its fabulist designs upon a comparatively bare canvas. Its opening shot is of a dirt path whose radix winds beyond our immediate sightline, flanked by a cornfield to the right. Adjacent to it, and on our extreme left, is an access road facilitating motor transport. What’s obviously noteworthy is Gaitán’s circumscription of the viewer’s perspective and interpretive agency, alongside the disconnect between a longstanding tradition of subsistence agriculture and industrial convenience. Then, we observe a solitary figure leisurely strolling towards the camera, before disappearing into the fields; only to emerge after a moment’s pause, his route back now obstructed by a tractor — modernity’s encroachment on culled land. He dips beneath it, and continues forging off into the distance, the shot finally cutting… only to resurface in the opening refrain. 

Gaitán’s formal stratagem, of continuously redirecting our attention to a central node, utilizing her anchor to the mortal world as something of an all-purpose vector, inserted into the text as a spatial coordinate around which the locale structures itself, is thusly revealed within the first eight-ish minutes of the film. From then on, even as her cartograph expands, Gaitán’s structural inversions play out their functions as little more than reaches at further disorientation and unresolved ambition, unaided by a late, scantly-justified descent into direct metaphor wherein the above-mentioned disparity between Man and Nature sees partial reconciliation. Credit where it’s due, though, these targets end up achieving a not-unintriguing compatibility with her associative specificities, clarified all the better for a noticeable abstention from aesthetic experimentation otherwise. Intrusions of birdsong, rustling crops, indistinct chattering, passing vehicles, and, at two intervals, blaring folk music, all materialize at random, uncoupled from the events on-screen and at logical distance from their sources. In this, at least, one can intuit a vaguely hauntological knowledge of the invisible labor, native life and wonders once attached to this place and its unrecoverable roots. Ending with a dedication to the Kuikuro of Western Brazil, a people overwhelmingly disenfranchised by the Bolsonaro administration’s denial of pandemic relief to affected indigenous regions just last year, it’s clear to see Gaitán’s dedication to a new, more sensitively modeled ethnography, one missing vital components here and there, but a no less commendable step.

Writer: Nicholas Yap

May June July

It’s a good time to acquaint oneself with the works of Kevin Jerome Everson, the talented multi-hyphenate who has been making films, videos, paintings, sculptures, and installation pieces for the better part of three decades. He’s finally gained more prominent attention in the 2000s, with a series of feature-length documentaries and more than 130 shorts of varying length. (As of this writing, there’s a smattering of titles available to view via the Criterion Collection’s streaming channel, as well as a hi-def release of select titles via the U.K. label Second Run.) It’s an intimidating oeuvre, for sure, and otherwise largely inaccessible outside of gallery or institutional settings. So it’s a treat to get a glimpse at his new short May June July, even if, at only 8 minutes, it’s rather too short. 

One of Everson’s many gifts is the ability to conjure a unique, steady rhythm despite a brief runtime, and in May June July, that rhythm comes as a mixture of a marching band’s drum beat and the sound of wheels on pavement. The first shot of the film shows a diagonal line bifurcating the frame as a pair of roller skates cruise back and forth across the image. A cut leads to a nighttime scene, as a shaky handheld camera records colorful flowers in extreme closeup, illuminated only by a single beam of light. Another cut shows a deep black expanse, with brief flickers of glowing luminescence occasionally appearing in the darkness. We then return to the roller skater, with their entire body now in full view, moving about freely in a large, empty promenade. It’s a carefree moment, but Everson holds the scene long enough to allow the viewer to begin taking in background details. Barriers are visible at the end of the street, while the twirling, free-wheeling camera occasionally catches a glimpse of boarded-up storefronts. There are slogans painted on the ground, and one soon realizes that the skating figure is wearing a mask. And so, a series of signifiers come crashing down all at once: that this space was once (and may be again) the site of Black Lives Matter demonstrations — production notes identify it as Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC — with the specter of Covid and our plague year hovering over everything. This brief collection of juxtapositions — day and night, closeups and wide shots, stasis and movement — work as a kind of diaristic encapsulation, a sketch or an utterance of a particular frame of mind. A minor work, certainly, but one not without modest pleasures.

Writer: Daniel Gorman