This article appeared in the February 17, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Fire (Claire Denis, 2022)

That the Berlinale happened in person this year was cause for joy—although joy isn’t something that you usually associate with the bleak corporate facades of Potsdamer Platz, possibly the world’s most austere festival hub. Last year, the usual late-winter program went online only, and ironically turned out to be the best in recent memory (Koberidze, Sciamma, Hamaguchi, Ruizpalacios, et cetera), benefiting—as so many festivals did last year—from the backlog of quality work created during 2020’s lockdown. Alas, the 2022 crop hasn’t been nearly as good, and in some respects, this year’s shortened Berlinale felt very much like some of the worthy but unexciting editions under former director Dieter Kosslick.

Of course, the festival’s programmers could only work with what was available after two difficult years for world cinema, with the riches of the 2020-21 feature-film stockpile apparently beginning to run dry. Hence, no doubt, a very European competition with little Asian input, not much of which was exciting or surprising (despite a dependably wry new Hong Sangsoo, The Novelist’s Film). Kamila Andini’s Indonesian film Before, Now & Then (Nana) is the story of a married woman’s liberation in the ’60s. It’s delicate, beautifully color-coordinated, altogether exquisite, which can sometimes be very much not a good thing, as in this distractingly rarefied piece. From China, there was Return to Dust by Li Ruijun (Walking Past the Future), a solid but somewhat ponderous drama about a disadvantaged farming couple enduring despite disability, the elements, and some exceptionally harsh aspects of modern Chinese capitalism. Then there was the latest from Cambodian-born Rithy Panh (who really qualifies as a French director these days), the very bizarre Everything Will Be OK. The execution is as labored as the title’s irony: it uses the same kind of rough-hewn figurines that worked so eloquently in the director’s 2013 The Missing Picture, but here the tone is one of dystopian hysteria. The film imagines an earth ruled by animals, an Orwellian device for depicting Man’s Inhumanity in a leaden and bludgeoning way, with giant statues of dictatorial hogs and a soundtrack laden with grunts and squeals. The film is remarkably ugly to look at, too—like the Chapman brothers’ Hell installation, but without the scabrous wit. It’s less an essay film than a lecture film.

Darkness and severity ruled the competition, not least in Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade (U.S. title: Fire), another collaboration with novelist Christine Angot, following Let the Sunshine In. It too stars Juliette Binoche, caught in a triangle between an openhearted Vincent Lindon (who gives the film’s best performance) and a smirkingly enigmatic Grégoire Colin. It’s often hard to know on first viewing where a Denis film will stand in her overall oeuvre. For now, I’m inclined to think that this one is somewhat minor, not least because it doesn’t really shake off the generic conventions of the French marital-crisis drama, despite interpolated discussions (via the radio show hosted by Binoche’s character) of the political condition of Lebanon and the problem of “white thinking.” And is it just me, or are those Tindersticks scores beginning to sound a little lugubriously routine?

Differently bleak was the Mexico-set Robe of Gems, a feature debut by Natalia López Gallardo, previously known as editor to Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante, and Lisandro Alonso. It was by far the most formally daring entry in competition, a narratively perplexing treatment of otherwise familiar material: gang violence, kidnapping, the gap between rich and poor. Focusing on a woman (Nailea Norvind) who moves her upper-middle-class family back to her mother’s palatial rural house, it has a dreamy, narcotized drift of a mood that has more in common with Lucrecia Martel than the directors mentioned above, although the outbursts of violence are closest to Escalante’s shock tactics. I’ll confess that I only pieced together the narrative from reading the catalog notes. Some critics felt the obscurity was a failure on Lopez’s part, but it’s consistent with her superbly crafted use of light, darkness, and textured sound, and was the most bracingly confrontational film here.

Elsewhere, you took the lightness where you could find it. It was there in abundance, alongside a deep strain of melancholy, in The Passengers of the Night by Mikhaël Hers. His last filmAmanda, boosted the visibility of a French director who had long been a well-kept secret with his moody, tender, and peripatetic ensemble dramas. Passengers is his most confident yet, a coming-of-age story in which, for once, it’s the parent who comes of age. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a newly separated woman who gets a job on a late-night radio show, while her two teenage children navigate life in 1980s Paris. Noée Abita, the discovery of Léa Mysius’s Ava, is Talulah, the goth waif whom the family befriends. The big problem is that Hers is disinclined to gaze into life’s darker areas, and skates over Talulah’s drug problems with somewhat facile discretion. Yet the performances, which include Gainsbourg at her tenderest, are genuinely moving, and Sébastien Buchmann’s warm photography beautifully evokes a certain period of Paris’s past, with archival footage neatly sewn in. Full disclosure: I lived in Paris in 1983-4, and, like some characters here, was besotted with Pascale Ogier in Full Moon in Paris, so perhaps I’m a soft touch. But fond homages to both Rohmer and Rivette complete the appeal of a film for which I’ll make an exception and use a term I generally revile: yes, The Passengers of the Night is properly life-affirming.

So too is Carla Simón’s Alcarràs, the Catalan director’s Golden Bear–winning follow-up to her Summer 1993. An ensemble drama about a family struggling to maintain their fruit farm, it crackles with energy, meticulous detail, and political rage. Also life-affirming, I suppose, albeit in a black-comedic mode, is Rimini, Ulrich Seidl’s portrait of a washed-up cabaret singer earning a few desperate Euros by serenading (and screwing) elderly admirers. It’s a typically excruciating downbeat comedy and hardly a departure for the Austrian director, but Michael Thomas, from Seidl’s differently unnerving Import Export, is majestic as an embodiment of toxic sleaze, whom you find yourself falling for even as he reveals himself to be more appalling from episode to abject episode.

Finally, the big surprise in competition was a small, tender, playful note from Paolo Taviani, going solo after the death of his brother and longtime collaborator, Vittorio. Leonora addio is implicitly a farewell to Vittorio, to whom the film is dedicated, but it’s also a return to the Tavianis’ fascination with writer Luigi Pirandello, who inspired their 1984 portmanteau Kaos. Combining historical fantasy, archival footage, and a mix of black-and-white and color stocks, the film both adapts a late Pirandello story and follows the return of the writer’s ashes to his native Sicily, with interspersed shots sampled from historic Italian cinema (Rossellini, Antonioni, Zurlini, Kaos itself). One assumes that it’s a knowing valedictory from Taviani, now 90, but who can say? Either way, it has both the lightness and the heft of some of the great late-period statements by elders like Varda, Bergman, and Oliveira.

Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for the ObserverSight & Sound, Screen Daily, and others, and teaches at the National Film and Television School.