This article appeared in the February 24, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Coma (Bertrand Bonello, 2022)

I heard the same phrase uttered again and again, in different conversations about different films, at this year’s Berlinale: “Oh, you know, it’s a little pandemic movie.” The atmosphere of this year’s festival was distinctly unlike that of the in-person edition in February 2020, and not only because of the masks, half-capacity seating, and reduced industry attendance. Back then, on the eve of what we did not yet realize would be a protracted global shutdown, those same discussions were dominated (in my experience, at least) by considerations of the epic scale, extended production timelines, and towering ambition of two of that festival’s most talked-about works: Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s sprawling DAU project and Anders Edström and C.W. Winter’s eight-hour-long The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin). I remember being fascinated by how many critics and programmers were clearly hungry for films like these—films that proclaim their own weightiness in advance, and, in the process, make a claim for the power and specificity of cinema. 

This year, I discerned a twinge of disappointment in the voices of those same people. After two plague years, with so many productions disrupted, some of the biggest names at the Berlinale presented relatively modest undertakings, whether it was Claire Denis with Both Sides of the Blade (a.k.a. Fire), the story of a love triangle, or Bertrand Bonello with Coma, an economical yet hallucinatory portrayal of the interior world of a teenage girl under lockdown. Dedicated to the director’s 18-year-old daughter via an epistolary voiceover that bookends the film, Coma is a maximalist work made under extreme constraint. It uses dolls, animations, archival footage, the infomercial format, YouTube videos, Zoom sessions, and other media across a compact 80 minutes to approximate what it feels like when all contact with the outside world is conducted exclusively through digital means. It’s not a film that calls out to be liked or enjoyed, nor does it inspire much hope for the future; a closing montage suggests that though the pandemic may end, the ongoing catastrophe of climate change remains. Yet there is something cathartic in Bonello’s refusal of comfort as he disjunctively renders the contours of a teenager’s inner life, sketching how her psyche is shaped by the strangeness and damage of a crushing present. There’s something exciting, too, in seeing a filmmaker who customarily works on a grand scale test out a more experimental, modest form.

That limitation can be generative is something that perennial Berlinale favorite Hong Sangsoo has always known, and he deploys it to especially moving and funny effect in The Novelist’s Film, a story of creativity, inspiration, and friendship that won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. But in the Forum, the noncompetitive section independently curated by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, there was nothing small about Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s Dry Ground Burning, a story of an all-female gang hustling gasoline in Sol Nascente, a favela outside Brasília. Populated by a cast of formidable nonprofessionals playing versions of themselves, the film pulses with energy as it pillages from numerous genres and mixes documentary and fiction. Another Forum highlight was Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s Jet Lag—a pandemic movie, certainly, but one that balances intimacy with an expansive exploration of migration and distance across several generations of the filmmaker’s family, articulated through texturally rich, black-and-white images shot in multiple video formats. Zheng Lu interweaves glimpses of her own life during lockdown in Graz, Austria, with her family’s earlier trip from China to Myanmar to learn about a great-grandfather who had emigrated there in the 1940s. The linearity of autobiography and genealogy shatters into nonchronological fragments that congeal around themes of loss, attachment, and displacement, held together by the filmmaker’s dexterous montage and arresting cinematography. 

The interest in the specificity of place that characterized Dry Ground Burning and Jet Lag also carried over into other Forum standouts, creating a thread of programming that offered diverse propositions concerning cinema’s cartographical possibilities. In the beautifully photographed Geographies of Solitude, Jacquelyn Mills crafts a portrait of Zoe Lucas, a woman who has lived alone for decades on Sable Island, a thin strip of sand off the coast of Nova Scotia. Mills carefully documents Lucas’s collection and classification of wildlife and detritus, prompting a reflection on the means and uses of scientific knowledge and a confrontation with ecological fragility. Dane Komljen’s languorous and transporting Afterwater takes fluidity as its guiding principle as it explores the experience of lake bathing, here an act full of spiritual power yet cleansed of any Christian associations with baptism. Divided into three partseach shot on a different format, set in a different time period, and featuring three performersKomljen’s film plunges the viewer into a sensuous encounter with bodies human and nonhuman. Afterwater invites us to do what its characters do: leave the city behind, drift, and experience the pleasures of being unmoored yet in relation to nature and each other.

Cartography is a creative and political act, as the anarchist map of the Jura valleys that features centrally in Cyril Schäublin’s terrific Unrest makes clear. This principle is also at the heart of one of my favorite films of the festival, James Benning’s The United States of America. In 1975, Benning made a 27-minute film with the same title in collaboration with Bette Gordon, in which the pair traveled across the country by car, shooting out the front windshield. In the new feature, he offers one shot for every U.S. state and territory (Puerto Rico included)—this time photographed without the framing device of the automobile—presented in alphabetical order, and occasionally accompanied by pop songs or political speeches. Viewers familiar with the filmmaker’s work will identify his trademark obsessions and references to the act of remaking, whether in the many static shots of industrial landscapes and sites that speak to U.S. history, or in images of skies and trains that recall Ten Skies (2004) and RR (2007), respectively. I never thought it would be necessary to issue a spoiler warning for a James Benning film, but in this case, it’s warranted; read no further if this sort of thing matters to you. The film’s closing title card reveals that the identifications given to each location throughout the film are false: the entire thing was shot in California. It might seem like a punch line not worth waiting 98 minutes for, but in fact, Benning’s gesture opens into fascinating questions about the particularity and exemplarity of images, the relation between picture and text, and the divergent knowledges of place. Throughout the film, there are many hints that the captions might be a lie, but depending on one’s own experience, the ability to recognize these moments will vary. Someone who once visited Valentine, Texas, for instance, might remember that there is indeed an abandoned gas station there but wonder if it is the one that appears in Benning’s film; someone unfamiliar with the town might take it as truth; a local would know for certain that what is seen and what is said conflict. Far from a wry joke, it’s a sophisticated semiotic and epistemological inquiry into what makes certain landscapes iconic, and representative of a larger territory, that also offers a critical account of the nation itself. In other words, it’s Benning in top form.  

Erika Balsom is a Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London and the author, most recently, of Ten Skies (2021, Fireflies Press).