Berlin Diary: The heat is on

Posted on February 14, 2015


Holmes is older. Mainstream sex becomes bolder. And Peter Greenaway blasts the cobwebs off biopic conventions.

After a lot of earnest, well-intentioned, even well-made films, there was still the sense that there has been nothing yet that really shook you, shocked you. That probably explained the crowds at the screening of the new Peter Greenaway film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato. The faith wasn’t misplaced. Had Hollywood laid its hands on this material, it would have resulted in an ultra-conventional, Oscar-baiting biopic. In 1931 the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein travels to Mexico to make a movie. There, he falls in love not just with another culture, but another man, a married one. Cue the violins. But Oscar’s embrace is sure to avoid Greenaway. The film is characteristically his – outré, all serrated edges, and guaranteed to upset, even outrage, the more conservative members of the Academy. Cue the smelling salts.

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Watching the film, I wondered how much richer your average biopic – The King’s Speech, or The Imitation Game – would be if helmed by a director with genuine vision, like Greenaway. He’s incapable of cliché – or at least, they’re his clichés, his very own. Throughout Eisenstein in Guanajuato, there are colour changes, split screens, footage spliced in from elsewhere, and even telephone conversations are imagined anew – while in the shower, while writhing on a marvelously ornate floor. Amidst a festival lineup that perhaps had a little too much decorum, this was a much-needed assault on the senses.

The other thing that struck me was that Terrence Malick could use a few lessons from Greenaway, whose films are similarly about Big Themes (politics, morality, social mores, philosophy, sex), but also filled with life, lusty appetites, architecture, food, colour, surreal and expressionistic images, and humour. (Many sacred cows are slaughtered.) Malick’s ultra-mannered recent work, in comparison, looks dead. At one point, Eisenstein worries about his art. He says, “I’m not sure filmmakers will be remembered.” Greenaway needn’t be worried.

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I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but like everyone else on the planet, I have heard about it – so imagine my surprise when, instead of the taboo-busting S&M sex I thought was in store in the movie version (directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson), I sat through a pretty tame update of a Gothic romance. Yes, tame. There is a lot of sex, especially when seen on an IMAX screen (there was literally a stampede to get in) – but nothing very disturbing, and, more importantly, nothing very special in the context of a film festival, where sexual taboos have regularly been busted by the likes of Last Tango in Paris, In the Realm of the Senses, Intimacy, 9 Songs, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. The eroticism in those films is coupled with a powerful self-destructiveness, and it’s frightening. It makes the stomach churn. This one’s content to position itself as a big Valentine’s Day release. Savour the pun in that last word; it’s the only lightness in sight.

Take away the sex and the story is as archetypal as they come. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson, who’s really good) is the beauty; Christian (Jamie Dornan) is the beast. Or Anastasia is a pretty woman; Christian is Richard Gere with issues. Or Anastasia is Jane Eyre; Christian is the brooding, Byronic Mr. Rochester. Or Heathcliff – but with a twist. She wants a ring on her finger. He’d rather see her hands in a knot. He’s a “dominant,” and he sees her as a “submissive.” This, apparently, is what passes for a romantic bestseller these days. If Austen had written Pride and Prejudice in this era, she may have had to device a happy ending where Mr. Darcy declares his long-suppressed love for Elizabeth Bennet by blindfolding her with a lace handkerchief and smiting her bottom with a riding crop. Now, now, hold back those tears. The film, neither terrific nor terrible, takes a long time to get going, and when it does, it ends. I was startled by the anticlimax – and then I realised that this is one of those affairs that’s going to be carried on over two more instalments. Talk about a tease.

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Who better to cast as a nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes than Gandalf, who had quite the talent for poking his nose where it didn’t belong while solving the case of that infernal ring? But Mr. Holmes, directed by Bill Condon, offers more than just Ian McKellen’s beautifully calibrated performance. It tells us, for instance, that the stories we grew up with were wrong. Holmes preferred cigars to pipes. The deerstalker hat was just an illustrator’s embellishment. And – you’d better be sitting down for this – his address was not 221B Baker Street. We’d sooner believe that 10 Downing was where the Beatles recorded their albums.

As we swoop in on Holmes, he is everywhere – as the protagonist of penny dreadfuls and incarnated by hammy actors on movie screens, and this low-key film is an elegy for the man behind the legend. Look elsewhere if you seek the cold, clinical case-solver. This Holmes is gentler, more ruminative, and if the meandering subplots about old cases don’t have the finger-snapping aha! verve we are used to from the books, that’s probably because this is how he remembers them now, as fragments of a forgetful mind. But it’s the present-day portions that really make the movie, focusing on the relationship between Holmes and his housekeeper’s (Laura Linney) son, a smart young boy who fills in for Dr. Watson. They are at two ends of life’s spectrum, and I had a quiet chuckle at the potential for Holmesian parody. Imagine that Watson drops in and asks, “What kind of school does the boy goes to, Holmes?” The reply: “Elementary.”

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