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  • Christian Hain

Berlinale 2018 – The Films. Day 2: The Heiresses, Damsel, Black 47


Day Two, 15 February

Honest now: A film promising “lesbian prison action”, you probably expect to be... different than The Heiresses. Better don’t do a Google search for these keywords, or not right now.

The characters are different from what you usually see in a movie, too. They live in an unidentified South American country, and it’s almost a women-only film which makes the fact that the director is male (no, I don’t have any information about his sexual preferences) all the more surprising. This is a film about eighty-year old lesbians, one of them the “heiress” of a colonial manor, and her partner the former housemaid who goes to jail for some unspecified “debt”, or “fraud”, most probably connected to the state of affairs. Furniture and paintings are up for sale (when was the last time you’ve seen potential buyers inquiring whether or not the desired TV “has a remote control” – and the answer is “no”?), the heritage won't last much longer.

Enter libertad. The liberation of the suppressed housewife now takes place in a homosexual setting. The dominant partner away, she learns to drive the Mercedes herself, even starts a private taxi business, and falls in love with another (potentially bisexual, or only straight and adventurous) girl. The partner’s release is not a happy surprise for everyone. And the ending is open. The acting could be better - it's exaggerated, and often you imagine the director's voice: "now look like this, now talk like that, aaaand: action!" -, but not all of them are professionals. It’s a slow moving, much drawn out, and everyone will agree to this: a true festival, film. But no winner. And that’s my prediction.

The prologue might well be the best thing about Damsel: Absurd humour mingles with a disillusioned view on America. Seeing a bench and a bus/coach–stop, you wonder: “Is this Forrest Gump in the Midwest?” The answer is “No.” Damsel is a Western, and judging from landscape and climate rather set in Washington State than Southern California. Classic scenes, seen countless times before (“waking of the drunk cowboy”) build only part of the atmosphere. More importantly, old America appears as a freak show - forget all about the anarchic vision of 1970s Spaghetti westerns, that was no less a caricature of reality. The genre always featured “time travellers” with language, jokes, and morals contemporary to the filmmaking, on their trip to a free country of unlimited possibilities. White man is lost, he no longer leads, and it needs a woman to take his place, a damsel who outbraves them all. Scenes and new characters succeed each other in ever new variations of this basic trope. Unfortunately, the filmmakers could not quite decide, whether they wanted to do another Kill Bill, or Blazing Saddles 2. Slapstick and screams share equal parts in the result.

Note: If a director demands his cast to assert every five minutes how very beautiful the female lead is, something's probably not quiet right about the claim. (Marketing for Dummies, first chapter.) Waiting all the time for Clint Eastwood to discard the weaklings, or Charles Bronson to give that damsel a good spanking, I hesitated: Would this be the first Berlinale film I’d walk out of? In the end, it was another premiere: Booings drowned out the cordial applause. It restored my faith in humanity, to a degree. That one actor bearing a (very) slight resemblance to a balder Woody Harrelson is not bad, but Robert Pattison's the name on the posters, whose character does not make it halfway through the film and - ups, sorry: Spoiler!

You know the meme: “Still a better love story than Twilight”...

Prediction: You’re not serious?

Later, finally, my kind of film. Lance Daly’s Black 47 is also a Western; well, sorts of. There are great landscapes, too! Set in 1847 during the (/another) Irish genocide, a soldier returns from deployment in British India, where he trained with the natives, Rambo style, to find his family starved or executed by the same army he’s been serving in. What better choice than to draw the Machete, or a Sikh dagger, and doing what a man needs to do, in best Death Wish tradition? Perfect. What’s wrong with people who walk out of this? The vengeance story eventually leads to a dream of America, when it was still an utopia, a haven for the free. The actors do a great job, particularly Tilda Swinton – er, no: that’s Freddie Fox as the young English captain, and he well deserves a Best Supporting Bear. - Scrap that, I just noticed, Black 47 is filed under “competition-out-of-competition”, that Berlinale madness again...

Don’t get me wrong: This is not ironic, I honestly think, Black 47 is a magnificent movie! It helps to explain the later Troubles. What an outstanding example of great curating, showing this immediately after Damsel (and The Heiresses?!?). Complementary read: Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729).

Prediction: Oh please! But yeah, “in-yet-out-of-...”

Berlinale, 15-25 February 2018

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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