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The Berlinale Blog: You snooze, you win

Day 3 showcases the Berlinale’s unrivalled variety when it comes to programming: one Out Of Competition crowd-pleasing dud, the other an under-the-radar experimental gem.

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“I’ll never find a way out of this,” moans Geoffrey Rush’s Alberto Giacometti during the Out of Competition-selected biopic Final Portrait.

We know how you feel, maestro.

Based on the biography A Giacometti Portrait by American art critic James Lord, Stanley Tucci’s sixth feature as a director focuses on the last two years of the renowned Swiss artist’s life, as he paints Lord (Arnie Hammer)’s portrait. He promises that piece will take “a day or two at the most”. Days quickly turn to weeks, and as they do, the audience will begin to feel their life-force ebbing away, mostly because this dramatically inert and excruciatingly repetitive biopic goes nowhere. More charitable viewers could argue that the film needs to feel repetitive in order to mirror the laboured artistic process and the frustration inherent to the painter’s process… But that’s all bullshit really, especially when Tucci decides to include a jarring montage in the final stretch that turns his film into a full-blown farce.

And, of course, because Final Portrait is about a troubled genius living in Paris, zerrrr must be a lot ov smoking, chirrrrpy Frrrrench muzic, rrrred wine a go-go and whorrrres a’plenty…as well as a scrupulous pimp, surprisingly.

The talented cast are utterly wasted: Rush is initially entertaining as the erratic painter but quickly descends into caricature; the effortlessly charismatic Hammer essentially spends most of his time sitting gormlessly on a chair; the always-watchable Clémence Poésy is reduced to playing Giacometti’s prostitute muse as a shrieking harpy that can only be described as ‘ear-rape’. Only Tony Shalhoub steals the show as Alberto’s brother, Diego.

There’s a sentence you don’t read every day.

For those of you seeking something worthwhile, the Forum selection will save your day with Somniloquies, a mesmerizing film also about a deceased artist, but one unlike anything you’ll see this year… 

The odds are, not many of you have heard of the late American songwriter Dion McGregor. He didn’t have the internationally renowned career he was hoping for (his biggest claim to fame was co-writing Barbra Streisand’s “Where Is The Wonder”) but still made the history books as the world’s most prolific sleep-talker. Over the years, his roommate and fellow songwriter Mike Barr would record his friend’s nocturnal diatribes, all at conversational volume, which oscillate between the surreally funny, the inarticulate, the impressively coherent and the downright argumentative. Scientists studied the recordings and concluded that McGregor had unusual cortex activity; even McGregor himself was taken aback when the recordings were played back to him, apparently wondering if someone had surreptitiously fed him LSD.

Now, 23 years after his death, directors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have compiled selections of his dream-speech recordings and played them over the blurred exploration of naked bodies belonging to sleepers. The result is a destabilizing and hypnotic dreamscape that often feels like being in a sensory deprivation tank: the camera lingers over various areas of skin, cloaked by their creosote black surroundings that make the human form appear both sensual and alien. At times, the camera tends to feel nightmarishly Lynchian, as if it were the intrusive embodiment of a night terror.

As for the expertly selected somniloquies, they include a surprisingly impassioned talk about midgets and Mrs. Dangerfield’s “platinum bush”, a staggeringly eloquent lesson on vivisection that will make you shudder – the implication being that McGregor was dying in his dream – and a beautifully poetic segment in which our Truman Capote-sounding narrator talks about escaping: “Let’s go to future land… It’s shining near the corner.” By this ee cummings-reminiscent point, you’ll start to wonder if McGregor might have been onto something with his drug comment: seeing this film whilst high or on a nascent Excedrin PM buzz would be quite an experience.

(For legal reasons, I must stress that Exberliner does not encourage the excessive use of cough syrups or the white lightning during or after screenings.)

Don’t go into Somniloquies expecting any insights on the parasomnia condition itself; go to be lulled into an arresting and lysergic mood poem, one which shows yet again that the Forum selection is not to be dismissed if you’re looking for a unique cinematic experience. It also proves that a film about sleep can be less soporific than a star-studded biopic… No small feat.

Final Portrait (Out of Competition) / Feb 12, 09:30, Zoo Palast 1 & 12:30, Friedrichstadt-Palast & 18:00, Friedrichstadt-Palast.

Somniloquies (Forum) / Feb 12, 19:00, Akademie der Kunste; Feb 14, 12:30, Kino Arsenal 1; Feb 15, 16:30, Delphi Filmpalast; Feb 19, 12:00, Zoo Palast 2.