68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 4
4) Dovlatov (Russia/Poland/Serbia, 2018)
No matter what you may think of Putin’s Russia today, it is at least a sign that things are now different (culturally) than the way they were nearly 50 years ago when you see that a film like Dovlatov had the support and funding of the Russian government. Times have changed, and a writer such as 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 narrative approach with extended shots and a camera that glides almost invisibly as it observes the intellectual scene in a foggy Leningrad of November 1971, director Alexey 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 corner of those thankless times, although the anniversary of the revolution is celebrated in the country. Sergei (Milan Maric), who used to be a prison guard, sees 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 finds himself forced to write about the making of a film for a factory newspaper or a subway worker who is also a poet. It is exasperating, and Maric does a stellar job to show how Sergei usually 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 poets and writers of that generation as we see them, penniless, drink, smoke, borrow money from each other and recite in 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 temperature, and there is something absolutely 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 little 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 what the point of writing is if you won’t get published. As someone points out, nobody thought anything of impressionists in their time; and while it is tragic that most authors are only recognized when they are not alive anymore to enjoy the fruit of their art, it is at least wonderful to see that there are people today who can appreciate a film such as this.
5) Eva (France/Belgium, 2018)
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 but which 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 in which 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, all that is intriguing ends there; and so from then on, the film derails completely and never finds a reason to exist – which made me wonder if the book on which it is based (and was already made into an adaptation with Jeanne Moreau in 1962) is just as atrocious or if this was entirely Benoît Jacquot’s 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 stumbles on a prostitute called Eva (Isabelle Huppert) who broke into the place with a client to escape a snowstorm, after which he sees himself bizarrely obsessed with her.
Bertrand is a mediocre, unpleasant and generally rude man who doesn’t talk much and clearly cannot even stand his own girlfriend, Caroline. It is hard to understand what she sees in this awful guy (he is handsome, so what), but Caroline is also irritating (and nosy). Ulliel seems determined to make Bertrand a detestable character, and it is a pain to watch a series of tedious conversations between him and this 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. The film even invents a nonsensical concept of “third degree” in writing that… who cares.
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 subtlety (there is a moment when Bertrand basically puts his phone in front of the camera so we can see he is calling Eva) or coherence. Hell, even the guy’s obsession stems from nowhere and the horrendous slow-motions (created by the duplication of frames) makes this look like a trashy movie that didn’t deserve to be in the festival.
February 19, 2018