Fourth-day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with reviews of the Russian film Dovlatov and the French Eva


68th Berlin International Film Festival

No mat­ter what you think of Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia to­day, see­ing that a film like Dovla­tov had the sup­port and fund­ing of the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment is at least a sign that things are now (cul­tur­al­ly) dif­fer­ent from 50 years ago. Times have changed, and a writer like Sergei Dovla­tov (1941–1990) — who strug­gled to have his works ap­pre­ci­at­ed in a deca­dent So­vi­et so­ci­ety that only val­ued in­of­fen­sive, up­lift­ing art — has since be­come one of the most pop­u­lar Russ­ian writ­ers of the late 20th cen­tu­ry (even if af­ter his death), which also gives his trag­ic sto­ry an iron­i­cal­ly op­ti­mistic note that tran­scends what we see on screen.

Adopt­ing a dis­creet ap­proach with ex­tend­ed shots and a cam­era that glides al­most in­vis­i­bly as it ob­serves the in­tel­lec­tu­al scene of a fog­gy Leningrad in No­vem­ber, 1971, di­rec­tor Alek­sey Ger­man in­vests in a slight­ly washed cin­e­matog­ra­phy of low­er con­trast to recre­ate the feel of this stag­nant era. It looks like the milky mist is every­where, in every room and every cor­ner of those thank­less times, de­spite the an­niver­sary of the rev­o­lu­tion be­ing cel­e­brat­ed in the coun­try. Sergei (Mi­lan Mar­ic), who used to be a prison guard, sees So­vi­et leader Leonid Brezh­nev in his dreams and can’t help but iso­late him­self from his wife, who thinks he is tal­ent­ed even with­out money.

As the Writ­ers’ Union won’t ac­cept him, and pub­lish­ers are only look­ing for works of mod­er­ate lit­er­ary de­mand (like hero­ic acts and op­ti­mistic sto­ries about oil work­ers), Sergei dreams of piña co­ladas but needs to bor­row mon­ey to buy a big Ger­man doll for his daugh­ter. With every­one re­fus­ing his works, he is forced to write about the mak­ing of a film for a fac­to­ry news­pa­per and a sub­way work­er who is also a poet. It is ex­as­per­at­ing, and Mi­lan Mar­ic does a stel­lar job show­ing how Sergei uses his cyn­i­cism and mock­ery to con­ceal a great deal of wor­ry and frus­tra­tion — and when he fi­nal­ly ex­plodes at some­one, we un­der­stand his torment.

There is a col­lec­tive feel of hope­less­ness among the pen­ni­less po­ets and writ­ers of that gen­er­a­tion as we see them drink, smoke, bor­row mon­ey from one an­oth­er and re­cite at par­ties. When they need to ob­tain for­bid­den items from the West, they re­sort to the black mar­ket. The con­trast be­tween the warmth of those par­ties and the op­pres­sive cold out­side is em­pha­sized by the light and col­or tem­per­a­ture, and there is some­thing im­mense­ly de­press­ing in see­ing Sergei’s friend Joseph Brod­sky (Ar­tur Beschast­ny) dub­bing po­et­ry for Pol­ish films, hav­ing to short­en or widen words to make them fit — which, in essence, is not so dif­fer­ent from the dub­bing of movies today.

De­spite be­ing a bit rep­e­ti­tious some­times, with lines that are ut­tered more than once and a re­dun­dant di­a­logue in the end that is only there to cre­ate “heart­felt dra­ma” (see the irony?), Dovla­tov asks us about the pur­pose of writ­ing if you won’t get pub­lished. As some­one points out, no­body thought any­thing of the im­pres­sion­ists in their time; and while it is trag­ic that most au­thors are only rec­og­nized when they are not alive any­more to col­lect the fruit of their art, it’s at least won­der­ful to see that there are peo­ple to­day who can ap­pre­ci­ate a film like this.


The first scene of Eva is promis­ing: Bertrand Valade (Gas­pard Ul­liel) is a male pros­ti­tute in Paris of­fer­ing his ser­vices to an old Eng­lish has-been writer who tells him about this new play he wrote that is nev­er go­ing to be pub­lished. Bertrand has no scru­ples about steal­ing from the man and is vis­i­bly dis­gust­ed by the very idea of even touch­ing him, es­pe­cial­ly when asked to join him in a bath­tub (which he hes­i­tat­ing­ly ac­cepts when of­fered more mon­ey). But af­ter a cu­ri­ous in­ci­dent when the client has a heart at­tack and dies, Bertrand steals his man­u­script and goes on to be­come a fa­mous play­wright with a French ver­sion of the orig­i­nal play.

Un­for­tu­nate­ly, the in­trigu­ing part ends there, and from then on, the film de­rails com­plete­ly and nev­er man­ages to find a rea­son to ex­ist. I won­der if the book on which it is based (and was al­ready made into an adap­ta­tion with Jeanne More­au in 1962) is just as ter­ri­ble, or if it was di­rec­tor Benoît Jacquot’s en­tire fault. In­ca­pable of mak­ing Bertrand an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter, Eva tries to be­come some sort of erot­ic psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller when he goes to his girlfriend’s chalet to write and meets a pros­ti­tute called Eva (Is­abelle Hup­pert), who broke into the house with a client to es­cape a snow­storm. Af­ter that, he finds him­self bizarrely ob­sessed with her.

Bertrand is a mediocre, un­pleas­ant and gen­er­al­ly rude man who doesn’t talk much and can’t even stand his own girl­friend, Car­o­line. It’s hard to un­der­stand what Car­o­line sees in this aw­ful guy (yes, he is hand­some, so what?), but she is also ir­ri­tat­ing (and nosy). Ul­liel seems de­ter­mined to make Bertrand a de­testable char­ac­ter, and it can be a pain to watch a se­ries of te­dious con­ver­sa­tions be­tween him and Eva, who is al­ways too blasé and can­did about her work. See, he wants to write about her, or use her as an in­spi­ra­tion for his new play. What­ev­er. And the film comes up with a non­sen­si­cal con­cept of “third de­gree” in writ­ing that doesn’t make any difference.

Filled with sub­plots and de­vi­a­tions that are pure­ly in­con­sis­tent and pur­pose­less (like any­thing in­volv­ing Bertrand’s ed­i­tor, or the lies that Eva tells about her hus­band), the film de­ranges into a cheap late-night turkey with no co­her­ence or sub­tle­ty (there is a mo­ment when Bertrand ba­si­cal­ly sticks his phone in our face so we can see he is call­ing Eva). Hell, even the guy’s ob­ses­sion with her stems from nowhere, and the hor­ren­dous slow-mo­tions (cre­at­ed by the du­pli­ca­tion of frames) makes this look like a trashy movie that shouldn’t be in the main competition.


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