Berlinale 2018: Cross My Heart


Intentional or not, Luc Picard’s Cross My Heart has a lot of audacity. Starting out as a serviceable family drama set in 1970, Picard takes his story into one ludicrous direction after another while keeping a straight face, and at times it’s hard not to wonder if he’s daring us to blink. 

Set in Montreal during the FLQ crisis -- in which a terrorist group kidnapped two government officials and made Pierre Trudeau invoke the War Measures Act -- Cross My Heart deals with the teenage Manon (Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau) and her young brother Mimi (Anthony Bouchard), who find their own lives in disarray. Their father is dying from cancer and their mother can’t handle the stress of having to take care of her husband while raising two children, so she arranges to have Manon and Mimi put into foster care, where they’ll be separated and sent to different families. The tumultuous situation in Montreal turns into a reflection of the ambiguity in Manon’s life, knowing her family’s about to be torn apart.

It turns out that the FLQ’s kidnapping is a source of inspiration for Manon, and it’s at this point where Picard’s story goes wild. In order to ensure her and Mimi stay together, Manon convinces two of her cousins to kidnap her elderly neighbour (Clare Coulter) and hide out in a hunting cabin, where they can all live together as a family unit while tricking the cops into thinking they’ve been taken hostage by terrorists. It goes without saying that Manon’s plan is insane, but Picard makes sure it works out, with musical montages and cute moments between characters showing this illegal arrangement might just work out. By the time the kidnap victim warms up to her captors after they ask her to be their grandma, it feels like Picard himself has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome.

As crazy as Cross My Heart becomes, it’s fully dedicated to the story it wants to tell, and dedication can go a long way. Picard works well with his ensemble, and he directs everything with a level of ease and confidence that keeps the film about as watchable as your average cable drama. By the time the police start catching up to Manon and her crew, it’s hard not to root for them. And when little Mimi ends up brandishing a rifle in a standoff with police, you might as well go with it because you’ve made it this far into the film anyway. Despite its factually-based setting, Cross My Heart is a ridiculous fantasy; it’s a pretty funny one too.

Berlinale 2018: Grass


I could say that Hong Sang-soo is back with a new film, but this is his fourth project in the last 12 months, so it might be more accurate to say that Hong is still here with a new film. One of the most prolific and beloved arthouse directors working today, Hong’s Grass runs just over an hour long, a fact that also makes him one of the most considerate. The film’s premiere in Belin’s Forum section -- a choice one might perceive as a downgrade given that On the Beach at Night Alone screened last year in official competition -- suggests this might be seen as a more slight entry into his filmography, but Grass remains as consistent and enigmatic as Hong’s other recent output.

I would agree that Grass is a slight film, even though it really isn’t. Most of Hong’s films have some kind of structural gimmick, and here it comes from its lead character Areum (Kim Min-hee), a writer spending her days eavesdropping on other people in a cafe. She sits back on her laptop while we watch and listen to those around her: a struggling actor, a happy couple, a director, and a mourning pair of friends are just a few of the people Areum hears, or so we think. Truth is slippery here, and some of these conversations might actually be Areum imagining her own writing. Hong doesn’t make any clear distinction, nor does he seem bothered with presenting his film as a puzzle to be figured out. That gives Grass a freeing nature that makes it feel a bit flighty. You can take each exchange in its own context, which makes the film nicely compartmentalized.

But this is where the paradox comes in. A melancholy cloud hangs over Grass, with suicide being a topic of conversation in several scenes. At one point a man and woman drink together while he berates her over being responsible for his friend’s suicide, the camera pointed over the man’s shoulder from behind with the woman just out of focus, a stylistic choice that’s almost entirely new for Hong. So how can Grass deal with such heavy subject matter, show its director experimenting with different visual methods, and feel so lightweight at the same time? Figuring out the answer is part of Hong’s allure. Just as he can put ‘real’ and ‘fake’ scenes together here and make them coexist, he can also let these opposite reactions work at the same time. There’s more fun to be had with the contradictions Hong can bring up and explore in the span of one hour than what most other films can muster up with two.

Berlinale 2018: Cobain

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Life is hard for young protagonists in European co-productions, like 15-year-old Cobain (Bas Keizer). He’s forced to take care of his mother Mia (Naomi Velissariou), who’s well into her third trimester and unable to kick her drug addiction. Despite getting assigned to a foster family, Cobain decides to make Mia his top priority, and soon finds himself working for a pimp named Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck, looking like a second-rate Gerard Depardieu in his boxers and open bathrobe) in order to earn money. It’s the perfect mixture of tragedy and social realism, or a mixture just perfect enough for an international tour of the festival circuit.

Maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Cobain, but after years of enduring these tales of woe and misery geared for the arthouse there’s a breaking point. Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, character traits, plot points, social environments, and other details appear as vague forms of things we’ve already seen before, and our general familiarity with these dramatic building blocks lets the filmmakers leave us to do all the work for them. Feast your eyes on the seemingly friendly pimp who turns cruel and predatory towards our teenage protagonist because it’s the point in the story where the third act has to begin; look at the prostitutes with hearts of gold who give our lead a sense of family until they fulfill their dramatic usefulness; and don’t forget about the complicated mother, whose mean and self-destructive behaviour towards her son are offset by one or two scenes where she shows some affection when she’s tired, high, or both.

Cobain inspires schematic thinking because it’s a schematic film. Every piece pops into place as it should, and all the dramatic beats play out as expected, with the only exception being the absurd direction the story takes. It’s hard enough to believe a 15-year-old could get a stash of methadone, put his strung-out pregnant mother on a motor scooter and drive her into the country to detox, but that’s just a warm-up for the bloody, ludicrous climax. I won’t spend any more time dwelling on it, because I’m afraid that by now I’ve put more thought into this than the filmmakers.