If Sundance signals the annual launch of American indie cinema's new product line, the 63-year-old Berlin Film Festival (February 7-17) offers the year's first major look at what the rest of the world has to offer. In addition to the 19-film official competition — this year presided over by jury president Wong Kar-wai — there are two even larger "parallel" sections (the Panorama and Forum), an expansive sidebar of movies for family audiences (dubbed "Generation"), and a program devoted to "culinary cinema," Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick being as much a foodie as he is a cinephile. The opening night selection there: Mussels in Love, a wry and surprisingly absorbing Dutch documentary about the farming of the titular shellfish, including graphic slow-motion close-ups of the mussel reproductive cycle — images that put only a mild damper on the excellent post-screening dinner prepared by two-star Michelin chef Nils Henkel.
Being first isn't always something to envy: Berlin's pole position on the international festival calendar means it can be hard to secure world premieres of new films by name-brand auteurs, or Oscar bait of the sort scheduled to open in cinemas in the second half of the year. Where such films tend to set their sights on the warmer climes of Cannes in May (where Amour and The Artist premiered) and Venice and Toronto in the fall, Berlin has carved out its own niche as a discovery zone for new and emerging directors, as well as the odd old master mounting a stealth comeback. In 2011, Asghar Farhadi's much-loved A Separation and Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr's swan song The Turin Horse debuted here, while last year's unusually robust competition lineup included the critics darlings Barbara and Tabu, eventual Oscar nominees A Royal Affair and War Witch, and the Shakespeare-behind-bars docudrama Caesar Must Die, directed by octogenarian Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
If this year's Berlinale (as it is locally known) failed to yield quite the same bounty of critical and audience hits, one unanimous favorite was Gloria, a warm and richly detailed portrait of a 58-year-old divorcée (the excellent Paulina García) tentatively sticking her toe back into the dating pool. Already acquired for U.S. distribution by Roadside Attractions, it's a breakout for the young Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio, whose three previous features played smaller festivals and earned little international attention, and yet more evidence of a thriving new wave of Chilean filmmakers that includes No director Pablo Larraín (a producer of Gloria) and Sebastián Silva (whose two new films, Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic, screened at Sundance). It's also a triumph for García, a soulful actress of that dreaded "certain age" at which leading roles become scarcer than the reliable men in Gloria's life.
If Gloria was Berlin's undisputed crowd-pleaser, for sheer audacity little could top Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, an as-yet unclassified filmic object from the prolific French-Canadian director Denis Côté (Curling, Bestiaire), here making his first competition appearance at one of the "big three" festivals. In some ways, Côté's protagonist, Victoria (the extraordinary Pierrette Robitaille), could be considered Gloria's acerbic doppelganger — another middle-aged woman trying to restart her life, this time in the remote Québec countryside, where she's recently been paroled from a life prison sentence. Just what crime Vic committed is, like many things in Côté's wry and mysterious film, never fully explained, but we know from her taut, weary face and cutting glances that she's seen her fair share and wants to hide out from the world. ("I'm old enough to know that I hate people," she says without a touch of irony.)
Retreating to an out-of-business "sugar shack" once run by her now-catatonic uncle, Vic is joined by Florence (Romane Bohringer), her jailhouse lover, and in a few short strokes Côté pulls us into their world — the suspicious neighbors from whom they keep a careful distance, the fastidious parole officer (a superb Marc-André Grondin) who earns their mutual contempt and eventually their grudging respect, and the heavy emotional baggage both women have to unpack. (The bisexual Flo has a habit of straying from the nest, which both angers Vic and quietly terrifies her). Then, gradually, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear takes on the air of a dark fairy tale with touches of the absurd — a shift in tone that might have seemed ridiculous, but which Côté deploys so effortlessly that we gladly follow, over the river and through the woods to a place where the brothers Grimm and the brothers Coen seem to collide.
In a lineup that also included strong efforts from veterans like France's Bruno Dumont (Camille Claudel, 1915) and Korea's Hong Sang-soo (Nobody's Daughter Haewon), Berlin's most thrilling surprise arrived in the form of Harmony Lessons, the debut feature of 28-year-old Kazakh director Emir Baigazin. Set in a high school somewhere in the Kazakh steppes, the film centers on the shy, recessive Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov, a nonprofessional discovered in an Almaty orphanage), who becomes a moving target for the school's alpha bullies after falling for a humiliating prank. But even before that, Aslan seems markedly uncomfortable in his own pubescent skin, his obsessive hygiene practices arousing the concern of his elderly grandmother, his free time spent devising ingenious insect torture devices (including a working, cockroach-size electric chair) in his bedroom laboratory.
As the title suggests, Harmony Lessons is less a straightforward narrative than a series of illustrative moments about the Darwinian horrors of adolescence, where the strong eat the weak and the weak must adapt — sometimes violently — to survive. It's a spellbinding work that manages to include extended digressions on the laws of physics, Islam and Gandhism in its perverse, profound brew. And right from the opening images, in which a lush, verdant landscape abruptly gives way to the wintry desolation of the steppe, Baigazin establishes a stunning control of image, tone, and subjective reality. After the screening, a colleague complained to me about the tendency of critics to say that a strong debut film is "especially" impressive simply because it is a debut, when in fact some of the most singular movies in cinema history have been firsts, from Zero de Conduite (a clear influence on Baigazin) to Citizen Kane to Beasts of the Southern Wild. So allow me to say without qualification that Harmony Lessons announces the arrival of a major talent, from a part of the world where filmmaking is scarce, at a festival that deserves full credit for making the discovery.