• Do Lobsters Have Souls? by Amarsanaa Battulga
• On the Passage of Three Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment In Time by Dora Leu
• Smart Phones, Unwise Decisions by Gayle Sequeira
• Traumatic Memories Lost in Revelation by Han Tien
• Why exactly should we care about toxic masculinity right now? by Jerry Chiemeke
• Diaba, a mysterious apparition by Lorenna Rocha
• I Want a Dyke for President by Luise Mörke
• Orlando, a poetic subversion by Teresa Vieira
Do Lobsters Have Souls?
An experience as much auditory as visual, Wu Lang’s Absence marks another wave in a sea of Chinese arthouse festival films.
by Amarsanaa Battulga
“Life is like the waves in the sea. There are ups and downs, sadness and glee. Good luck, bad luck – either way you get on with life.” So sings Jiangyu, a middle-aged protagonist of writer-director Wu Lang’s Absence, which premiered in the Encounters section at this year’s Berlinale.
Played by Tsai Ming-liang’s go-to actor Lee Kang-sheng in his go-to understated style, Jiangyu has certainly had his ups and downs, having just been released after spending ten years behind bars. The lyrics he sings and the accompanying animal metaphor capture the essence of Wu’s film told through Jiangyu’s story. At the start of the song, we see an unsettling scene in which a live lobster is being cooked on a sizzling stove. When the song finishes, so does the lobster – perfectly still and ready to be devoured. “Do lobsters have souls?”, Jiangyu asks his friend Kai (Ren Ke), a young real estate mogul with shady dealings. “How can they have souls?” Kai replies, “they are for eating”.
The outside world Jiangyu steps into and the changes taking place there play as important a role in the film as he does. “The location is also an actor”, declares Wu in an interview. The endless rows of palm trees and the beaches signal Hainan as the film’s unmistakable locale. The island, with its mushrooming new, unfinished, empty sky-scraping apartment complexes, has now become unrecognisable to Jiangyu. “We accomplished in ten years what the Industrial Revolution took hundred years to do”, Kai proudly says.
But it doesn’t matter to Jiangyu whether he recognises the island; he only wants to recognise and be recognised by two people that he hopes to call family. The meek man frequents a hair salon run by his former lover Hong (Li Meng) for a chance of reuniting with her and her daughter that may also be his. Cool and composed as she appears, Hong is growing increasingly desperate in her mission to buy an apartment so that her daughter can register for a better middle school, for a climb up the social ladder. When she’s told she needs to marry a local in order to buy a property, who would walk in through the door but Jiangyu. Here is an ambiguous meeting point between the ideal of love and the reality of life.
Absence is beautifully shot but some of the visual cues by cinematographer Deng Xu feel overly deliberate, as when Hong comes to meet the real estate agent and is literally kept out of the office and the elevator, which is fully covered with a photo of apartment buildings. But others are more poignant and evocative (although not as spellbinding as Deng’s use of light and its reflection in Niu Xiaoyu’s Locarno-premiering Virgin Blue). In one scene, the camera pans over blue construction canvas covering the foundation of an unfinished apartment building, all while we hear a gentle sound of sea waves. This and other creative choices in the sound design is what truly communicates the Hainan-set film’s sense of place. Absence is a film that can be listened to as much as it can be watched. From the nearly continuous dripping sounds on streets and abundant rainfall to the bow wave of a small boat and baijiu being poured into glasses, the film certainly looks – but also sounds – wet and humid.
In its setting, story, and characters, Absence follows in the footsteps of many previous Chinese titles, as acclaimed as Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life and as recent as Li Ruijun’s Return to Dust and Na Jiazuo’s Gaey Wa’r (and one brief sequence reminiscent of In the Mood for Love, in which Hong walks through a small alley dressed in red, with a string score in the background). So much so that it makes one wonder if there’s already a formula for Chinese arthouse festival films – one that combines an acute sense of place (through the visuals and dialects) and a critique, or even just a portrayal, of ‘acceptable’ social issues (such as forced demolition of homes, migratory population, and housing market bubble) that the censors won’t take issue with. These stories set against the backdrop of the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of China and the resulting man-eat-lobster society has been told many times with different results, like the waves in the sea. In this context, Absence becomes yet another wave, no matter for better or worse.
On the Passage of Three Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment In Time
Yui Kiyohara’s Remembering Every Night casts a quasi-documentarian gaze over Tama New Town, a satellite residential area just outside of Tokyo, where three women are tied together by a streak of coincidences.
by Dora Leu
Kiyohara’s debut film Our Home (2017)took an interest in how the ‘inside’, as an architectural dimension, organises interaction and human relationships. With Remembering Every Nightthe director turns her gaze towards the subtle forces contained within the ‘outside’.
Remembering Every Night takes place mostly across a single day, as three women belonging to different age groups pass through the same spaces of Tama New Town, a satellite residential conglomeration just outside Tokyo. They just about miss each other, have their own individual stories and problems and don’t exactly cross paths, yet they are unknowingly tied together by streaks of coincidences. The time they spend throughout the day in Tama New Town leaves small, almost untraceable imprints on the places they visit, imprints to be picked up and inadvertently carried over from one character to the other. In this, Kiyohara employs a Slacker-esque technique of abandoning one character’s story as soon as the other enters the frame, constantly pendulating between the three of them as if guided by chance.
Recent Japanese cinema may be oversaturated with themes of chance and the accidental, and Remembering Every Night also overindulges in the same dorky whimsical affect so prevalent in these recent productions. Yet the film’s strong adherence to a coherent visual formula makes it stand out in this landscape, offering a fresh perspective not in terms of themes, but of style. Remembering Every Night opts for a quasi-documentarian approach to spaces and realities, maintaining a certain formal distance from its subjects, with a camera engaged in lengthy, dilated shots more reminiscent of observational cinema than of fiction filmmaking. In fact, very often the camera still lingers over spaces – and especially buildings – long after the characters have exited the frame, as if it’s allowing some moments of non-diegetic reality to seep in through the film. This documentary aura is also sustained by the mundane tasks intermittently followed throughout the film. One of the three women is going from house to house to check the gas meters and all the other members of the community are seen in the background going about the trivialities of their daily lives.
The camera’s slow and patient observation of the architectural details in Tama New Town suggests that there is something to be taken in about the buildings and the area, yet Kiyohara never spends enough time on these shots for us to fully extract a sociological or psychogeographical meaning from them. In this regard, the film also seems over-reliant on the prior knowledge that the viewer may have about Tama New Town as an important urban development in 60s Japan. In Remembering Every Night the buildings of the residential area become important visual demarcators of a homogenous and repetitive living space and community, but the film doesn’t quite articulate the specific dynamics of satellite metropolitan communities, as you may find, for example, in Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends with regards to the new town of Cergy-Pontoise or inFull Moon in Paris with regards to the‘banlieue’.But, speaking of psychogeography,perhaps there is something Debordian about Kiyohara’s approach after all, in that the camera shies away from the buildings just as soon as there’s the risk that they become characters and veer into spectacular territory. Kiyohara deserves much praise for her non-spectacular, restrained and calm method, achieving what feels like stylistic maturity despite her young age. Nonetheless, the director is still able to infuse the film with the specificities of her generation through some very moving home movies that sneak up rather transgressively towards the end of the film.
It’s a sense of elusiveness and lack of significance that ultimately brings beauty to Remembering Every Night. It’s hard to piece together the background story of each of the three main characters, but there’s little need for that. As often in life, we only interact with glimpses of other people and we ourselves leave only glimpses behind. After visiting an exhibition on the history of human presence in the area where Tama New Town has been built, one of the characters wonders what will become of her friend who has passed away. What is going to happen to his memory if he, unlike the ancestors from the Jomon period, hasn’t left any clay pots behind to be discovered and shown in a museum? Although Kiyohara’s film can sometimes feel like a collection of idle thoughts that are never fully articulated, there is much emotional poignancy to be found in Remembering Every Night.
Smart Phones, Unwise Decisions
Technology and the people who invent it become obsolete in the engaging, suspenseful BlackBerry.
by Gayle Sequeira
Smartphones aren’t built for longevity. They’re intentionally designed to be replaced every three to five years, swapped for newer, shinier models with better cameras and faster processing speeds. What of human relationships? What happens when people find themselves dispensable, abruptly discarded and moved on from by those who’ve outgrown them? Matt Johnson’s Berlinale competition entry BlackBerry (Canada) pinpoints this cold, clammy fear of redundancy in both man and machine, locating the thudding heart encased in a film about a plastic, now-obsolete phone. The BlackBerry, with its revolutionary capacity to send and receive emails on a handheld device, captured 43 percent market share in 2010, only to plummet to zero just six years later. In his story, Johnson centres the people who ushered it to greatness, only to lose themselves along the way.
Much like the phone, the filmitself cycles through several different iterations, genres and filmmaking styles. It launches with all the familiar tropes of a tech biopic — the late nights, the big speeches, the frayed personal relationships — with great directorial verve and flair before settling for the more conventional tone of this genre by the end. The result, adapted from Jacquie McNish’s book ‘Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry’, is a tonally disparate but engaging rise-and-fall narrative that ends up right where it started, a journey depicted with amusing irony.
It’s Waterloo, Ontario in the mid Nineties and there’s a sweet charm to how shy engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) will one day go on to invent one of the world’s most popular communication devices with his team but currently still has trouble speaking for himself. That task falls to his best friend and co-founder of tech startup Research In Motion, Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson himself), a headband-wearing goofball prone to peppering his speech with movie references. The (earlier non-existent) hierarchy of their company, and the equilibrium of their friendship, is shaken up after they partner with business shark Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), whose marketing acumen is only matched by his volatile rage. If all these characters sound like they’re painted in the broadest strokes, they are; but the actors still do a fine job of etching out the varying shades to their capacities for invention and destruction.
The film’s initial portions exude the irreverence of a The Office-style mockumentary, unlike other straightforward tech-founder biopics such as The Dropout or The Social Network, though BlackBerry’s depiction of discarded friendships evokes the latter. Johnson mines comedy from dramatic zoom-ins to the actors’ faces and short staccato bursts of dialogue punctuated by well-placed silences. The jittery handheld camera can’t seem to stay put, panning between actors and roving around rooms instead of having a fixed point of view. The effect might clue audiences into how the smartphone was never really on solid ground even when it appeared to be — every public success is undercut by shady background deals — but is often disorienting.
As the stakes get higher, with a hostile takeover, financial fraud and competition from Apple’s iPhone, the same playfulness that defined the film now begins to chafe at its characters. The cinematography steadies itself as circumstances spiral wildly out of control. The camera stays firmly fixed even as the ground beneath the characters’ feet begins to crumble. Johnson layers stressor upon stressor upon stressor on them, setting up suspense from how they’ll use their ingenuity to figure it out, and tragedy for the times they’re unable to.
For a movie attempting to do so much, however, BlackBerry does well with little. The hiss of an intercom becomes a moment of tension, a lesson in technology and an insight into a character’s guiding principles, all in one. That same sound recurs towards the end, the marker of resigned defeat. Two words, uttered at different points during the movie, trace a character’s evolution from upright to untrustworthy. BlackBerry also displays a canny understanding of just how much of innovation lives at the meeting point between actual skill and salesmanship, and how much of marketing is just the art of making promises that you may not be able to keep.
BlackBerry’s meteoric success did eventually lead to a stratospheric crash. Once dubbed the ‘CrackBerry’ for its addictive nature, it’s now a relic of the past, a fragment of forgotten tech history. When the alternative is obsolescence, however, to be resurrected and immortalised this way through film — with affection and humour, with a generosity that accounts for people’s flaws without making excuses for them — is a far kinder fate.
Traumatic Memories Lost in Revelation
Admired as he often is for his sophisticated sceneries, Shinkai’s trademark style contributes little to highlight the various and complex memories his Suzume tries to address.
by Han Tien
Red and black monster tentacles in the style of Shunga erotica shoot up from long-forgotten ruins. The collective memories of a catastrophe reenacts itself over and over again. The townsfolk have no other option but to resort living alongside this horror, seemingly resigned to letting its arbitrary repetitions and evolutions flow into their daily lives.
Combining elements of Japanese Shintoism with romance, and calling upon the collective trauma of the Japanese people from the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011 (often referred to as 3.11 in Japan), as well as the subsequent tsunami that claimed thousands of lives, Suzume, screening in the main competition of the 73rd Berlinale, follows its titular teenage protagonist as he bumps into Souta, a boy who is busy trying to seal the monster manifested from the country’s repressed sorrow and forgotten trauma, back behind a door bordering the dead and the living. Accidentally spoiling his work, Suzume now has to take on his mantle and embark on a road trip across Japan to save the world.
Following Your Name (2016) and Weather with You (2019), this third instalment in his disaster trilogy, continues director Makoto Shinkai’s work with ‘sekai-kei’, a loosely defined genre of youth romance where a run-of-the-mill relationship between a boy and a girl soon escalates to events that are world-changing or with apocalyptic potential. In Your Name, Shinkai treats memory as a currency, a bargaining chip, in which in order to alter the potentially devastating history of a young girl and her village, the memory of the protagonists meeting each other and falling in love must be erased. This time, in addition to repeating the trope of boy-meets-girl, Shinkai sets the heroine on a road trip in order to fend off the monsters born of repressed memories. In each place she visits, Suzume pays a visit to a ruin to access and decrypt memories long-forgotten, such as a local amusement park built during the bubble economy, where the townsfolk would visit during their childhood. Whenever she locks a door and the monsters behind it, she is showered with a flash of the past, effectively re-experiencing the repressed memories of the locals. The locals, despite their collective repression of these memories, treat Suzume with kindness, providing food, shelter, a free ride, or simply an evening of warm gathering. Throughout the road trip, these people, by getting on with their lives, encourage her to re-discover and accept her own experience of disaster, suppressed from her unconscious since childhood.
The depiction of incommensurability between the traumatic memories of Suzume and the locals is especially impressive in the early parts of the film. Though the portrayal of monsters hints at a common cultural memory, the very fact that she would always be a passerby to the locals and vice versa, or that the flash of past events is visible only to Suzume while locking the door, insists that their respective memories are simultaneously related and distinct, and therefore equally valuable. However, this skilfully balanced incommensurability is thwarted when Suzume’s memories of the 3.11 earthquake, once spirited away, totally unbeknownst to the protagonist, are miraculously and abruptly reconciled. It appears disjointed, at odds with the previously carefully constructed discourse of memory as anonymous and implicit, existing beneath as an undertow of local history and daily life.
While renowned for his massively detailed depictions of scenes, this time Shinkai’s trademark undertaking contributes little to highlight the varied characteristics of the memories Suzume tries to address. Compared to his earlier films, where emotions emerge in rhythm with scenery shots, as if every event in the present has been digested as a reminiscence, the delineation of each space in Suzume is predictable: the lurking monsters are decidedly Cthulhu-esque, while the tokoyo, the world of the obscura beyond time and space, floats amid a gorgeous neon-coloured starry sky, a crisp, perfect castle on the cloud. Instead of taking advantage of animation as a medium to further interweave and observe resonances between memory, disasters, trauma, the local populace, the haunting past, or coming of age, such an approach instead results in rupture, a lost opportunity.
Why exactly should we care about toxic masculinity right now?
Making its World Premiere in the Competition section of this year’s Berlinale, John Trengrove’s Manodrome focuses on a subject with debatable relevance.
by Jerry Chiemeke
Ralphie, a soon-to-be father, is down on his luck and tries to make ends meet as an Uber driver, while slowly getting detached from his girlfriend Sal. He frequents the gym to reassure himself of his self-worth, taking bathroom selfies while stewing in his insecurities. One day he is introduced to a man named Dad Dan, the leader of a group which at first looks like a viable support system, but is really just a libertarian masculinity cult.
Masculine angst is the thematic core of Manodrome, the sophomore directorial effort by South African filmmaker John Trengrove, director of the Academy-nominated The Wound (2018). Produced by Gina Gammell and Ben Giladi, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, and Odessa Young.
Much is made, maybe too much, about what it entails to ‘be a man’. From self-help books to podcasts, the subject has been addressed ad nauseam, so, what is the best way to deconstruct the complexities (if any) that come with maleness? Will a new whip suffice for dead horses? Trengrove attempts to answer this question by telling a story with male fragility at its core.
It’s easy to be dismissive with Manodrome, given the peculiar timing of its release when placed side-by-side with real-life happenings. The question of why men resort to violence as an emotional outlet is a valid one, given the rise of incel culture (Andrew Tate anyone?). However, it’s difficult to sell toxic masculinity as a front-burner conversation. At an age where diversity, gender inclusion and intersectionality are dominating social discourse, why should Trengrove, a South African, centre the volatility of a white American male on the big screen? This thematic shift from his debut offering, which focused on black queer characters, makes for curious observation. What’s the catch, really?
Eisenberg delivers a passable performance as the broken, vulnerable, erratic Ralphie, who is not exactly coping well with the hard hand that life has dealt him. It’s a significant departure from his usual roles as socially awkward characters, and it’s not hard to tell that some physical work was involved in his bid to embody the protagonist in this film.
Eisenberg’s panicky breathing and raging outbursts are complemented by the patient but scheming Young, who does just about enough to bounce off his energy, even if it’s difficult to picture her as a woman that is averse to motherhood and driven to exhaustion by her partner’s antics. Brody hands in a fine display as the charismatic, alpha male cult leader, with enough presence to give off an aura of influence, but not too much to risk the accusation of over-the-top acting.
Amidst quick cuts, fast-paced transitions and several Dutch angle shots that attempt to preserve the tempo of the film, Manodrome makes for 95-odd minutes of half-decent drama and cliche social commentary, but where it triumphs in content, it falters, and massively so, in form. At no point in the movie do the characters succeed in sustaining any sort of emotional core. Manodrome aims to be nihilist in the mould of Fincher’s Fight Club, but falls incredibly short of the mark, in that nothing about Ralphie is emotionally appealing. It attempts to reach for the chaotic and unsettling like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but unlike the latter, the motivation is not necessarily strong enough.
The film suffers from poor execution in laying out its sequences. It’s not enough to establish childhood abandonment in trying to explain violent behaviour; if it doesn’t excuse mass shootings, then why should it suffice here? Do anxiety, drug addiction and struggles with self-worth tie in together nicely enough to cause the kind of eruption that leads to unprovoked assault in a restroom?
Shoddy work was also done in introducing the ‘small’ matter of Ralphie’s self-loathing homophobia. Sexuality and disposition thereto are valid concerns, but substance should never be jettisoned for spectacle. What is the motive for murdering a gay man of colour? Why is it necessary to shoehorn this into the story without any real buildup, and in stereotypical fashion too? In The Wound, the tension between the queer characters was genuine, but Trengrove fails to replicate any bit of that magic here.
In analysing toxic masculinity, Manodrome attempts to illustrate the ‘what’, but in doing so, fails to properly establish the ‘why’. Films of this sort have their place in the archives, but it would be criminal to associate any sort of seminal value to this body of work.
Diaba, a mysterious apparition
Screened at the ‘Forum Special’, The Devil Queen gets a new look after being scanned in 4K.
by Lorenna Rocha
“I guess this is the last party I throw in here”, says Diaba, wearing her crown and several necklaces, with a green eye shadow that highlights the sadness in her gaze. However, what she didn’t imagine, and probably neither did director Antonio Carlos da Fontoura, is that 50 years after its release, The Devil Queen (1973) would be out ‘partying’ all over the world, with a scanned copy and the typical vitality of an anarchical film, captivating a new audience with its kitsch aesthetic, its excessive, comic, and brilliant performativity, and its impressive bloodbath worthy of a story full of tricks and betrayals.
From inside her bedroom, Diaba (Milton Gonçalves) runs a marijuana trafficking network on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Her first apparition is ruled by suspense. A group of men is visiting, waiting to get into her place. The camera drifts across the hall of Diaba’s house, where we can see the faces of all her guests, but we cannot see her yet. Their expectation is also the spectators’ expectation. Finally, a black body appears on camera shaving their leg with a pocket knife. It is with this combined image that the film constructs its main character: a mix of violence, femininity, and mystery.
In The Devil Queen, there are two intriguing moments of collectivity conducted by Milton Gonçalves: the first one showing Diaba being sad at a party in her house, when her ‘disciples’ show up at the Queen’s side to find out who is ‘messing up her bandstand’; The second one during the torture scene of Isa (Odete Lara), a female character who is dragged into a beauty salon by a group of non-binary people and travesties, and ends up betraying her lover Bereco (Stephan Necessian). The latter is messing with Diaba’s marijuana after being tricked by Robertinho (Edgar Rugel Aranha), a trusted ex-partner of Diaba, who wants to be the head of the drug traffic in her place.
The body of the black Brazilian actor is a defiant and inescapable presence, which uses violence to break up the conventional imaginaries of criminality associated with the black body. Furthermore, the queer performativity of Diaba’s body provokes a break in the idea of criminality exclusively as male-dominated. The black body gains ambivalence in its gender dissidence, its performative excess, and its extension through the collectiveness that surrounds her figure.
Even if she is not always being seen by us, scene objects, clothes, and bright colours spread throughout the film, making Diaba an omnipresent presence. The purple, orange, or red of the costumes of her partners in crime radiate as much vitality as the energy emanated by the Queen. Everyone involved in this story mentions her, either out of adoration or with the intention of taking her place on the throne. This omnipresent figure invites us to feel her without necessarily seeing her.
I Want a Dyke For President
…but between Manodrome and Sean Penn, the wrong guys still take center stage.
by Luise Mörke
On the morning of Saturday, 18 February 2023, Sean Penn spent 45 minutes at a press conference promoting his new film Superpower, a documentary co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, which had premiered the night before at Berlinale Special. As he muttered remarks as profound as “the Ukrainian people are the Beatles of today”, Penn donned cargo pants, a black hoodie, and a bomber jacket, the military-inspired uniform of a rich – “but cool!” – Boomer-dad about to drop off his toddler twins at pre-school. A camouflage snapback completed the look, its front embroidered pink gothic letters spelling ‘Killer Tacos’.
Killer Tacos, I later found out, is a tame-looking restaurant on Oahu’s North Shore. In the context of a press conference for a politically charged film like Superpower, Penn’s hat signified two things, antithetical only at first sight: on the one hand, it told his audience that he is, in fact, just a regular dude who enjoys Hawaiian vacations and Mexican-ish street food after an early morning surf sesh. On the other hand, it positioned him as a freedom-fighting political activist, ready to shed the ‘good vibes only’ attitude when his friends are in danger. Sean Penn does not just eat tacos. He fuels his body with Killer Tacos!
On display at the press conference was a particular kind of masculinity: stern, taciturn, breaking the silence only to voice ideals and convictions, among them admiration for the ‘heroic’ actions of the Ukrainian president and people, his love of freedom, liberty, et cetera, and the urgent need to support the war effort with long range ballistic missiles. Penn’s hat offset the starkness of this message, mingling war and violence with a nod towards femininity – the letters were pink, after all – and the post-ironic aesthetics of a kitschy souvenir. Instead of softening his strongman performance, this detail only made it more appalling, putting him in aesthetic vicinity to the hodgepodge para-military look of those who sought to deal a blow of death to whatever was left of democracy on January 6th.
Later that day, screening in Competition at the Berlinale Palast, John Trengrove’s Manodrome examined a particular mix of libertarianism and masculinity, locating it somewhere in an especially bleak part of the American Midwest. Protagonist Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg) recently lost his job and is now scraping by as an Uber-driver. He spends his downtime at the gym, lifting weights and taking sweaty, victorious mirror selfies. At home, his pregnant girlfriend (Odessa Young) is desperately trying to create the kind of family atmosphere neither of them grew up in, but Ralphie is not ready to inhabit the role of father and adult he is about to be thrown into. Perpetually under pressure and entirely unable to share or articulate his emotions, he soon gets sucked into a libertarian incel cult, led by the charismatic and soft-spoken Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), who likes cable knit sweaters, Glocks, and sharing his country club-style McMansion with dozens of disciples.
Trengrove’s film certainly has grave shortcomings: it veers dangerously close to suggesting that Ralphie’s obsession with muscles and masculinity is rooted in suppressed homosexuality, accompanied by a fearful fascination with Black men, who are never more than tokens in the film. Manodrome thus figures inflated masculinity as the last resort of losers, of men who aren’t man enough, of, yes, pussies — as becomes clear when Ralphie is penetrated by a guy who mistakes his stalking for cruising.
On point, however, is the film’s peculiar combination of old school ideals of manliness (eat steak, shoot guns, hate women) with the lingo and gestures of the new age: the desk drawer in Dad Dan’s wood-panelled office holds a money clip and a semi-automatic weapon, as well as a sage bundle for initiation ceremonies. In one scene, Dan wins Ralphie’s trust by tenderly putting his hand on his chest, giving the battered boy permission to feel, granting him a moment of touch and intimacy. At other points, he captivates his followers with motivational slogans that wouldn’t be out of place at a Soul Cycle class: “there is a staggering beauty inside of you”.
Both Penn’s appearance at the press conference and Trengrove’s vision of a masculinity cult blend military rhetoric with those soft-power mechanisms that blossom under neoliberalism, and which may come in the guise of a sage bundle or a surfer dad. By figuring ‘toxic masculinity’ first and foremost as a response to the demise of the working class, Trengrove overlooks the rich guy libertarianism of Burning Man aficionados and the Sean Penns of this world. The latter may look progressive, but in the end use pink, post-ironic letters only to reinforce the tough guy image they like to project.
If a man of this creed is given a stage at Berlinale and gun-slinging masculinity, in its most recent iteration, thus appears as an unquestioned byproduct of war, it’s time to re-iterate Zoe Leonard’s words, from a 1992 poem of the same name:
“I want a dyke for president…”
Orlando, a poetic subversion
A sense of unity and community arises from Preciado’s film, but also one of continuous metamorphosis: something that builds up throughout the film and reminds one of what it means to be alive.
by Teresa Vieira
My name is Teresa Vieira, and I’m a white cis queer woman. I’ll be reviewing Orlando: My Political Biography, film directed by Paul B. Preciado, part of the 73rd Berlinale’s Encounter section.
These first two sentences are an attempt to connect as a critic, but also as a person, with the way in which the audience gets to know all the different Orlandos that are the focus of Preciado’s film: a multi-generational group of trans non-binary individuals. They present themselves with their own names but also as the performers of the role of Orlando. A sense of unity and community arises from this idea of shifting protagonists, but also a certain notion of continuous metamorphosis: something that builds up throughout the film and is reminiscent of what it actually means to be alive.
Following a linear narrative structure, accompanied or in reference to Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’, we are guided through the film by different narrators, as they share their personal journeys. Untold stories and unrecognised lives exist and persist here in a space that for so long – and even until this day – has excluded them. The sense of narrative linearity is one of many examples of normative film language that is used in the film. Besides the linearity, tropes like the use of talking head shots with the individuals that are part of the film – something we can read as a more ‘conventional’ documentary style. Behind the scenes footage is also used, aiding the deconstruction of the artificial apparatus that comes with fictional cinematic representations, momentarily breaking the illusion and showing the audience how (moving) images can be – or are – made.
The formally conventional aspect of the film, is in fact, the perfect basis for a visual and conceptual expansion of the possibilities of film, representation and storytelling. As we move along moments in which there’s a sudden shift between a personal story and Woolf’s text, there’s an explicit proposal for active listening and participation from the audience. Looking at the film’s costume design, with ravishing modern punk-trashy tones, in a set of historically composed classical atmospheres that nonetheless might feel out of place, there’s an exciting clash between what is set to aesthetically define something. The audience can be moved by the appeal to try and figure out ‘what is beyond’ or ‘in between’ reality and fiction. This ultimately connects with the idea of disrupting, not only those specific binary cinematic poles, but also with the film’s urge to persistently denounce the need to break free from the duality of gender constructs and connect with true human essence: a spectrum of possibilities that need to be recognised.
One particular scene is set in an operation room in which Preciado – himself one Orlando – along with other Orlandos performs surgery on Woolf’s book. Images are meticulously removed from the original in order to place – or to sew – the ones that should have been there all along: images of trans lives and their stories. This is a vital and defining moment: not only in terms of what the film manages to do, but also in terms of what society still needs to achieve: the urgency of (re)writing ‘Humanstory’. Breaking away from the lines drawn by a cis-white-male-euro centric patriarchal discourse, smashing the binary empire – the system – from within.
As words, as well as films, matter, I want to end by acknowledging some of those this film was made with: Orlando and those around them. Oscar-Roza Miller, Janis Sahraoui, Liz Christin, Elios Levy, Victor Marzouk, Kori Ceballos, Vanasay Khamphommala, Ruben Rizza, Julia Postollec, Amir Baylly, Naëlle Dariya, Jenny Bel’Air, Emma Avena, Lillie, Arthur, Eleonore, La Bourette, Noam Iroual, Iris Crosnier, Clara Deshayes, Castiel Emery (Sasha), Fréderic Pierrot (Psychiatrist), Nathan Callot (Armory Salesman), Pierre et Gilles (Doctors), Tristana Gray Martyr (Goddess of Hormones), Le Filip (Goddess of Gender Fucking), Miss Drinks (Goddess of Insurrection), Tom Dekel (Receptionist), Virginie Despentes (Judge), Rilke & Pompom (Orlando’s Dogs).