By Andrew Horn
I used to be a big fan of Guy de Maupassant and in fact I once made a film based on three of his stories - I used to describe it as a story within a story, in which one of the characters tells a story. So I, of course, also read Bel Ami, which I think might be his only novel. Just as surely, I also saw the movie version with George Sanders, who was a no-brainer piece of casting - that being the cool, suave social climber, who, as IMDB describes him, “does most of his climbing over the warm (and cold) bodies of women”. As I watched the new version playing in the Competition I was struck with how little I remembered of either book or film, so it was all new to me - which I first found sort of refreshing to be able to re-discover it, but in hindsight, maybe a bit scary to think that my memory is totally going to hell.
My memory must really have really been going, because I sat there sort of in awe of Uma Thurman, who I usually don’t like at all, going who IS that woman? And what a great voice! Christina Ricci was also great in a role which, believe it or not, was originally played by Angela Lansbury in the George Sanders version. Realizing at the end that it was her was another forehead slapping moment.
While I complained about the mean spiritedness of “Young Adult”, I found the mean-ness of “Bel Ami” pretty tasty, with the whole sexual merry-go-round leaving the realm of “La Ronde” to become almost a sort of Belle Epoch “Boeing Boeing”.
But it wasn't so much about the sex but about the manipulation by Robert Pattinson - who a couple of my colleagues complained about because they couldn't separate him from his teen star status, which didn't bother me because I didn't recognize him anyway - for whom the screwing of the women seemed rather less fulfilling than the screwing over of their husbands and lovers. In the press conference, Pattison compared his character to James Dean's in "Giant" who, he pointed out, built his empire for the specific purpose of shitting on everyone else (not to mention that the "everyone else" in question was also upper class). I guess everybody has their own idea of fun.
But another thing that didn’t occur to me was the story’s connection to today. I was too busy enjoying all the screwing, but the director pointed out that the situation going on in the background of the movie, i.e. the machinations involved in the French incursion into Morocco, made an interesting connection to current events. Hmm...let’s see, a corrupt government, supported by a corrupt media, about to invade an Arab country for supposedly good reasons, but actually to get its hands on their mineral wealth? Uhh...I don’t know, you think...?
I went from there to “Vito” playing in the Panorama. I felt sort of obliged to see it since one of the earliest articles I wrote about the Berlinale was about the movie version of “The Celluloid Closet”, the best selling analysis of gay subtext and subject matter in the movies, by the Vito Russo of the title. My interest was mixed in with a bit of apprehension - Vito Russo has certainly, and deservedly, attained gay icon status, not only from his book (and related lectures), but also as a seminal gay activist, involved in the Gay Activist Alliance and ACT UP as well as being one of the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the host of the first gay oriented tv show - and I had the fear that the movie would turn out to be just another love fest. Thankfully it didn’t. Thankfully it was a pretty human portrait of one man’s awakening in a time when this kind of awaking was about to burst out all over. Sadly though, ending, as too many of these story’s did, with the onset of the AIDS crisis and all that ensued. It’s a story we’ve heard a lot, particularly at the Panorama, but arguably there might be as many facets to this story as there are people to tell it. And for younger generations such stories are worth it to know.
I rather liked his description of the Stonewall riots, a literal bird’s eye view because, afraid of the violence, he hid out to watch the whole thing from up in a nearby tree. But one thing that really jumped out at me was his description of growing up in the early 60s in Lodi, New Jersey and learning about life from hanging around with the “working class drag queens from Lodi and the nearby towns of Bloomfield, Hackensack, and Paterson.” I was pretty aghast - I mean, a 60s drag scene in Lodi, Bloomfield, Hackensack and Paterson?! Whodathunkit?
Ok, I admit it - I had been looking forward to “Flying Swords of the Dragon Gate” for the whole week. Tsui Hark, Jet Li, kung fu, 3D? I was sure I’d be all over that one. Was it fun? Yes. Was it a giant leap forward for 3D? Uhhhh..... Was it a great movie? Well.....
First of all, I have to say I have very little idea of what it was all about. Partly because these movies are not about making a whole lot of sense in the first place, and partly because all the 3D flying projectiles (human and otherwise) coming out of the screen were often at odds with any concerted attempt to concentrate on the subtitles. Near as I could figure, there was some kind of court intrigue, evil eunuchs, conspirative concubines, a lone hero - actually a couple of lone heros - asskicking babes, betrayal, mistaken identities, hidden identities, a lost city of gold, a bit of unrequited love (I think) thrown in for good measure, and of course a whole lot of flying around throwing things. In a giant sandstorm.
Does one really need to know more?
Nah. Not really.
“La Vierge, Les Coptes et Moi” was a documentary described in the catalogue as a “a fictional re-interpretation of reality that turns into a comedy about documentary filmmaking”. Well, ok... why not? This was my last film of the festival and one needs to come down gently.
It was first of all a good sign to see a film where the first laughs are already coming before the title even appears. A series of names of all the usual financing sources start popping up in various corners to fill the screen...only to be X-ed out one by one, because - and I know the feeling - this guy couldn’t get any money out of any of them, excepting the French subsidy fund, CNC, and some film fund in Doha.
Director Namir Abdel Messeeh’s Coptic Egyptian parents moved to France in the late 60s and that is where he was brought up. A few years ago, at a family gathering, they watch a video tape, sent by someone from the old country, showing a recent appearance by the Virgin Mary at a cathedral in Cairo. His mother is in tears but he can’t see anything, just some light. From here on, Namir becomes fixated on the Virgin and her various appearances, particularly in Coptic Egypt. He finally decides to make a movie about it and sends his proposal around, only to be universally gonged. But then he gets contacted by a French producer - who makes several appearances in the film on Namir’s voicemail - saying that his partners didn’t like the proposal but he himself thinks it might be good. The only thing is, he says, “the concept is all over the place. Is the film about the Virgin, is it about the Copts, or is about you? You have to narrow it down and focus. And by the way, you need to come up with a title.” So, the director says, “I thought about it and decided to call my film ‘The Virgin, The Copts and Me.”
And so it goes from there. He travels to Cairo with a film crew, but the church won’t talk to him, although everybody he meets on the street has some picture or cell phone video of some apparition or other that they dying to show him - which, of course, are all too obscure to see anything. He keeps getting messages on his cell phone from his producer ranging from admonishments to stop fooling around, to threats to pull the plug. He decides to go to his family’s home town which is near a former apparition site and see what his relatives can come up with. This, in turn, unleashes a series of escalating requests, pleas, and threats from his mother that he should avoid her relatives AT ALL COSTS. Which, like any dutiful son, he totally ignores.
And then, several irate voice messages later, when his producer cuts him loose in exasperation, his mother becomes the producer. And it all sort of keeps going in that direction, until, in exasperation himself, Namir decides enlist his family and the other villagers to stage an apparition for the film, in the hopes of luring the Virgin to make her own appearance.
Well, I don’t know how “real” this all was, but does it matter? If the result is less like a documentary than a Nanni Moretti movie, I guess I’ve got no problem with that.
And so, dear friends, this concludes Berlinale 2012. At least for me. Woof...!
P.S. Despite two more tries, I never did get to see “The Woman Who Brushed Away Her Tears”.