The Berlinale, and searching for love amongst the Golden Bear winners down the years
The big prize winners at film festivals like the Berlinale have a reputation for being grim and arty, and appealing more to the head than the heart.
This is basically the earlier idea I had for a Valentine’s Day-themed column, which is to go down the list of Golden Bear winners and see if there are any honest-to-goodness love stories in there. Yes, one title instantly springs to mind. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which won the Golden Bear in 1996. But it’s an English-language film, so it doesn’t count in this space about foreign films. For my column, last week, I finally settled on “love letters” written from one filmmaker to another — but now that the Berlinale has just ended, I thought it would be interesting to take up this topic again. But first, why this angle? I mean, why are love stories so important? Because the big prize winners at these festivals have a reputation for being grim and arty and appealing more to the head than the heart. So is there a foreign film in there that defies this categorisation?
Let’s go all the way back to the first Berlin International Film Festival, held in 1951. Five films were awarded the Golden Bear, in five categories. (It sounds more like the Golden Globes.) In Beaver Valley (from the US) won Best Documentary, Walt Disney’s Cinderella (US) won Best Musical, Four in a Jeep (Switzerland) won Best Drama. Does Cinderella count as a love story? Umm... It’s very looks-ist, no? Had Cinderella not had that princess makeover, courtesy the Fairy Godmother, would the prince have given her a second look? What about Justice is Done (France), which won the Golden Bear for Best Crime or Adventure Film? An ailing man’s mistress is put on trial for his mercy killing. It’s certainly a form of love, but it’s not what we call a “love story”. That leaves us with Best Comedy winner, Without Leaving an Address (France), where a woman goes hunting for the cad who left her pregnant, and is drawn to the kindly cabbie who drives her around... How do you say rom-com in French?
The next year onwards, there was only one Golden Bear awarded (phew!) — and One Summer of Happiness (Sweden), about the tragic love between a student and a girl he meets on his uncle’s farm, does qualify as something you can swoon over. The prize winners in the following years were decidedly unromantic dramas, like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. A Kind of Loving, from 1962, was in English, and To Bed or Not to Bed, the following year, was more of a fun sex romp. And then, more heavy-duty films took the top award — Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket — and Heartland (US), from 1979, was more about making a marriage work amidst harsh conditions.
More dramas: Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (I wonder what the festival feels about this award today), and just as it begins to seem that portraying love is the surest way to not win the Golden Bear, we get The House of Smiles (Italy), in 1991. Now, we’re talking! This is the story of two senior citizens — Adeline (Ingrid Thulin) and Andrea (Dado Ruspoli) — who fall in love in a retirement home. They fall in lust, too. Unlike the chaste earlier stories about older people getting together (say, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, from 1937), this couple wants to do it. As an IMDb reviewer puts it, it’s not just their eyes they can’t keep off each other. It’s the hands, too. And then, in 1993, we get another romance that conservative society isn’t able to digest: Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. A gay man enters a marriage of convenience to satisfy his parents, but all hell breaks loose when they visit.
Which makes me wonder whether the best love stories are those that involve some kind of pain, some kind of heartbreak — stories that are inevitably messy because there is no Fairy Godmother to wave a wand and smooth out the wrinkles. I won’t include Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) in this list, because it’s in English — but it’s a shattering drama about a couple that agrees to anonymous sexual encounters, until the man starts getting curious about the woman. In 2005, we have U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a South African take on Bizet’s Carmen. (This opera is the dictionary definition of “tempestuous love story”.) Then, in 2004, Fatih Akin gave us the gorgeous Head-On. The director turned off the audience at this year’s Berlinale with The Golden Glove, a gruesome serial-killer drama, but Head-On is something else. The most rapturous response to the film I’ve come across is by Ted Fry in Seattle Times: “A riveting love story that never flinches from the unsettling reality of a specific social issue or the universal joys that two people can bring to each other’s lives, no matter how hard they try to bring agony to their own.”
Wang Quan’an is another filmmaker who was at the Berlinale this year, with Öndög. In 2006, he made the Golden Bear-winning Tuya’s Marriage, where a woman from a nomadic tribe in Mongolia has to pick from multiple suitors. Her husband has injured himself and is unable to walk. Tuya has been advised to divorce him and find someone who can actually take care of her family. It sounds brutal — but in a place so far away from civilisation, perhaps romance is really a way of ensuring the survival of the fittest. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which won in 2011, is possibly even more brutal, though it’s set in a city. And what about Ildikó Enyedi On Body and Soul (2017), which I wrote about in this space, and which is the last Golden Bear winner that can be called some kind of romance? It’s about two people who share the same dream. Clearly, you can fall in love even with eyes wide shut.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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