Pandemic aesthetics | Berlinale.71

24 March, 2021

2020 will (also) be remembered as the annus horribilis of world cinema. The coronavirus effectively short-circuited the entire film industry, along its entire chain of production and distribution. And, as we already know, film festivals were also forced to take radical decisions: either to completely cancel their editions or to have symbolical ones, as was the case of the Cannes Film Festival, or to (fully or partially) move their selections online, on streaming platforms, taking on all risks that come with such a move. A risk which, in the last couple of days, became apparent in what may well be its most extreme form – the winner of the Golden Bear itself, which is one of the three most important awards of the European circuit, was uploaded online and is currently being illicitly watched en masse by audiences, at least in Romania. Of course, people didn’t shy away from instantly speculating that it was Radu Jude himself, who included the cinephile piracy group la loupe in the “special thanks” section of his film, and mirroring the actions of his protagonist in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, that leaked the film. Which is a nice hypothesis, if it weren’t completely counterintuitive to his and his team’s interests, who have no choice but to support themselves from the ulterior distribution of the film (be it in festivals or not), and such leaks translate into massive losses in this respect. 

In spite of the various specters that haunted this year’s edition of the Berlinale – chief amongst them the not unfounded suspicion that it will have a weak selection, given the case of many festivals that moved online over the past year -, the second under Carlo Chatrian’s direction, proved to be a success with critics and industry professionals alike. Of course, maybe it also had to do with the fact that the audience (which was limited only to those working in the field of cinema, with a physical variant to follow in June) could better curate its own experience of the mammoth festival, which lost some deadweight in a slimmed-down roster, and so didn’t waste as much time with films that were not worth the time. Of course, a determinant factor was also the festival’s decision to implement a system which, ultimately, is an acquiescence to the online medium’s particular beast: all films had a fast-forward button which could speed films up to eight times. Sacrilege, cinema purists may claim – but I prefer a festival to be honest and accommodating to the ways in which digital cultural consumption takes place, rather than to pretend that things are just like in the movie theaters. Few false notes rang throughout the edition – most of them in the Main Competition, where the particularly bizarre decision to program two films with positive outlooks towards policemen, Albatros (r. Xavier Beauvois) and A Cop Movie (r. Alonso Ruizpalacios), came across quite badly in the context of Black Lives Matters protests -, which combined both films whose production preceded the pandemic, along with a few titles that were shot during it, which I will focus on in this piece.

Still din A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, de Shengze Zhu
Still from A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, by Shengze Zhu.

Except for Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which was arguably the festival’s most direct title in terms of representing the pandemic both visually and thematically (and which I wrote about here), in broad strokes, one could notice two principal directions which filmmakers took in their approach of the pandemic: on the one hand, films with small casts, shot in spaces with little to no other people other than those comprising the core cast (as was the case of Celine Sciamma’s newest feature, Petite Maman), and on the other hand, films which were heavily reliant on digital means of recording, which are no longer in need of a large film crew, or even in need of proximity to their subject/s. It remains to be seen whether the latter type of films (or their specific techniques) will persist in the post-pandemic-world – some, as in the case of Zoom movies (such as Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons), will probably remain in history as simple artifacts of this era, while others, such as Shengze Zhu’s latest documentary, A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, which are inspired from several established (semi-)experimental currents, could become even more deeply rooted as a mode of praxis in art cinema. That being said, some of the films gathered in the selection, although sensibly directed before the pandemic, gain new interpretation within its context, especially in regards to digital life: as Jessica Kiang underlines in her piece for the New York Times, podcaster-turned-director Dasha Nekrasova’s debut, The Scary of the Sixty-First, a highly amusing pastiche of Giallo films based on conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein, has something of the feeling of a free fall in the Internet’s darkest, most twisted corners.

Language Lessons, actress Natalie Morales’ debut feature, is a mini-film that is intriguing especially due to its chosen premise, which perfectly accommodates the act of shooting a film during the pandemic: an online foreign language class hosted by young teacher Cariño (Morales), to which Adam (Mark Duplass) is secretly subscribed by his boyfriend, Will (Desean Terry). Although it’s based on a plot that becomes increasingly convoluted (in short, a series of personal tragedies hit the lives of the protagonists, bringing them closer together), the film has the rare quality of being carried almost exclusively by the actors, whose captivating performances are not inasmuch based on inducing the audience the feeling that they are also part of the video calls, but rather, it makes clever use of the small tics and rituals of online communication – from pre-recorded messages and cameras that are turned off, to connection problems and creative uses of household objects. On the other side, we have A River Runs…, which is a film of exteriors: composed from a series of long shots filmed from a large distance in Wuhan, the coronavirus’ first global epicenter, Shengze Zhu’s sophomore feature (after her 2019 Tiger Award winner, Present.Perfect) is a moment of artistic maturity for the filmmaker. If her first film used live-streamed images from Chinese social media platforms in a discourse that was oftentimes cynical, even borderline classist, here, the director uses a somber and respectful tone: her observational shots of the capital of Hubei are interrupted four times, at equal distance, with text-over letters addressed to people who have lost their lives in the pandemic, written by a close person (a wife, a daughter, a niece and a young friend). Which is what transforming A River Runs… (the title being a reference to the massive Yangtze River, which crosses the city of Wuhan) in the film which has the most serious overall treatment of the pandemic from the entire selection, the only one that is exclusively dedicated to the loss of life and deep personal traumas caused by the coronavirus.

The title which connects the two types of films which I previously described (and, probably, is the selection’s most formally creative offering, within the context of the pandemic) is the latest from prolific critic-turned-director Denis Côté, Hygiène sociale / Social Hygiene (winner of the Best Direction Award of the Encounters section). The film, which brings to mind the formalism of Straub-Huillet, both in terms of its predilection for long static shots, but also its usage of a heavy, almost classical rhetorical tone (and, as Serge Daney underlined in one of his essays, their preferred mode of enunciation was verbal), and of a set design which reminds of Brecht, the feature is shot in a field, with characters shouting soliloquies at each-other. The main plot? It concerns Antonin, a dandy ne’er-do-well who abandons his previous life in order to become a pickpocket, in a nod to Bresson, who successively meets with a series of important women in his life as everything seems in freefall (his sister, wife, lover, a victim and an officer of the fisc). Interrupted at times by a song of the German darkwave act Lebanon Hanover, Social Hygiene is more than a simple exercise made during the pandemic – it’s simultaneously an intelligent, biting social critique, which is built upon the archetypal character that suddenly rejects the social contract and takes upon himself all the consequences which derive from here.

Still din Introduction, de Hong Sang-Soo.
Still from Introduction, by Hong Sang-Soo.

Two other films that use a small cast, both shot in black-and-white and hailing from Eastern Asia: Introduction (dir. Hong Sang-Soo, winner of the Best Screenplay Award) and Jai Jumlong / Come Here (dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong), two films that are both symptomatic to their respective directors’ distinctive styles, but which also operate within the context of a small production. In the first of the two, we have a narration that is characteristic for the late, monochrome period of the great South Korean filmmaker: a series of encounters, set in three parts, between characters that haven’t seen each-other for a long time, marred by personal failings and broken expectations, and, at times, by the usage of alcohol. The pandemic is almost intangible in its first two acts, who center on lovers Youngho, a young aspiring actor, and Juwon, who is studying fashion design in Berlin, whose relationship must stand the test of becoming a long-distance one – but in the film’s final part, shot at the edge of the sea, the emptiness of the beach and its surroundings, underpinned by a few subtle lines, is a clear indication of the film’s historical setting. Although, at a first glance, Introduction seems to be a lesser title in Hong Sang-Soo’s series of variations, at a second viewing, the film’s central thesis is much more apparent: it’s a story about the sheer depths of depression and the need for affection in such times – each act finishes with a hug that Youngho shares with one of the characters. (The director’s acceptance video, which stars a young snail, is also remarkable.) A much more atypical narrative structure is at play in Jai Jumlong, which takes the classical “it was all a dream” premise and runs away with it, employing the visual logic of dreams: with characters transmogrifying their bodies, getting lost, scenes which transmute temporal and spatial locations, repetitions of the same situations and conversations. It’s futile to describe a plot that is constructed on such premises – which is acted in a small cast of only five actors, most of the scenes taking place in a stilt house at the edge of a lake – but the highlight of Suwichakornpong’s latest is its ineffable, oneiric character, one which can only be obtained through narrative means that are largely visual, and cinematic.

Finally, I cannot skip a few titles which clearly predate the pandemic, which, in this context, are not just simple bittersweet memories of the pre-Covid world, but which appear as vectors of hope for the world to which we all hope to return, one day. Between the nostalgic non-fiction No Taxi do Jack (dir. Susana Nombre), a portrait of a retiring taxi driver which is driven by a seventies-style visual aesthetic, underpinned by themes about labor rights and the effects of the Estado Novo dictatorship, and Mr. Bachmann and His Class (dir. Maria Speth), a film stretched across four hours which traces the pedagogical techniques of an elderly teacher heading a multicultural class, the warm familiarity of the pre-pandemic closeness and of direct interactions is hard not to think of. But what is arguably the most impressive of all is Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze’s epic What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, a sublime demonstration of the sheer powers of extra-diegetic narration and of montage: although, at a figurative level, many images used in the film could be considered documentary in nature (such as the scenes with children playing football, or those of Kutaisi’s stray dogs), the film’s plot is mostly constructed from the narrator’s voice-over interventions, read by Koberidze himself. Like in a folk tale, he recounts the story of two ill-fated lovers, Lisa and Giorgi, who fall under a spell the very night before they’re due to meet each-other, cursed to change appearances and no longer recognize the other, and to forget their trades; even so, the small town’s life slowly makes them unknowingly gravitate towards each other once more. The narrator doesn’t focus solely on the plot progression (be it the verbal or visual one), but oftentimes stops to offer poetical introspections: such as the moment in which he laments his incapacity to do nothing else but cinema in times of global unrest; but, instead of letting himself fall victim to the idea that his preoccupations are useless and frivolous in such an era, Koberidze ends the film by fully owning his central thesis: indeed, stories and cinema can truly save the world, even if only in small situations.

Still din What do We See When We Look at The Sky?, de Alexander Koberdize.
Still from What do We See When We Look at The Sky?, by Alexandre Koberdize.

Main image: Hygiène sociale / Social Hygiene, by Denis Côté.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.