Berlin Diary: Teen Trauma. Steven Soderbergh’s Stalker Thriller. And Time Passages, Film Companion

The French drama, Prénom: Mathieu (First Name: Mathieu), lasts just 63 minutes, and it packs an awful lot in. Awful being the key word. Maxime Gorbatchevsky plays 17-year-old Mathieu, who, at the beginning of the film, is raped by a serial offender. The resulting story could be told in a number of ways. As an investigation. As a family drama, detailing the behaviours of Mathieu’s parents, and especially his brother, Mica (Mickael Ammann), who doesn’t know how to be around Mathieu anymore and prefers to lock himself in his bedroom with the walkman for company. (Yes, walkman. Prénom: Mathieu is set in the 1980s.) Or we could see how Mathieu’s relationship with his girlfriend unfolds, given that the night he was brutalised was the night he was planning to have sex with her for the first time. It can’t be easy for a teenager, looking forward to making love and ending up being raped by a man.

Lionel Baier’s film tackles bits of everything, but stays focused on Mathieu’s internal torment. It’s no accident that the first time we see him, it’s a tight close-up of him in the ICU, his head swathed in bandages. It feels like we are being invited to enter his head, invade his consciousness – for the ghastly event is the only thing on his mind. Even the investigation is handled solely from Mathieu’s viewpoint. We don’t see the detectives, say, scouring the area for clues. We see them with Mathieu, pressing him to remember even more so that they can put together an identikit picture. This is a quiet, moving film, something like an Alice Munro short story, tinged with an undercurrent of loss. “When you catch the guy, I want to talk to him,” Mathieu tells the detectives. We are left with the question, “Does that ever help?”


“I love it when you wear blue.” These are the opening words of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, and the speaker of these words, David (Joshua Leonard), goes on to declare that he loves Sawyer (Claire Foy) in anything, actually, but he first saw her in blue, so the colour awakens something in him. It must be said that Sawyer isn’t in the frame. But then, neither is David. It’s just his voice we hear – and it’s an entirely appropriate aesthetic choice, for David is stalking Sawyer. The wooing-ritual stalking scenes we witness in Indian cinema come off as benign in comparison. One day, after Sawyer steps out of the shower, she finds a dress laid out neatly on her bed. Its colour? Blue. The next scene, she slaps a restraining order on David.

Unsane is a terrific example of how a good director can elevate the most routine genre material. (Strip away the topicality, and you’re in one of those schlocky Sleeping with the Enemy-type thrillers.) The film was shot entirely on an iPhone, and the grainy images are relentlessly claustrophobic.

But she can’t shake him off. She sees him everywhere, even in a potential one-night stand she brings home from a bar. (She pushes him away when they begin to kiss. The poor man is left mumbling, “Hey, you initiated this!”) Things really get out of hand when Sawyer ends up in a psych ward. Is she seeing things? Is the man dispensing medicines, and if so, how did he get there? The answers aren’t always satisfying, but the film is. At a time when the #MeToo movement is everywhere, it’s hard to see the scene where Sawyer’s boss casually hits on her. The danger isn’t just from David. Or put differently, David is just the extreme end of a nightmare spectrum.

Unsane is a terrific example of how a good director can elevate the most routine genre material. (Strip away the topicality, and you’re in one of those schlocky Sleeping with the Enemy-type thrillers.) The film was shot entirely on an iPhone, and the grainy images are relentlessly claustrophobic. And instead of shock-jolts, Soderbergh employs a steady electronic score – it’s sustained tension. Even scenes like the one where Sawyer calls her mother from the facility had me slit-eyed. I loved it that Sawyer isn’t your typical doe-eyed damsel. She’s, as a colleague, puts it, “all kinds of assholes.” (Foy is wonderfully steely.) But that is the point. We root for her not because we want to protect the “poor thing,” but because no one, nice or nasty, should end up in this situation. And the ending – a freeze-frame — is a beauty. What happens when  life resumes is anyone’s guess.


What kind of movie is My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot? Robert (Josef Mattes) is helping his sister Elena (Julia Zange) prepare for her philosophy exam, in the midst of cornfields near a petrol station, and she sighs, “Happiness is lying on a blanket and thinking nothing.” This is that kind of movie. As ants crawl over their arms and legs and wasps buzz around a discarded apple core, Robert muses, “Waiting that leads to the purest thinking is the opposite of wanting.” This is that kind of movie. As Elena lies down, Robert pours beer all around her, and when it gets in her hair, she gets up and bites his arm. This is that kind of movie. Elena holds her earphones close to a grasshopper, and its moving legs and antennae make it appear that it’s dancing. Sigh! This is that kind of movie.

The selections at a festival aren’t always about quality. You can see Eva was selected because of star power (Isabelle Huppert). You can see films being selected on the basis of the regions they are from (Iran, Kenya), so that there is the element of inclusivity. Some films (like the LGBTQ drama Tinta Bruta) become candidates for selection because of another kind of inclusivity, so that minorities and issues are represented. But if you ask me why Philip Gröning’s German-language head-scratcher made the cut, I’d wager it’s simply to see if critics can make out whether the emperor is wearing any clothes. With its constant chatter about the past and the present, is My Brother’s Name a profound meditation on temporality or an art-house hoax? This question keeps coming up: “What is time?” I don’t have the answer, but after the hour-and-a-quarter I lasted through this nearly three-hour film, I certainly know what eternity is.

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