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The Berlinale Blog: Cinema naturel

On day three of the Berlinale, Isabelle Huppert and two little men reminded us of some pure, fiercely human emotions.

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Full disclosure: yours truly was not a fan of French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (2014), even though it was the movie that cool kids were supposed to love. While the musical drama captured the youthful, bohemian beat of the 1990s DJ scene with style and self-assurance, as a narrative feature it was also inexcusably oversized, meandering, diluted.

Part of Eden’s problem is on display in Hansen-Løve’s latest effort L’avenir (Things to Come): it probably could have ended a little sooner or lost some bits here and there for a more distinct contour. But overall the delicate, naturalistic drama is a vastly improved work of intelligence and empathy, describing a woman’s journey through loss with so much candor it captivates every step along the way.

Said woman is Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher with an equally Levinas- and Schopenhauer-quoting husband, two grown children and a frail, chronically dependent mother who needs her constant attention. Nathalie is opinionated and proactive. Taking full charge of her life, she juggles various work and family commitments with aplomb – until these people and tasks she took to be constants in life suddenly cease to be.

In a perfect marriage of behind-the-camera cool-headedness and on-screen restraint, Hansen-Løve and Huppert built a rare female-centric character study that’s resolutely free of sentimentalism. Written and performed with a tender but strong-willed, sharp-witted feminine idea in mind, what reads like fertile premise for an epic weepie translates to a film that’s clear-eyed, thoughtful and even dares to be funny at times. 

Sure, the script might have gone overboard with its extensive use of philosophical quotes and debates, but the emphasis placed on reason in such an innately emotional story helps keep the narrative uncluttered, its evolution lucid. And then there’s Huppert, who can now add another luminous performance to an already legendary filmography. By bringing ease, authority, dignity, and vulnerability to her every appearance, she adds a palpable, piercing truthfulness to the film that makes it irresistibly watchable.

Also calling forth deep, complex feelings of its protagonists is the American indie Little Men, showing in the Generation and Panorama sections. Writer/director Ira Sachs, who has given us observant, devastating relationship dramas like Love Is Strange and Keep the Lights On, returns with something subtler, less expressly LGBTQ-themed, but just as profound.

The Brooklyn-set story starts when 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) moves into his grandfather’s old apartment with his parents. He quickly befriends the similarly aged boy Tony (Michael Barbieri), who lives downstairs with his mom in a storefront rented from Jake’s now deceased grandpa. As their parents get into a financial dispute over the lease, so must the little men come to terms with life’s inevitabilities and maybe learn something about themselves.

Written with extraordinary tonal accuracy and honesty, the script doesn’t condescend to, nor heroise the children. Instead, it gives them exactly the words to say that most compellingly approximate the state of mind of those on the cusp of adulthood, looking in with excitement and trepidation. Plot-wise, the development of the boys’ friendship, as well as the revelation of the other characters’ histories, are carefully considered, leaving adequate open space for interpretation. The movie’s ending, for example, is a quiet blank page that likely contains more poignancy than could ever have been verbally described.

Taplitz and Barbieri are ideally cast, each distinct in temperament and as screen presence complementary. The acting chops they bring also amaze. A scene in the final act where Jake breaks down after days of silent protest is downright heartbreaking not only because it packs such beautifully conveyed panic and regret, but also because it makes you feel like, right there in front of your eyes, a bit of innocence is lost.

Showcasing polished, breezy storytelling skills and an acute appreciation of what it means to grow up, Little Men is not just for kids, it’s for anyone who’s ever been a kid.

L’avenir | Sun, Feb 14, 21:30, Haus der Berliner Festspiele; Sun, Feb 21, 21:30, Friedrichstadt-Palast

Little Men | Tue, Feb 16, 20:00, Kino International; Sat, Feb 20, 17:00, Cubix 9; Sun, Feb 21, 10:00, HKW