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Candid American tales of sex surprise Berlin

Berlin Film Festival
5 min

With its draconian ratings system, US cinema is so squeamish about sex – it usually takes place off-screen or with some perfunctory thrusting and moaning – that it can be startling to see an American movie grapple frankly with erotic themes.


in Berlin

But by the second day of this year’s Berlinale, I had already seen two.

Programmed outside the competition, in the “Forum” section (meant to showcase more experimental works), Josephine Decker’s “Butter on the Latch” and Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control” explore the power of sexuality with intelligence and impressive formal control.

The fact that these low-budget indies are by and about women is worth noting, given the paucity of female filmmakers at major festivals, as well as the debate over male-driven portrayals of female bodies and desire set off by Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Colour” last year.

The bracingly original “Butter on the Latch” revolves around a twentysomething named Sarah (Sarah Small), who joins her friend Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) at a several-day Balkan music workshop in the woods somewhere in California. When Sarah starts up a flirtation with a handsome hipster also in attendance (Charlie Hewson), Isolde turns on her, and Sarah starts having weird nightmares and hearing strange sounds.

If it all sounds rather cryptic, it is. But one of the pleasures of this intoxicating, at times terrifying 65-minute film is the director’s refusal to spell out where she’s going and what it all means. What starts out as a heavily improvised portrait of a fraying friendship morphs into something far more unsettling, as Sarah’s new passions – her desire for the young man and her fascination with the songs, dances and folklore of Southeast Europe – seem to intertwine and spark off one another.

Decker, working with cinematographer Ashley Connor, tweaks the viewer’s sense of reality through her use of woozily out-of-focus images and jarring editing techniques (visions of eerie, faceless figures flash by, ambient noise mounts and recedes). Has lust caused Sarah, who initially appeared to be the more stable of the two young women, to start unravelling? Or is “Butter on the Latch” offering a peek through the eyes of someone abandoning herself to a transformative experience of art and nature? Those who like their films easily readable will be frustrated. Others will relish the movie’s dark sensuality, as well as one of the most vivid and quietly frightening dream sequences seen onscreen in a long while.

A sex surrogate falls for a patient

“She’s Lost Control” takes a cooler, more clinical approach to a story of erotic longing upending one woman’s world. In this case, the main character is Ronah, a single, hardworking Manhattan “sex surrogate” (a therapist who treats sexual problems through intimate physical contact) struggling with her attraction to new patient Johnny, a surly, bearded loner who says he can’t have sex with a woman once he gets to know her.

Anchored by a luminous, emotionally alive performance by Brooke Bloom as Ronah, “She’s Lost Control” ponders the meaning and consequences of intimacy – less for Johnny (Marc Menchaca) than for Ronah, an expert on the subject who for the first time is unable to set the boundary separating her work from her feelings.

The sessions between Ronah and Johnny are riveting, as she coaxes him out from beneath his hostility and is simultaneously drawn dangerously close. Watching the two characters touch each other – the Berlin-born Marquardt films these scenes discretely, matter-of-factly, without a shred of sensationalism -- I was struck by how rare it is to see a sex scene that conveys the emotional risks, as well as the physical pleasures, of the act.

Just as enthralling, though, are scenes of Ronah alone in her apartment, cooking, surfing the Internet or taking a bath. Bloom’s subtly expressive face and Marquardt’s attentive camera clue us into what this woman is thinking, even when she doesn’t speak. “She’s Lost Control” is above all a perceptive, nuanced portrait of someone whose sincere desire to help others starts to blur with her own needs -- and who, despite her rigorous professionalism, finds herself ambivalent about that blurring.

The film takes a cruel, weirdly cautionary turn toward the end that I’m not convinced was necessary. The director, who also wrote the script, seems over-determined to ensure that her film doesn’t turn into a love story. But Marquardt is, without a doubt, a talent to watch.

A Frenchman lost in the American Southwest

A talent that many have likely grown tired of watching, on the other hand, is Rachid Bouchareb, a French-Algerian director (“Days of Glory”, “Outside the Law”, “London River”) whose regular presence in major festival competition line-ups is a mystery.

Bouchareb is in Berlin to present the second entry in his “American trilogy” (the first was the little-seen “Just Like a Woman”), the flatfooted, unpersuasive drama “Two Men in Town”. Based on a 1973 French film starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin, the movie features Forest Whitaker as a recently released convict -- and convert to Islam -- who tries to build a new life, despite harassment by a local sheriff (Harvey Keitel) and a former friend (Luis Guzman) eager to drag him back into a life of crime.

Set in the deserts of New Mexico, this material might have worked as a taut thriller -- a genre better equipped to accommodate the story’s clichés than socially-conscious drama. But everything feels off in “Two Men in Town”, from the insipid direction to the plodding pace to the spectacularly miscast (though never less than entertaining) English actress Brenda Blethyn as an all-American parole officer. Keitel and Guzman, actors known for being consummate New Yorkers, also seem out-of-place in the dusty rural setting, with the reliable Whitaker left to fend for himself.

Bouchareb, who speaks only shaky English, was supposedly aiming for a critique of the American justice system. It’s certainly a worthy subject, but the road to bad movies is paved with good intentions.

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