Every Good Boy Deserves TeddiesRoundup of the 59th Berlin International Film Festival by Sophie Mayer
Of the other few Competition films with Teddy qualities, I was most excited about The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of her own novel. I loved Pippa in the book, the story of her self-invention as a perfect housewife to contain the chaos of her own desires, which include an SM relationship with her aunt’s girlfriend. Hearing that Julianne Moore was playing the saucy writer Kat, I was even more excited. But the film – conscious, no doubt, of the wider and more conservative audience that a film has to lay claim to in order to get a budget – plays that disturbingly erotic relationship for laughs, just one of the ways that the force of the book is blunted. Still, a newly-slender and shirtless Keanu is a pansexual delight.
Blame Canada! as someone once said so wisely. Also for the wicked five-minute short The Island by Albertan filmmaker Trevor Anderson. After an interminable shorts program (anyone looking for the new New Brutalist cinema, it’s going to come from Ukraine and it’s going to make The Death of Mr. Lazarescu look like Scrubs), The Island came as a brisk eye-refresher as Anderson walks across an endless snow prairie while his voice-over meditates on an email he received from the US suggests that he and all the faggots move to an island and infect each other with AIDS. Through animation, said island is duly imagined. Like Greyson, Anderson refuses the sentimentalities that would have him say, “Oh, and we’d never infect each other with AIDS!” Instead, he imagines PWA celebrated, feasted, and honoured. The fantasy collapses – “lonely” says Anderson, stranded in the snow – but the film still sent me out zinging.
But Fig Trees isn’t an amuse-bouche; it’s a masterwork. It echoes the pop-cult OutRageousness of Zero Patience but also the seductive aesthetic of the more recent Proteus, whose co-director Jack Lewis is Achmat’s partner. Co-incidences, resonances, echoes of earlier work, connections between McCaskell and Achmat: both the activism and the film are built on this connectivity, on queer community. That sense of an intertwinedness that keeps on growing and including other nodes, like Celtic knotwork, is also at the heart of City of Borders, a first documentary feature by Yun Suh. Drawing on her experience making news documentaries, including in Gaza in 2002, Suh documents the life and times of Jerusalem’s Shushan. A gay bar, and more than a gay bar, Shushan served as a rallying point and safer space in a city dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and also a meeting-point, a bar where Palestinians and Israelis mingled freely.
The film opens on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Ramallah, following a group of young guys climbing over. Risking their lives to go dancing, you could say. But they’re climbing over to be somewhere they can be their whole selves in public, with friends. That’s a rare space anywhere in the world, and Shushan was something of a miracle. Sa’ar, the city councillor who opened the bar, is one of the film’s six subjects, but the doc is balanced so that you don’t feel he’s more important than the amazing people who make up his clientele and community.
It’s clear that Suh fell in love with kohl-eyed, languid, gorgeous Boody, who leads his merry band from Ramallah to Shushan and performs there as Miss Haifa. A devout Muslim who has utterly reconciled his faith and his sexuality, he’s almost too perfect a subject to be true. The same could be said of Samira and Ravit, a Palestinian and an Israeli, living in lesbian doctor bliss. Utterly committed to each other (although both flirting with Suh behind the camera) but under no illusions about the complexity of their situation – in that Ravit wants children, and Samira doesn’t – Samira and Ravit win this Berlinale’s Lesbian Idol hands down.
The competition’s pretty thin. Wrassling it out for most disappointing films of the festival, for me, would be a reprise of the lesbian killer motif in Lucía Puenzo’s El Niño Pez (adapted from her own novel) and Julie Delpy’s The Countess. Delpy plays Erzebet Bathory, the Hungarian countess notorious for bathing in the blood of virgin girls. There’s an Ann-Marie Macdonald play that turns this legend into a passionate lesbian horror romance, but this is not that film. Delpy’s Erzebet is bisexual, forming a close relationship with Darvoulia, her apothecary – beautifully played by the luminous Anamaria Marinca – although the passion that counts is for men. But the film suggests, in its slightly inarticulate way, that that’s because of the patriarchal trap that pincers Erzebet as a powerful woman who can pick and choose lovers at will, but is dependent on them for her sense of self. Darvoulia is the only voice of reason once the murders begin – a refreshing change as the film initially suggests that she will kill Erzebet’s young lover (puppy-faced Daniel Brühl in the Keanu Reeves role) out of jealousy.
The viewer knows little more about what there is between Hamburg-based artist Sophie and Ai-ling, a Taiwanese student visiting her family in Germany. Most of their relationship is expressed through videos made by Sophie, and shown in an exhibition in Taipei after Ai-ling’s death, at which Sophie meets journalist Mei-li, who pursues her to Hamburg to discover what happened to Ai-ling. Like Niño Pez, Ghosted is told by interweaving past and present, which should give intensity to Sophie’s grief, but Inga Busch’s performance is just not up to it. Huan-Ru Ke is lovely as Ai-ling, but has barely anything to do. Maybe I liked the film less than I should Ai-ling was my second lovely Taiwanese lesbian of the day, after Ai, played by Sadrine Pinna, in Miao-Miao. Cute as a handmade button, Miao Miao is directed by Cheng Hsiao-Tse but – more importantly perhaps – produced by Jet Tone Films, Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-Wai’s company for new Asian cinema.
Bizarrely, parents could also happily take their kids to Catherine Breillat’s latest, Barbe Bleue, but probably won’t because of Breillat’s reputation. And because it’s Breillat’s version of Perrault’s conte keeps intact the age difference between Blubeard and his barely pubescent last bride. This is the tale as told between young sisters, about the adult love that they crave and fear, that they don’t understand. The younger sister (Breillat herself is the youngest) tells the older that marriage is when two people become homosexual, a statement worth musing on as well as being amused by. Although the film follows the strict hetero priorities of the fairy tale, its focus on the passionate love and hate of sisters, and suggestively between Bluebeard’s wives as each other’s successors, is actually deliciously queer.
In the film, McCaskell quotes a young Montréaler who said to him that AIDS is a lens, through which things unseen become visible and look different. In the films that stood out for me, sexuality was that lens – as politicised by AIDS, by violence, by globalisation – and it brought into focus how all film can be queer because in all films there are bodies, and towards all films we feel something like desire. As Rage explores, there is a beauty other than the one (RED) tries to sell us (by playing on our fears that we don’t have it): a beauty that, like the woman in the Hebrew prayer read at the lesbian Shabbat Samira and Ravit attend, is beyond price or prize. These films aren’t trying to sell products, or ideologies, or even themselves: they want us to look and listen and be open. That’s what makes When It Was Blue a Teddy (although it’s not, officially), that it wants us to be totally permeable, infinitely changeable, ravished by the world. What could be queerer than that?
Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at http://www.sophiemayer.net/
Labels: Film Review