Berlinale Syndrome

As the 70th Berlinale heads into its final weekend I took a quick break from madly dashing between screening rooms - fuelled entirely by coffee and pretzels - to reflect on some of my highlights of the fest so far.

Without a doubt the standout for me so far has been Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. I’ve loved Reichardt’s work since seeing Old Joy - her brilliant and characteristically low-key story of two old friends taking a camping trip together in the Oregon wilderness - so I was really excited to see this one in the competition line-up. Reichardt’s latest sees her once again return to the state (which is also the setting for Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves) to tell another rich and compelling story about male friendship.

Set in 1820s Oregon, First Cow is a gentle, genteel and very funny revisionist Western that’s part economic parable and part low-key odd-couple comedy.

It tells the story of “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), a pair of unlikely friends who find a possible route to economic success by stealing milk from the frontier’s newly arrived cow – the first in the territory and an object of some fascination for the locals.

They use their pilfered dairy to make “oily cakes” – honey drizzled baked goods that prove utterly irresistible for the grizzled drifters and fur trappers at the local market. Playing an increasingly dangerous game of brinksmanship, the pair must calculate when to cut and run before their theft is discovered.

With stunning shots of the Oregon landscape, a host of winning performances (including Toby Jones on brilliantly absurd form as the cow’s effete, idiotic owner) and a rich vein of kindness, humour and warmth running throughout, I was utterly charmed by First Cow and I’m sure that Sheffield audiences will be too. There’s no UK release date set yet, but keep an eye out for updates on this one.

At a very different pace, but equally vivid and unique, Danish drama Wildland was a surprise gem that’s sure to go on to big things. Already drawing favourable comparisons to Animal Kingdom, the film tells the story of a family of ruthless small-time criminals, led by an outwardly loving though terrifying and controlling matriarch with a twisted sense of what familial love and loyalty means. The film focuses on teenage Ida, who moves in with the family after her own mother dies in a tragic accident. With a growing sense of dread and claustrophobia, we watch as she becomes increasingly entangled in their world.     

Another brilliant and twisted tale about ambition and warped relationships arrived in the form of Josephine Decker’s Shirley. I was a huge fan of Decker’s last film, Madeline’s Madeline, so I made a bee line for the earliest screening of this I could find. And it didn’t disappoint. Decker’s latest reins in some of the more out-there stylistic quirks of her earlier film to craft a slightly straighter but still utterly compelling and unique pyschodrama built around a semi-fictionalised period in the life of the American horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson.

Jackson, best known for her short story The Lottery, is played by Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) in a transformative and transfixing performance, and the film centres around her relationship with her charismatic and controlling college professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a young couple who move in with the pair hoping to start a new life for themselves. What follows is a delirious and poisoned tale about ambition, the creative process, sexual expression, female identity and the stifling gender expectations of 1950s America.

Other highlights so far include Transit director Christian Petzold’s watery Berlin set fantasy romance Undine which, whilst it didn’t quite fully succeed for me, contains a pair of fantastic performances from its two leads (Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer). Whilst the Australian outback Western High Ground was an interesting and distinctive take on the genre that draws attention to a tragic incident in the country’s violent colonial history and features a strong and compelling cast of indigenous actors.

With a few more days left I’m excited to see what else is in store, and I can’t wait to bring some of these fantastic films to Sheffield audiences soon.  

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