The irony of a film’s title rarely hits as hard as it does in Marcelo Martinessi’s Las herederas (The Heiresses). In the opening scene, two women amble through a mansion, examining items for sale. (“These chairs…. Louis XV or XVI?”) Chela and her partner, Chiquita, are in debt, and the furniture they have inherited has got to go. But the point of this scene is in the framing. We observe the goings-on through half-open doors — a shot that will be repeated several times. Chela is on the other side, cautiously (even timidly, one might say) observing these others who keep invading her house. The metaphor sticks. In life, too, Chela is an observer. The more extroverted (and more controlling) Chiquita runs the household, as Chela sits in her room, painting.
The director holds his frames long enough to suggest a still life. Chela’s life, like her art, is frozen. And when Chiquita is jailed for fraud, she is forced to step out of those doors. What we are watching, then, is a gendered twist on the Hollywood staple of an oppressed woman finding her wings after the man moves away, usually aided by a free spirit. Martinessi shows us that toxic power equations exist even in same-sex couples (Chela and Chiquita seem to be in their sixties), and at first, Chela finds it difficult to cope. She wakes up in the middle of the night, rouses her maid from sleep, and asks if she heard a noise. There is, of course, no noise.
From still life, Chela’s life slips into motion — quite literally — when she begins to use her car as a taxi service for women in the neighbourhood. She worries that she is not used to highways, but that becomes another fear conquered. The men in this story are peripheral. They do menial work, flip burgers — even a sort-of boyfriend is barely seen. The latter belongs to Angy. She’s the free spirit, free even in terms of her sexuality. She has a line that made me laugh out loud. She tells Chela that, as a child, her friends painted princesses and palaces, while she painted cows. Her father told her, “They are all waiting for Prince Charming and you are waiting for a rancher.” Beneath the humour, there’s the ring of truth. For some, life’s no normative fairy tale. They wouldn’t want it that way either.
Robert Pattinson seems to have well and truly banished his matinee idol status into the twilight (sorry, couldn’t resist), and his latest foray into indie-dom is titled Damsel, directed by David & Nathan Zellner. (Pattinson’s well-received Cannes outing, Good Time, was also directed by siblings, the Safdie brothers.) The first frame sees the sun rising on a spectacular John Ford landscape, and a subsequent dialogue references one of the director’s most iconic films. (“Where is that damn stagecoach?” Hah!) The story, then, coolly goes on to demolish everything the John Ford Western stood for, beginning with the selfish wimp of a hero (Pattinson), Samuel Alabaster. In an early scene, he enters a saloon and asks for a Pilsner. He learns only whiskey is available, and he balks. When asked if he’s a pussy, he says his stomach is. That rumble you hear is John Wayne turning in his grave.
As with Las herederas, Damsel’s title is portentous. Samuel thinks he is rescuing the love of his life (Mia Wasikowska), who’s been kidnapped (shades of The Searchers, here), but it turns out that she’s no… damsel in distress. Her name is ironic too. She’s Penelope, but she isn’t pining for Ulysses. The film, though, is certainly an odyssey to get through, constantly undermined by attempts at sub-Coen Brothers shtick. My antennae flared up at the sight of a miniature horse (named Butterscotch!), and by the time we get to a man being hanged (“for skullduggery, skull-thuggery and skull-buggery”), as a yodeller supplies the score, I’d already had enough. There’s a great urination gag, though, for anyone who’s wondered what happens to the process of relieving oneself when a man is shot dead, mid-stream. Mel Brooks would have been proud.
Apart from the Competition category, the Berlinale, like all other festivals, offers several other meticulously curated sections — like Panorama, which has, over the years, acquired a reputation for strong, edgy content. As the brochure puts it, the films in this section “are sensuous, discomforting and uncompromising in the means they employ. They question our reality, dig deeper and rebel against attributions of a close-knit normative world.” In other words, this is where you’ll find Q’s new film, Garbage. Panorama is especially strong in documentaries, and when I read the synopsis of a German one by Rosa Hannah Ziegler, I put it on my schedule. Its name: Familienleben (Family Life). Which is why these words from the father, Alfred, come as a shock: “Can’t anyone understand I just want to be left alone?”
Soon, we see that Alfred isn’t the father but the ex-boyfriend of the mother, Biggi. They share a farm, several dogs (which pop up in many frames, like supporting characters), and the curdling reality that country life isn’t quite an idyllic dream. As we slip into the routines of the day — say, Biggi’s daughter raking up hay and making bales — we get what the press notes called “a portrait of a family microcosm, full of cracks and dreams.” For instance, Biggi’s daughter talks about her suicidal tendencies: “When you can’t feel anything, the pain [from slashing] makes you realise you are alive.” A little of this goes a long way, and I began to wish the director had found another way to put us into her characters’ heads. A microcosm suggests a world. This is just navel-gazing.