Berlin Film Festival Serves Up Toxic Masculinity

A biergarten of blood sausage

BERLIN–In a week when Harvey Weinstein became a convicted sex offender, the Berlin Film Festival dished up such a biergarten of toxic masculinity it gave new meaning to the term blood sausage.

An oblivious French lothario knocks up and abandons his first-love sweetheart, among other trampled relationships, in septuagenarian Philippe Garrel’s nudity-laden anti-romance The Salt of Tears. Willem Dafoe wanders the landscape of his soul trying to reconcile his past relationships, including marriage to a bitter ex-wife, in Abel Ferrara’s hallucinogenic rumination Siberia. Emasculated TSA agent Ben Whishaw has a mental meltdown, bites off the rim of his drinking glass and goes on a bank-robbing spree in Aneil Karia’s harrowing Surge.

And an apparatchik interrogator shoves an empty cognac bottle into a woman’s vagina, in DAU. Natasha, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s grueling shrug-emoji look at life in Stalinist Russia. If the film is punishingly unpleasant, it’s mainly because watching non-professional women actually getting drunk, vomiting, and having sex feels so brutally, causally misogynistic.

Jeremy Irons’ Mea Culpa

How apt, then, that Jury President Jeremy Irons started the festival’s Day One jury press conference by reading a prepared statement renouncing a handful of years-old comments he made about a trio of topics: women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

“I wish I didn’t have to take up time with this, but I don’t want it to continue as a distraction from the Berlinale,” said Irons, his voice always and forever invoking Scar from The Lion King.

He went on to refute and apologize for statements he had already refuted and apologized for. Among them was the fact that he had signed a petition in 2009 supporting Roman Polanski, whose name coincidentally also popped up this past weekend when the longtime fugitive pedophile prompted walkouts after winning Best Director at the Césars, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Irons had also claimed in 2013 that same-sex marriage “could debase what marriage is” and in 2016 reportedly said that woman should have a right to abortion but that “the church is right to say it’s a sin.” Not particularly woke, and also not especially surprising for a 71-year-old straight white man.

He then concluded by saying these three human rights were “essential steps towards a civilized and humane society for which we should all continue to strive.” Well-said, Irons. “I hope that’s put my past comments to bed,” he added. Umm…bed?

The Dopplespitze goes 50/50

Sexual equality is now paramount on the festival circuit, and Berlin is doing its best. This year is the festival’s first under new leadership, after the 18-year reign of former director Dieter Kosslick, as well as its inaugural one with a dual director, otherwise known on Postdamer Platz as a doppelspitze. The two heads allow for equal gender representation, in this case artistic director Carlo Chatrian, and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek.

Last year, Berlin signed the 50/50 by 2020 gender parity pledge that also included Cannes and Venice striving for equal representation in both the management and the film selections. Now that it’s actually 2020, though, the competition lineup fell far short of that 50/50 auteurist split. True, it included Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but both films had already debuted at other festivals. Maybe that 2020 goal was too aggressive: during a panel discussion, the movement wisely rebranded itself as 50/50 for the Future.

My Salinger Year

Berlin

Another head-scratching trend emerged: male directors telling female tales. The Berlinale opened with My Salinger Year, Philippe Falardeau’s wan, affectionate adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about her time at a prestigious, past-its-prime New York literary agency. Margaret Qualley plays the wide-eyed Joanna, eager to become a writer herself but cowed into an entry-level position as assistant to an ossified boss Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). Her main job is to politely answer the fan mail for “Jerry,” otherwise known as legendary recluse J.D. Salinger. She brushes up against his crusty wisdom, her plucky resolve melts Margaret’s steely defenses, and life lessons ensue. It’s the lite Devil Wears Prada, an agreeable biopic that’s bitchy but never vicious and a sweet chronicle of what other memoirists might call The Year That Changed Everything.

“This is a movie that’s very much about women’s experiences, a mentorship between two woman and a dual coming of age story about two women. You don’t see that that often,” explained Raskoff at the film’s press conference. She also raved about Falardeau, who stocked his production crew with women and who spent time with Raskoff as part of his process adapting the material. “Even though she was talking about something that happened in New York in her 20s, and she was a woman, I could relate to a lot of it,” he said.

The Woman Who Ran

Also getting in touch with his feminine side was Hong Sang-soo, whose light drama The Woman Who Ran won him the award for Best Director. A gentle look at emotional volatility, pretty much just like his two dozen other films, Hong’s latest sports his signature chatty mise-en-scene as it follows a restless married woman who visits some old friends in a small town. Those women have their own problems, not least the clingy men who keep ringing their doorbells with unreasonable requests or lingering romantic attachments. Those men, by the way, always have their backs to the cameras. Because men suck! There’s a pedestal elevation of the opposite sex in Hong’s work that feels downright self-flagellating, which is maybe why, especially this year, the Berlinale jury felt it was prize-worthy.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Berlin
Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn in NEVER, RARELY, SOMETIMES, ALWAYS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

If you want a story about a woman, just ask a woman storyteller. Eliza Hittman’s devastating Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a working-class Pennsylvanian teen who buses up to New York for a secret abortion. On its surface, the plot details are positively pedestrian, with no melodramatic twists or third-act revelations. What makes this pro-life tragedy so potent are the fine-grain chauvinistic details that Hittman captures, from the oblivious men to the hyper-attuned women. This is observational drama at its most searing. Over the weekend, it walked away with the Silver Bear, Berlin’s runner-up prize.

There Is No Evil Wins the Golden Bear

The top-prize Golden Bear went to Mohammad Rasoulof’s There is No Evil, an Iranian film that debuted towards the end of the festival and missed out on all the opening-weekend sturm und drang. That distance might have served it well, since the 150-minute quartet of short films was the director’s roundelay condemnation of his government’s efforts enforcing the death penalty. Rasoulof is living under a lifetime filmmaking ban, which he clearly flouted in order to make this portmanteau statement, and he was unsurprisingly forbidden to visit Berlin.

How refreshing, or possibly revealing, that Berlin’s main award went to a movie that didn’t focus on male-female relations but on the injustice of capital punishment. I guess the only thing that trumps Time’s Up is when you’re literally talking about when your time is up.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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