The joy (and pain) of the physical, at an in-person film festival in Berlin

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BERLIN – What is your strategy during a nasal swab antigen test? Personally, I look up to the right as the technician inserts the little wand, either affecting a look of nonchalance or pretending to have been struck by a very original thought. I know others make pointless chatter, and at least one reviewer colleague has made a habit of looking deep into the eyes of the tester. It’s a pandemic: you get your kicks where you can.

At the Berlin International Film Festival – which announced its winners on Wednesday but continues with public screenings until February 20 – members of the press in attendance had ample opportunity to hone their picking technique. Compulsory testing every 24 hours – even for boosted ones – was part of a set of restrictions that organizers of the festival, known as the Berlinale, agreed to so it could go ahead as a physical event.

There have been complaints. But whenever anyone complained about the new ticket reservation system or was exasperated by the Escher-inspired exit routes, which always seemed to involve multiple flights of stairs uphill, I found myself thinking, “Treat with that.” Or sometimes, less charitably: “Suck it up”.

The plaintiffs’ category error is to compare this low-attendance edition with Before Times Berlinales. The real comparison is with last year’s online version, which debuted with a bigger selection of films but didn’t feel like a festival at all. Consider this solitary experience as an alternative and the stairs, seat hassles and swabs become a small price to pay.

And no matter how deep your tester probes, it could hardly be as invasive as the public colonoscopy endured in willfully outraged Peter Strickland’s “Gourmet Flux,” one of the event’s first hyped titles. Surely the most resolute evocation of the discomfort of suppressing flatulence to secure a place in a major festival, Strickland’s film was only rivaled by François Ozon’s festival opener “Peter von Kant” for a fun and garish aesthetic adorning an eerily throwaway story. Ozon’s film amusingly pulls off its trick of layering details from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s biography onto a gendered reworking of Fassbinder’s 1972 classic “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” without ever really justifying why.

The single-location “Peter von Kant” film is one of many Berlinale films that bears the hallmark of filming under pandemic conditions. “Fire,” which (incredibly) earned Claire Denis her first Best Director award at a major film festival, is another. Here, Juliette Binoche plays a woman torn between two lovers (or between “the two sides of the blade”, as the film’s most evocative international title puts it). If it doesn’t achieve Denis’ highest watermarks, it’s at least notable for the way it acknowledges the pandemic without making it the subject of the film.

Quentin Dupieux’s highly enjoyable “Incredible But True” takes an oblique approach, not directly referencing coronavirus restrictions, but creating inescapable parallels in what is essentially a time travel film. Witty and unassumingly deep, it’s a stark contrast to Bertrand Bonello’s chaotically indulgent “Coma,” which involves confined navel-gazing of a nature bordering on the incomprehensible. It received an extremely divided reception, represented by the guy next to me leaving angrily halfway through and the guy in front of me jumping to his feet shouting “Bravo!” at the end.

Two lesser Asian titles also take place in the time of coronavirus, without being overwhelmed by pandemic paranoia. Hong Sangsoo’s ‘The Novelist’s Film’ is another deceptively airy slice of life from the Korean director, earning him – a perennial winner at the Berlinale – the Grand Prix runner-up. The idea this makes of festival jury president M. Night Shyamalan a de facto member of “the Hong hive” is remarkable to anyone familiar with their respective works – the kind of thought that is useful to have for hitting you when you have your nose rubbed and want to look haughtily away.

The aptly named Japanese gem “Small, Slow But Steady” also featured masks, though here we note the difficulties they present for lipreaders. The beautifully absorbing story of a deaf boxer whose beloved gym is about to close, Sho Miyake’s moving drama is miniature in every way except emotional impact. Its bittersweet main idea, about a precious place facing its imminent end, is written in bigger and bolder colors in Carla Simón’s ‘Alcarràs’, which won the Golden Bear, the most high distinction of the festival.

“Alcarràs” follows the windy and sunny fortunes of the Solé family, from the Catalonia region of Spain, during the last harvest of the family peach orchard before demolition. It’s a charming, talkative and life-filled title, with irresistible performances from its non-professional, all-ages ensemble cast. Her triumph here means that it is the third time in a row, after Cannes and Venice, that the highest distinction of a major European festival goes to a woman for her second film.

But despite all its sunshine and its sad and courageous wisdom, “Alcarràs” was, for me, surpassed by a much more wintery competition title. “Rimini” by Ulrich Seidl is an uncompromising drama, coldly provocative, priceless, it’s a shame. But that its star, Michael Thomas, playing a stranded club singer in an off-season Italian beach town, was not specifically acknowledged is more or less a crime. My other favorite of the competition, Natalia López Gallardo’s remarkable debut feature, “Robe of Gems”, won the Jury Prize. But otherwise, as has been the case since the inauguration of the Encounters sidebar in 2020, many of the most interesting titles ended up there rather than in the main competition.

In particular, Jöns Jönsson’s “Axiom” is a clever examination of the psychology of a compulsive liar. And best of all – in this section, this festival and, for me, this year so far – there is Cyril Schäublin’s utterly singular ‘Unrest’, a film that is definitely unclassifiable, unless you don’t have a category reserved for “playful and otherworldly tales of horology”. and anarchism in 1870s Switzerland.

“Unrest” was the most emotional film I’ve seen in Berlin, at least until I physically transported myself to the city’s planetarium to watch Liz Rosenfeld’s experimental “White Sands Crystal Foxes.” The film itself is a rather infuriatingly crushed work of art, but the experience was a bit transcendent. Lying under a 360 degree domed projection, suspended amidst cascading images, I felt pleasantly disembodied. Later, I realized how strange it was to yearn to return to the real world, just to better escape it again.

To that end – escapism – the liveliest section of this year’s Berlinale was undoubtedly the terrific retrospective titled ‘No Angels’ and featuring 27 Hollywood comedies from Golden Age, each starring Mae West. , Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard. The actresses’ big hits, like “My Little Chickadee”, “His Girl Friday” and “My Man Godfrey” were there, but this explosion of selection also unearthed lesser known but no less gratifying titles. “Four’s a Crowd,” featuring Russell alongside Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is one, as is “Lady By Choice,” in which Lombard plays a come-good showgirl who “adopts” a fake mother as publicity stunt. Retreating to a world of slimy comedy might just be the best way to massage the troubles of the real thing.

Then again, as the days passed and the stairs seemed to get longer, it became clear that the real-life irritations were an integral part of what we had missed so much during last year’s remote edition. . At a public screening, a couple began a loud argument with an usher when she told them they had to leave an empty seat between them. I was annoyed by them. And then I remembered that I was thrilled to be able to be annoyed by other physically annoying physical humans in a physical place. “Suck it,” I wanted to tell them. But also “I love you”.

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