MIFF 2012: Reviews of Barbara, Pink Ribbons, Inc. and Sleepless Night

Welcome to day fourteen of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five / Day Six / Day SevenDay Eight / Day Nine / Day TenDay Eleven / Day Twelve / Day Thirteen . Enjoy.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

This Canadian documentary has been sold on the notion that it smashes a fist into a hot button topic — the commercialisation of Breast cancer support, primarily, the Pink Ribbon campaign — but in the end it can only bring itself to run its finger around the button’s edge. For a documentary that advocates using the empowerment of anger, Ribbons is borderline milquetoast:  it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

Ribbons takes a critical look at the exponential boom in breast cancer fundraising. The Pink Ribbon campaign is almost unprecedented in its exposure and level of participation: from yoghurt lids to NFL players’ shoes, the bright pink of breast cancer awareness is everywhere. Reappropriated by The Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1991, the ribbon is now being grafted onto products at an alarming rate. Unsurprisingly, having a business affiliation with the pink ribbon makes your sales skyrocket. If business is good then, by association, so is the fundraising. So, where’s the problem, you ask? The makers of Ribbons believe this movement is overshadowing the sufferers of cancer and ‘pinkwashing’ cancer into something that can be commercialised.

Ribbons puffs up its chest, marches to war and then weakly throws pebbles at its target. I truly love this expose stuff, and I was prepared to have my blood boil by the end of this documentary…except it never happened. Unfortunately, there is no truly nefarious behaviour in Ribbons. There is some startling information presented — especially a segment that shows that many companies instrumental in the movement (including Estée Lauder) still manufacture carcinogenic products —  but it never reaches the indignant fever pitch, of say, Showtime’s Bullshit! It seems that director Léa Pool is mildly disappointed with the movement and mildness never translates well in activism-based documentaries.

The main objective of Ribbons, it would seem, is for the unification of charities, and to raise the awareness of the average breast cancer contributor. This documentary effectively displays the nonchalant mentality of the average fun-runner, but so what? Few people are as collectively intelligent (or radically feminist) as the subjects in Ribbons. They come from an extremely intellectual and educational vantage point compared to those that they criticise — I doubt that anyone ‘running for a cure’ is worried about an overlapping science trial. The problems they present are indicative of a larger issue, one that Ribbons sadly doesn’t address: anonymous altruism is all but dead. Whether it be through Facebook, Twitter or television, everyone wants instantaneous, public recognition for their charitable deeds — be it cancer, asylum seekers or even giving $10 to the homeless. Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s all about ‘spreading the message’. Somehow I doubt it.

Ribbons is missing a true, narrative through-line. Having a ‘talking heads’ documentary is more than fine, but it needs some conversational structure. When Ribbons does gel it is engrossing, and the film does have the distinction of getting better the longer it goes on. Ribbons is undeniably intelligent stuff and admirably, it wants to promote independent thought, but it seems to send the message of: we can, um, kinda do this better. That unfortunately, is not firebrand stuff.

Three Stars

 ***

Barbara

Barbara

This low-key German drama features some great performances and is quietly engrossing, but, ultimately, it is a little too repressed for its own good.

Set in 1980, Barbara tells the tale of a German physician (Nina Hoss) who is forcibly transferred from The German Demorcatic Republic after requesting a permanent exit visa known as an ausreiseantrag. Under the intrusive eye of the Stasi, Barbra begins work at a clinic near the Baltic Sea. The clinic is run by the kind-hearted physician André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld). As Barbara and André’s professional relationship blossoms so too does André’s romantic feelings for the aloof Barbara.

As a film, Barbara is as opaque as its glacial protagonist: Barbara is all about showing and not telling. As a character, Barbara is unwelcoming to the point of abrasiveness. Though never explicitly shown, we can tell that she has had tragedy in her past. This film is about the gradual thawing of the human heart and it is paced accordingly.

While often repressed to the point of muteness, Nina Hoss gives an indelible performance as the titular Barbara. With her blonde locks, tight jaw and permanently dangling cigarette, she is a quintessentially German beauty. Her bottled-up mannerisms are fascinating and she carries this film with her controlled physicality. Ronald Zehrfeld is a great counterpoint as André, a man who wears his emotions blatantly on his sleeve. Their interactions are subtly powerful and it’s fascinating to watch Hoss invert the gender power-balance simply by being withholding.

Director Christian Petzold won best director at the Berlin Film Festival for Barbara. Petzold always has unwavering control of this film; he only lets the audience see what he wants to. And, by being narratively withholding, he imbues this drama with an air of mystery. This is a strikingly shot film, not in terms of technique — it is quite languidly shot — but in the natural beauty it captures, such as Barbara’s scenic bicycle rides through the countryside.

Barbara may be too subtle for some tastes, but if you are after a gentle character study, Barbara works a treat.

Three Stars

 ***

Sleepless Night

Sleepless Night

When you think of French cinema, what comes to mind? Torrid love affairs? Existential wankery? Gerard Depardieu’s nose? All of the above? Well, if you see Sleepless Night , you can add ‘badass action extravaganza’ to that list. Starting off at a breakneck pace and never stoping for gas, Sleepless Night is a cinematic kick to the side of the head.

Vincent (Tomer Sisley) is a cop on the take. After a botched drug robbery leaves him exposed, Vincent finds himself wanted by both sides of the law. To further complicate matters, his son has been kidnapped by the local drug kingpin and taken to ‘Le Tarmac’, a sprawling multi-level nightclub. Now, Vincent has to exchange the stolen drugs for his son, but with rival gangs and the cops closing in, Vincent is about to get a lot more than he bargained for.

Sleepless Night  is utterly single-minded in it action aspirations but wildly complex in its approach. Director Frédéric Jardin throws his protagonist into a pressure cooker and then turns up the heat. This film twists and turns like a Formula One track and Jardin drives his characters through it at a similar speed. Vincent is not some bulletproof meathead in the modern action film tradition; he is a desperate father that will (and does) do anything to get his son back. He also happens to be one seriously resilient son of a bitch.

The location of Sleepless Night’s action is ingenious: the Le Tarmac nightclub is sprawling and complex. Jardin utilises the chaotic nature of the club to set up a multitude of high octane action sequences. Often, Vincent has to hide in plain sight and the surging crowds and thumping music is a sensory overload. When you add in gunplay and fisticuffs it becomes sublime.

The danger of making a film this frantic is one of fatigue: how do you sustain a rigid sense of tension? Miraculously, Sleepless Night not only maintains its intensity throughout its entire run time, it actually gets better as it goes along. Every time the film is in danger of becoming repetitious, Jardin throws another spanner in the works, re-energizing proceedings.

Sleepless Night  isn’t satisfied to rest on its air-tight plot, it also features hilariously tough gangster dialogue and a plethora of memorable performances. Tomer Sisley is phenomenal as the unassumingly volatile Vincent. The great F. Scott Fitzgerald once said ‘action is character’ and by this notion, Vincent is a goddamn great character.

Your enjoyment of Sleepless Night  will likely depend on your predisposition to action flicks. If your idea of a good time is watching Jason Statham kick people in the face, the highly adrenalized Sleepless Night  will well near rip your head off.

Five Stars

***

Tomorrow’s films: The Imposter and God Bless America

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