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Australians make a splash at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Helen Barlow reports, while Charlize Theron thumps her director and Jack Nicholson consoles his friend Diane Keaton. But the awards are still subject to Festival-ism.

After a star-studded year in 2003 with Festival entries Chicago, The Hours and Adaptation producing some of Hollywood's biggest stars as guests, this year's 54th Berlin Film Festival stuck to more serious minded movies. And even if Nicole Kidman has pulled out of publicity chores for the opening film, Cold Mountain - she hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar after all, 
though was officially busy completing her latest movie, Birth - a seven-months-pregnant Cate Blanchett assumed the responsibility as Australia's major representative, for Ron Howard's western, The Missing.

Blanchett, who plays a healer and rancher, told how she learned to ride a horse for the first time for the film, and that she usually becomes obsessive about her characters' pursuits. For her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Blanchett also took up golf. Even if she will probably indulge in both pursuits when she returns to Australia following the birth of her second child - to make Little Fish with The Boys' director Rowan Woods - she has declined her husband's offer to buy her a horse. "It would be difficult to bring back to London," she laughed.

"Berlin sojourn"

As for her attending the festival in her heavily pregnant state, she quipped, "Of course I wouldn't be here if I wasn't allowed to fly." She actually found her Berlin sojourn restful. "With my two-year-old son at home I got more sleep last night than I've had in a year."

The other Ozzie content came in the form of three short films. Paul McDermott's The Scree, about five friends who set off in a small boat and one of them dies a terrible death, was part of the festival's short film competition, but it was James Brown's Fugue, screened in the mostly non-competitive Panorama section, that took out an award--the New York Academy Scholarship. The graduate film of Brown, who studied at Sydney's University of Technology, Fugue focuses on the precepts of a musical fugue while observing different aspects of a man's sexuality via his five lovers. Cannes winner Glendyn Ivin's Cracker Bag, was also part of the sidebar Kinderfilmfest (films about children).

Of course it was the stars who attracted all the attention in Berlin, even if the ever-beautiful Charlize Theron was surprisingly unadorned. She was clearly pleased with her Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, though was not making a big thing of it. When a German journalist told the film's director Patty Jenkins that he had never imagined Theron as a bloated "highway hooker", the director retorted "Really?" and earned a thump from her actress seated alongside her. 

The idea of casting Theron had actually come to Jenkins, who had previously worked as a camerawoman, when she woke up in the middle of the night and saw The Devil's Advocate on television. "There were shots taken of Charlize that never would have been taken of a vain actress, and the idea of casting her never left me after that."

Jack Nicholson amused the crowd as usual, talking about the popularity of "his big fat ass" at the press conference for Something's Gotta Give, while Diane Keaton - all in red including her gloves - began to crumble and cry, Annie-Hall style, under the weight of the media's attention. "This is a tough crowd," she said. "I'm so tired, I think I'm going insane." Nicholson put his arm around his old friend, saying, "It's alright honey."

With more world premieres than usual, the films in the Berlin program were more difficult to predict, though most encapsulated a political theme. Apart from focusing on the burning local Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli director Eytan Fox's Walk on Water is a commercial movie with humour, friendships and love, set against some of the most stunning images of the 
Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea. Israel's leading actor, the blue-eyed and handsome Lior Ashkenazi is a Mossad agent and consummate killer who is sent to track down and kill an old Nazi convicted of war crimes who has never been caught-only he becomes closer to the man's peace-loving German grandchildren than he might ever have imagined.

" breakthrough performance"

Norwegian director Han Petter Moland's subtly filmed Beautiful Country, focusing on the plight of a Vietnamese refugee trying to find his former GI father (Nick Nolte) in America, is bound to have some resonance for Australians, because of its tragic depiction of the so-called boat people. The film features a breakthrough performance from American-born Vietnamese actor, Damien Nguyen, who plays a downtrodden young man who is oversized and treated as an outcast in his homeland, yet who develops an incredible determination to find somewhere he belongs. Also impressive is the Chinese-born, Los Angeles-based Bai Ling (Red Corner, Anna and The King) who has no less than six films awaiting release, including the final episode in the Star Wars trilogy. She looked very (edgy) Berlin in her self-designed hot pink micro-mini skirt, black fishnets and stilettos and whooped it up for the photographers.

Juliet Binoche looked more classical in her Prada velvet jacket and Lanvin gown during her brief overnight stint in Berlin. The actress felt so strongly about her role as a journalist covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in John Boorman's South Africa-set Country of My Skull, that she had flown over from the San Francisco set of her current film, Bee Season, where she plays Richard Gere's wife. Despite Boorman's and Binoche's good intentions however, the film was not well received by critics.

Patrice Leconte's latest movie, Intimate Strangers, found admirers amongst lovers of a more understated cinema. With its story of a woman who walks into the office of a tax man, believing him to be a psychiatrist, and she spills her emotions to him anyway, the slow-burning romance was compared to last year's sleeper hit Secretary. It stars Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Bonnaire, another amazingly well-preserved and beautiful French acting talent.

Process, starring Beatrice Dalle and Guillaume Depardieu, has been one of the more controversial films at the Festival - not the least because of its story of a woman's eventual (11 minute) suicide, but because it features a three-way sex scene. While that film is still to be seen, Catherine Breillat's latest, Anatomy of Hell, based on her own novel Pornocratie, about a gay man who spends four nights with a broken-hearted woman, searching for an answer to the question: Why are men so weak? has mostly been ignored. The film, which stars Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi (from Breillat's 1999 Romance) is self-indulgent French tripe.


After the awards were handed out at the Berlin Film Festival on the Saturday night (Feb. 14, 2004) one had the impression that the jurors wanted to give the top prize, the Golden Bear, to a German film - Head On - since last year it probably should have gone to the homegrown hit Good bye, Lenin! - instead of Michael Winterbottom's In This World. Yet this is the way of Festivals. In Cannes 2003 Denys Arcand's Oscar-nominated The Barbarian Invasions should 
have taken the coveted Palme d'Or, but at least when Gus Van Sant's Elephant came out of the blue to win, it was deemed an innovative piece of film-making.

The Berlin win for Head On (not to be confused with the Australian film starring Alex Dimitriadis) rather than being a landmark decision as the first German film to win the coveted Golden Bear since Stammheim in 1986, is simply the result of the tastes of an eclectic jury headed by Frances McDormand and including directors like Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf and Italy's Gabriele Salvatores, whose films rarely make it to Australian shores. The Oscars, which are voted on by everyone doing the same job, do seem a little fairer.

So increasingly at festivals, there are the films that win the prizes and then there are the films the public gets to see. If audiences were giving out the prize this year in Berlin they probably would have voted for Ken Loach's interracial romance Ae Fond Kiss, the British director's most heart-warming story since Raining Stones and his most commercial film ever. Telling of an ultra cute Pakistani Musilm boy from Glasgow (Atta Yaqub) who meets a vivacious Irish school teacher (Eva Birthistle), the film features hot emotional sex (a Ken Loach first!) but then family and work-related pressures threaten to pry them apart. Yaqub already has an American agent, while Birthistle is currently a hit in her previous Irish movie, Timbuktu, which opened the Dublin Film Festival last week.

"luxury tax"

The other festival favourite was Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, the sequel to the director's Before Sunrise which reunites Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Paris nine years after their Vienna one night stand. The pair have both thinned down a little in the intervening years and Hawke looked particularly haggard in Berlin, not only because he had recently completed a 
play in New York but because of his break-up with Uma Thurman. The media focus on their relationship is a kind of "luxury tax" he has to pay to do the job he loves, he said.

There was no dissension regarding Berlin's best actress Silver Bear, as few can dispute Charlize Theron's remarkable effort transforming herself into the convicted and executed serial killer, Aileen Wuornos in Monster. The surprise here was that Theron had to share her award with Columbian newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno, the star of the US-Columbian production, Maria Full of Grace, whose unblemished, fullfaced, wide-eyed beauty makes her perfect 
for the role of a naïve 17-year-old who tries to escape her tough life outside of Bogota by becoming a drug runner.

What differs here from a film like Traffic is that we get to see how young women - in fact it's Columbians of all shapes and ages - ingest balls of cocaine and try to remain calm while feeling extremely bloated as they are confronted by American boarder police. What Monster and Maria Full of Grace have in common is that they are average films about extraordinary women in horrific real-life circumstances. The clearly talented Sandino Moreno, who resembles a young Salma Hayek but with the advantage of height, will have a big future.

What seemed most unfair at the awards was that French actor Jean-Pierre Darrousin (The Taste of Others, Marie Jo and Her Two Loves) went away empty handed for Red Lights, the kind of film the French do so well only they rarely manage to these days. It tells of a weak man slowly going off the rails as he drives to pick up his children accompanied by his self-assured businesswoman wife, played by Carol Bouquet. When they are separated after an argument they come into contact with a murderer escaped from a nearby prison, who threatens their very existence.

"the best actor prize"

Ultimately the best actor prize went to Daniel Hendler for his Buster Keaton-style performance in the Argentinian film, Lost Embrace, and the film also took out the Silver Bear (second prize). It tells the story of a Jewish man of Polish ancestry who struggles amidst the poverty in Argentina and pines to return to Europe and to be reunited with his father who lives in Israel.

Head On, like Ae Fond Kiss, is a romance focusing on second generation immigrants. Set amidst Germany's Turkish community in Hamburg, it's directed by the German-born Turk, Fatih Aikin, and to its credit, the film's ability to oscillate between terror and comedy allows it to avoid the stolid nature of so many German films - that is like Night Songs, the most booed film in Berlin. At the film's press conference, director Romuald Karmakar (The Deathmaker) was up in arms declaring to journalists that watching so many American films is affecting their ability to understand his brand of cinema.

Another perceived festival flop was The Final Cut starring Robin Williams as a man who edits memory chips in people's brains so that their families and the rest of the world only remember the good bits. Williams naturally made up for what the film lacked-and it wasn't his performance-by turning it on for the crowd.

"I would like to cut bits out of my own life, like the years I was drinking. But then again I can't remember them anyway."

Christian Bale attended the festival to present the Panorama sidebar entry The Machinist, the best film he has made since American Psycho, he said. Looking even beefier than he did as Patrick Bateman - since he is preparing for his upcoming role as Batman - the Welsh actor explained that he likes to transform himself for his parts. He literally starved himself for his role 
of a guilt-stricken man in The Machinist, so that he is rendered almost unrecognisable. Weight gain might have been transforming in the case of Theron and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, but the emaciated form of Bale in this stylish monochrome film is at times difficult to watch.

Most popular in the Panorama section was Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon and the film justly took out the Fipresci Critics prize for that section. Head On, incredibly, was voted best Competition entry by the critics as well, but whether such an intrinsically German-Turkish story can be appreciated by international audiences is in great doubt.

Published February 19, 2004

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Charlize Theron in Monster

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