Dispatches from the 66th Berlinale:

Being 17, From the Notebook of..., A Quiet Passion

With the 66th Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) approaching its midpoint, it has become clear that the majority of the more interesting work – Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come excluded – has premiered outside of the official competition. Receiving its world premiere as a Berlinale Special presentation, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion (2016) stars Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Beginning with her sacrilegious assertion of autonomy over her own soul, and concluding with her tragic terminal illness and passing, Davies’s latest is heritage cinema only in the most basic of generic senses, or generic of senses. In the hands of the master British director, A Quiet Passion is scathingly bitter first-person cinema, with Dickinson presenting a perfect surrogate for the most poetic English filmmaker since Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain, 1942). Davies and Nixon’s Dickinson simmers with disappointment as she comes to despair that her own lack of physical attractiveness will forever prevent her from experiencing traditional romantic love. As with Gillian Anderson in the director’s The House of Mirth (2000), Nixon gives a career-best performance and Jennifer Ehle is equally outstanding (in the role of her prettier sister Vinnie), with Davies’s attentive camera capturing every minute grimace and emotive expression by the quivering actresses. Davies remains one of the great directors of actresses with A Quiet Passion. In his own comparatively low-key manner, again as in the Wharton adaptation (and following in the tradition of Japanese master director Kenji Mizoguchi), A Quiet Passion exudes high-key emotion.

A Quiet Passion also returns to the director’s early autobiographical masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), in its incorporation of photographic snapshots – here in the setting of the mid-19th century – and the corresponding frontal framings; a set of on-screening vocal performances that again remind of the earlier masterwork, among many others in the director’s corpus; a fantastical interstitial, replicating the filmmaker’s prior emphasis (Distant Voices…, The Long Day Closes) on mental experience; and circling panoramas (a.l.a. his latest, Sunset Song, 2015; it will open in Oklahoma City later this spring) that explore the director’s elegant, naturally lit spaces. Simply put, A Quiet Passion is one of the director’s supreme masterpieces, and a sure best for one of the best (if not the best) film of 2016.

The other major highlight from the past three days has been the Forum Expanded’s restored presentation of Robert Beavers’s masterwork From the Notebook of… (1971/1998), a major work of the American avant-garde made at the precise time of the form’s artistic peak in the beginning of the 1970’s. From the Notebook of… is an early instantiation of an experimental corpus that above all attends to the aesthetic properties of light and color (see Pitcher of Colored Life, 2007), with the filmmaker rhythmically opening and closing his villa shutters in a manner that references his medium’s apparatus, for example.

To these images, Beavers adds a series of his notebook pages (filmed for a variety of links and at different angles) that at once articulate the filmmaker’s astute and idiosyncratic film theory, while serving their own original pedagogical function: with these (often repeated) handwritten pages passing before the viewer, we come to a fuller awareness of our own inability to experience everything that the image has to offer, on a moment to moment basis. Indeed, it is through the film’s alternation between two competing modes of discourse – on-screen text and sensual fragments of color and light – and their very different demands on the viewer, with the former requiring a more active form of spectatorship, that Beavers help us see the poverty of our faltering perception – especially in the exhausting environment of the international film festival. That is, we often find ourselves beginning to read Beavers’s images (literally) when there is not enough time to read the script in its entirety – an effect that is reinforced by the speed with which the written text (like the images) pass before the viewers.

Though mostly I turned my attention to parallel programs during the second half of my abbreviated Berlinale – including a premiere of James Whale’s reconstructed The Road Back (1937) – I did still manage to see three further competition titles: André Téchiné’s Being 17 (2016), Danis Tanović’s Death in Sarajevo (2016), and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016). Of the three, Téchiné’s is the most accomplished: two seventeen year-old boys in the French Pyrenees (Téchiné is a native of southwestern France) move from high school feud to mutual desire when they are forced to share the same place of residence. Shot with the filmmaker’s signature naturalism, Being 17 brings a rarely screened corner of France – both geographically and vocationally (one of the supporting characters is an active serviceman) – to the cinema, while lightly calling attention to racial difference and its implications for social class. While the other two features are at least passable art house entertainments, the fact that a major masterpiece like A Quiet Passion was excluded from competition does at least call into question the criteria for the 66th Berlinale’s selections.