By Mónica Delgado
Both Petite Maman, by the French Céline Sciamma, and What do we see when we look at the sky?, by the Georgian Alexandre Koberidze, allow us to measure a sensitivity from the programming of festivals in relation to the pandemic crisis, which in addition to being economic, is also emotional. Is it that, from now on, films that show more than the optimistic future of humanity will pour over us? Are now these films of guilt and tragedy or those of beautiful human warmth “necessary” films? Films where human polarities are blurred? In any case, I propose a whimsical reading on some passages within a broader panorama of this year’s Berlinale, which has not yet concluded, to provoke a reflection on the new common meanings that arise from these decisions in the selection of films, and which is also marked by market flows, now forcibly removed from movie theaters and given over to new streaming dynamics (platforms and festivals).
However, unlike the films mentioned above, the films made in pandemic and exhibited in this edition of the Berlinale, such as Radu Jude’s, or Denis Côté’s, show another pole in the question, since they are works where the pandemic climate has forced the filmmakers to rethink an expressive way, and to point their fictions to question social contexts, in relation to history, totalitarianisms, bureaucracy, machismo; only extendable (and understandable) from this horror in times of COVID-19.
On the other hand, both Petite Maman and What do we see when we look at the sky?, films in themselves of quite interest, start from a very similar idea -also because I saw them consecutively-, an idea around transgression of the bodies or their carefree exchange, as a simple symbolic or fabled affair. Characters who meet their doubles in rarefied atmospheres (a daughter who meets her mother as a child after crossing a magical path in the forest) or a man and a woman who fall in love at first sight, but suddenly wake up in different bodies: the resource of recognizing oneself beyond the remembered physiognomies. By starting from these physical premises, the course of both films is sustained, above all, in this rhetorical game, as kind fables, to draw human relationships, in an endearing world. Bodies and their limited scopes. But they are also united by the use of the dreamlike fiction as a disruptive component: sleeping and waking up under a new logic of existence. Don’t we dream of this idea in days of confinement and estrangement? Odes to the possibility of escape.
Petite Maman, Sciamma’s fifth feature film, again develops female characters, but from a story of minimal resources, unlike his previous works, that is, concentrated on an economy of shots, very few characters and with the intention of showing very filial relationships. Nelly, an eight-year-old girl, who has just lost her grandmother, and assists her parents in moving out as a result of the loss, is aware of the lightness of life and with autonomy (relating to similar characters, like Nana by Valérie Massadian). Her bond with her young mother, Marion, looks schematic, to the point that the little character can be heard saying, “We only talk at night.” After this statement of remoteness, for various reasons her mother disappears from the scene, to give way to the fantastic aspect. Little Nelly meets a girl in the forest, named after her mother.
From this encounter, the film acquires a rarefied dimension in relation to this new character, with family spaces and with her father. What could be seen as the observation of a childhood friendship, between two girls with similar tastes, emerges as interpretations about mother-infant ties or about the opportunities for understanding the infantile world from adulthood. For example, Nelly asks her father to be more dedicated when he tells her about childhood events, since the very specific information about her does not help to show a more empathetic relationship with the same childhood that she lives. However, the answer is given by Sciamma, showing this friendship as a possibility of a future relationship. If in Portrait of a Woman on Fire, the filmmaker shows the impossibility of love or its resistance, among women, here is another idea of “sisterhood”, symbolized in the hut in the forest or in the pyramid in the middle of the lake as a framed cultural imaginary for a female friendship that transcends the idea of time (and the socially assigned roles of mother and daughter).
While in What do we see when we look at the sky?, Koberidze gives us a fresco of a community, Kutaisi, to delve into interrelationships of people of different ancestry, guided by the voice-over of an omniscient narrator, who that works as the world’s computer. This film maintains a clear aesthetic, subjugated by the disruptive premise (surprise), which allows the fictional story to acquire a playful and free dimension. It works as an encompassing story of a city, as a narrative about the nature of the identity of that town, from soccer ( an inclusive logic where women are soccer players as well as men) and songs, from meetings and outings from school, but also from the fate of two future lovers, in a new challenge imposed by an author who sees everything.
The Georgian filmmaker escapes the formula of the usual romantic story, and for this, he adds devices of all kinds, such as vignettes of silent cinema, leitmotifs to accompany scenes, absence of sound from dialogues (as in silent cinema too, the opportunity to focus on gestures), panoramic views from cranes to show miniatures of these “ecosystems”, as well as captures of faces and city actions that refer taking the ethnographic temperature of an entire people on their daily lives in the streets, being part of this urban calm vibration.
Somewhere in the film, maybe twenty minutes from the beginning, a request appears to our role as spectators: “Dear Audience, please close your eyes at the first signal.” Would it have worked the same if it was just a long black screen giving way to the scene? Perhaps, the role of the demiurge who orders the lives of the protagonists, thus extends to our own lives with this simple indication. Close your eyes to actively enter the film, since it could depend on us what the characters have in store, or perhaps it is a simple resource that gives us hope of dreaming and waking up somewhere else.