Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Movie Review: Berlin Syndrome

Berlin Syndrome *** / *****
Directed by: Cate Shortland.
Written by: Shaun Grant and Cate Shortland based on the novel by Melanie Joosten.
Starring: Teresa Palmer (Clare), Max Riemelt (Andi). 
The premise of Berlin Syndrome sounds like its either going to be one of those hard-to-watch horror films like the recent Hounds of Love, that make you want to turn away is disgust, but refuses to let you go, or an exploitation film – a fun guilty pleasure, that doesn’t take itself seriously, but has a blast along the way. Instead of either of those approaches – both of which probably would have been easier – co-writer/director Cate Shortland decides to take the premise of the film seriously, and tries to dive into the psychological makeup of the two people at the center of her film. It’s an interesting choice to be sure – and a not altogether successful one – but I appreciated the effort.
As the film opens, we think we may be watching a romantic comedy or drama – the Australian tourist, Clare (Teresa Palmer) in Berlin, taking photos of the GDR architecture, who meets the handsome, charming Andi (Max Riemelt) – a high school teacher – and the two bond quickly. She’s supposed to move onto Dresden – but decides to stay for a little while longer, to see where this thing with Andi may go. Things do get hot and heavy – the go to his apartment, in an empty building, and everything is just like you see in the movies – those early days of lust and infatuation. He goes to work the next day, and forgets to leave the key so she cannot get out. The next day, he does leave a key – but it doesn’t work. When he comes home that day, she tries to leave – and he stops her. She is now his prisoner.
The film is undeniably creepy and disturbing, but never quite in the way you expect it to be. A film like the aforementioned Hounds of Love also dealt with a woman (in that case, a teenager) tied up and held captive, was a film that was disturbing in the extreme, and difficult to watch – despite the fact that it was never really graphic in its depictions of abuse and violence – but the film walked that fine line, where it seemed like violence was always possible at any moments. Berlin Syndrome never heightens the emotions in that way – it keeps things on a more even keel. Clare wants out, but is smart enough to realize who to play Andi to prevent herself from being that hurt. Andi is more banal than anything else – that being part of the point – a hurt little boy, who never really lets his anger show. Shortland treats both with sympathy and respect. The few moments of genuine suspense in the film do show that she is more than capable of staging a more traditional thriller if she wanted to – she just didn’t want to.
I appreciated this approach up to a point – and that point is about the time you realize just how slow the film is going. Because Shortland is more interested in psychological terrain than suspense set pieces, there seem to be long stretches where not a lot really happens, and the film repeats itself as it moves along. Andi reveals his layers slowly – finally showing the misogynist he has always been near the end of the film. But the revelations come a little too slowly – the film runs nearly two hours, and it really starts to grow sluggish in the second hour – which is usually where a film like this would be ramping up to its climax. At 85-90 minutes, Berlin Syndrome would likely be a stronger, tighter film.
There is still a lot to admire about the film. Shortland is a fine director – and I really do wish she’d work more often (she made her debut film, Somersault in 2004, and only has two films since – including the very good Lore, about a young German girl in WWII). While the pacing of the movie isn’t great, she knows how to slowly build tension. Palmer, who is often underutilized in American movies as merely a pretty face (most recently in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge) always seems better working in her native Australian accent (see also 2:37 and Wish You Were Here). Here, she plays a strong, resilient woman – who bids her time.
Berlin Syndrome is an interesting film, without being altogether successful. I wish Shortland had found a way to make the film shorter and tighter – the story is rather slim, and it feels padded in the extreme at nearly two hours. It does reveal an interesting take a more standard issue tale however – and we certainly need more of that.

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