Berlinale 2019 - Day 7: Spanish Lesbians, Artists and Jews in Paris. "Elisa and Marcela", "Varda by Agnès", and "Synonyms"

 

(Berlin.) The last - and only - time, I’ve seen Agnès Varda was at the opening of her gallery show in Paris a couple of years ago. It was the single most VIP infested gallery opening I’ve ever attended, in Paris or elsewhere, with artists, politicians (whom I didn't recognize but French friends would eagerly point out), and Monsieur Pinot (jr.) with his wife, a certain Mexican actress, Selma... something.

And now, she's come to Berlin. Varda by Agnès is the multitalented artist’s latest - and possibly last – film. It has been co-produced by Kering SA (that’s Pinault), Cartier Foundation (that’s Pinault), and the MOMA (that’s not Pinault, but they are definitely close). In 2018, she’s had another gallery show, and another one at Cartier Foundation. Her market value will hardly rise any higher, even when she finally retires. I don’t mean to suggest anything by this, I’ll just leave it here, make of it what you want.

 

Varda by Agnès is an auto-biopic: Whereas most contemporary artists are not exactly keen on talking about their art, of explaining it to the uninitiated broad public and least of all in words that those actually understand, “la Varda” is different. An exciting, fascinating, marvellous personality still – and more than ever – at the age of ninety, she enjoys to talk, to engage with people, to enthuse them for (her) art. Hardly anybody in her vicinity, or only watching her on screen, can escape her charisma. Cynics will say, this is all you ever need to succeed in contemporary art, but in her case it’s even more unfair than usually. Having been a photographer, a filmmaker, and a visual artist, and having greatly mastered all these disciplines, Varda likes herself, and her work. This latest film mostly consists of recording from a lecture she gave at a film school and a talk at Cartier Foundation in 2018, with additions from earlier interviews. Talking about her career, the actors and artists she’s enjoyed working with, Belmondo, de Niro, Jane Birkin,... as well as her inspirations and intentions. Intimate insights into her "mode de travail", how she decided on some detail, or why and when she changed a project completely - by chance or genius. You'll enjoy listening to her, and it all seems so simple and so logical. 

 

If there can be any valid objection, then that the film is too long. Not extremely long per se, one hundred and fifteen minutes, but as it follows the same concept in many repetitions, “then I did this, and this is how I did it, and then I did that, and this is how I did that”, it feels a bit like watching all her films, then visit a retrospective art show, in a row and without a break. It’s a pity, because a lot will get lost in this heap of information, it seems hardly possible to remember more than a fraction. In the end – and the film simply blends out, as the artist disappears in a fog just like she’s telling us, without any credits that have all been there in the opening credits already, including everybody who’s been helping or is “only” close to her -, you might be left with only one lasting impression: Agnès Varda is a great (but not “legendary, because I’m still alive!” as she insists) artist. 

 

WArts Verdict: Maybe they should auction that Bear. At Christie’s (that’s Pinault), where else. Cannot imagine all jury members being into contemporary art, though.

 

 

New year, new Spanish-speaking lesbians. After Las Hereditas in 2018, this year the carpet gets rolled out for Isabel Coixet’s not Aimée and Jaguar, but: Elisa and Marcella.

There have been some protests beforehand by art house cinema associations, and not against the film itself, but against it being a Netflix original production. A streaming service that you use on your proper (“Smart”) TV, computer or cell phone, is different from a traditional cinema (those two rows of single seats in every hall of that multiplex where showing large parts of the Berlinale selection, are almost as comfortable as watching at home, though), and a film festival should only care for the latter, or so they say. They really do seem worlds apart, “Netflix and chill” and a place to meet on neutral ground, somewhere to go and be forced to focus only on the film instead of merely following it in the background while switching between twenty-two other apps. The “controversy” might have been the reason for the heightened security and police presence today, which would be ridiculous.

 

The story of Elisa&Marcela is based on historic events around the fin de siècle (the next-to-last!), when a woman in drag married another woman in La Coruña. For a long time - the first half approximately, but I didn’t check the time -, you think to know exactly, how Señora Coixet developed the script. At night, alone in her bed, the lights out – she wouldn’t be the first director to turn his or her masturbation fantasies into a movie. It’s basically a collection of lesbian soft porn clips, interrupted by one cliché after another. A convent school with grumpy nuns, an evil father and a slightly more understanding mother but both so very poor and rustic, a swim in the river, &ct. Were this a film about gay men, the cast would probably look like the Village People and the setting would be a prison or a steel mill. And sailors!

 

Once the couple is married, it gets better, a little at least. They start making economies for a move to Buenos Aires, where people are supposedly more gullible, but their secret is discovered before putting that plan into action. Having escaped to Portugal, the Spanish authorities continue to pursue them, and they go to prison indeed – the female cell block for both of them, thanks to the prosecutor’s benevolence. The province governor is on their side too, and if only to spite the Spanish. In the end, the couple is allowed to set sail.

Quite obviously, this film is one long commercial for gay “marriage”, the message: "it only regards them". Life could be so good for Elisa and Marcela, would the world just leave them in peace. - But do they leave the world in peace? It never becomes clear after all, why exactly they insist on a marriage, they reject the traditional society they live in and literally declare they don’t believe in anything taught at that convent school – then why get married in a church, for God's sake???

 

You may consider the film critique part finished here, and skip the following lines. But that question hints at a more profound paradox (or a self-contradiction in “progressive” thought): The inclusion of homosexuals that much exceeds mere tolerance today is mostly promoted by the same people who fervently despise every “non-materialist nonsense”. (And let’s for a moment ignore how the greatest motivation for this inclusion is that homosexuals constitute an exceptionally interesting demographics with great purchasing power - sports leagues adopting the rainbow flag in order to enter new markets, &ct.). But defending the aforementioned progressive worldview, one is forced to accept, that “love” is a psycho-chemical reaction caused by pheromones signalling a great probability of healthy offspring, which makes homosexuality an error of nature, an illness or disability (a psycho-pathological variant of infertility); any talk of “homosexual love” as opposed to temporary sexual attraction thus becoming meaningless. The alternative would be to accept a metaphysical definition which justifies marriage, but leads to the very society and its institutions that have priorly been dismissed. Let’s stop here.

 

Back to the movie: Does it indeed only regard them? Before that marriage, Marcella casually lets a woodcutter impregnate her and later, in prison, gives birth to a girl. When they leave Europe for good, that daughter is staying with the benevolent prosecutor and his barren wife, that farewell scene is really dragged out. Marcella won’t go without imploring him to “tell her, who her mother is”. ... And her father?

 

WArts Verdict: Marrying bears still isn't legal anywhere in the word. But Netflix won’t win any just now - Berlinale doesn’t want to annoy art house cinemas that much.

 

 

Well, that’s something new: An exodus from Israel to France. Yoav, the main character of Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, “escapes” from his native Israel, a country he’s decided to loathe bitterly for no particular reason. He’s recently finished his military service, but nothing in particular has happened there to provoke his decision and strong emotions. When the film starts, he’s already arrived in his own personal dreamland over Jordan, a highly idealized version of France that he has created in his mind - or rather in its real life equivalent. He’s not immediately found milk and honey: As we make his acquaintance, Yoav owns exactly nothing (almost: there is stiil that piercing, he will make a gift of later), even his clothes are stolen while he’s taking a bath in a deserted upper class apartment. It's cold in Parisian winters, but at the very last moment, a couple living upstairs arrives to rescue his life. Thomas wants to be a writer and for now, his industrialist father provides the apartment and everything else up to his own little factory where he occasionally can play at businessman. His girlfriend, Caroline, plays oboe and men.

The following events are often absurd, willingly exaggerated, and sometimes unwillingly funny. Synonymes probably wants to be seen as a sort of disenchanting fairy tale.

Above all, it’s a self-interrogation about identity. Maybe there exists a specific Jewish paradox, a schizophrenic desire to belong and not to belong at the same time, coupled with an obsession with the own image in the mirror of others (this last point is part of other national characters, too). Wherever Yoav turns, he meets (other) Jews, from an Arab-hating security guard who gets him a job at the embassy which he won’t keep for long, to a self-professed liberator who has come to “anti-Semitic France” to yell at random people in bars and metro trains whether they've got a problem with his identity (later, he dies off-screen in an “organized fight with French neo-nazis”, but this episode is pure grotesque comedy), and potentially the visitors of an expensive night club.

 

Yoav learns, that France is not at all how he has imagined - or created - it in his dreams, and maybe that Israel does not deserve all his hatred, either. The story is partly autobiographical, Nadav Lapid recounts, how he too had no specific reasons to abandon his studies and move to Paris years ago. His scriptwriter, Haïm Lapid names Knut Hamsun(?!) and the Wandering Jew for inspirations, you can probably add a lot more writers, mostly 20th Century Americans, Roth, Bellow,... .

The film poses many questions and answers none, which is a good thing. Yoav detests Israel, he is convinced, this young state (of one of the oldest surviving cultures/ethnicities) “will die soon”. Yet does he continue to be Jewish, and is this even possible: to reject Israel - which does not equal embracing its politics, or its present borders – and still be Jewish? The same dish he’s eating every day, pasta with canned tomatoes and a drop of crème fraîche, is not only cheap, but also vegetarian and he thus evades the question “kosher or not” (what about that crème fraîche?). So does the film. There are other examples, scenes in which the protagonist might not even be honest to himself, the point being we cannot know whether he is still living to traditions, or even religious.

Yoav’s refusal to speak Hebrew, even when he is repeatedly being prompted to do so is, of course, a significant detail. The biblical tradition of words creating the world has long played an important role in Jewish culture and literature (as far as the goy writer of these lines can judge), from the Golem to Paul Auster’s City of Glass (add that to the possible influences). By not speaking the holy language, Yoah erases the – his – world. For a while, he even refuses to look at the city in order to meet its “true identity” beyond the touristic appearance.

 

WArts Verdict: A bear neither “parteth the hoof”, nor “cheweth the cud”, this award is unkosher. But who cares? 

Although raising interesting question, regarding only the film as film, the way it tells its story, it might simply be not good enough.

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