First watches: Bumper edition | Berlinale and beyond 2024

Slapstick and the civil war, sex and chimneys, galactic combat and the French: my unexpected emotional cavalcade in film.

8 min readApr 1, 2024

Sex (2024)

Barely anything happens except for conversations about sex and sexuality.

I didn’t expect to be watching a film about two Norwegian chimney sweeps called Sex, but here we are. It’s quite a mellow, quizzical foray into gender roles, relationships, and sexuality. But it definitely runs too long.

One of the men is having an identity crisis because his dreams involve being emasculated by David Bowie, while the other actually fucked a bloke yesterday. So right from the off, they enter into relentless discussion — with each other and with their wives. What’s initially shrugged off as a random inexplicable anomaly, grows into something much more disruptive.

I’m not sure if I’d rank this as highly if it were in English, but I could fool myself into thinking the dialogue was intelligent and unusually true-to-life. At points, it seems as though we’re truly spying on a middle aged couple grappling with open relationships in the garden.

Barely anything happens except for conversations about sex and sexuality from a “hetero” white angle, but they’re hesitant and raw enough to feel genuinely searching. As if to spice things up, Anne Marie Ottersen totally steals the show in the latter half, initiating a fun little flashback about tattoos. What’s more, there are lovely little musical interludes showing random ambient street activity — my favourite!

The General (1926)

Sharp, witty, and frantic.

We’re nearing this film’s 100th anniversary and yet it’s so rare to see action and adrenaline in movies from the 2020s that feel as tangible and urgent as here, in The General. The stuntmanship alone is impressive enough, but slathered atop of it comes a fat wadge of slapstick comedy.

Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is desperate to help fight in America’s Civil War. He’s rejected and feeling solemn, until spies steal his steam train — the titular “General” — with his prospective lover inside! Therefore, he has no choice but to clamber aboard another locomotive and rescue the both of them. Johnny is played as a lovable underdog who haphazardly stumbles into success, rather than with skill. Shame about the politics though; Johnny is a Confederate.

I’m a sucker for silent films because I so thoroughly enjoy orchestral scores. The music here does so much heavy lifting, providing an immersive backdrop on which its train-based skits can play out. This is often edge-of-your-seat, albeit witty and frantic — there’s great momentum. The first half is a hot-pursuit, the latter is a hapless getaway with Anabelle at the wheel: women drivers, am I right?!

At 79 minutes and with so much to squeeze in, The General doesn’t let up until Buster Keaton unleashes one of the most shocking and unexpected stunts in Hollywood film!

L’Empire (2024)

A film that defies explanation.

Not quite an all-out spoof, yet nothing to take seriously. L’Empire can’t decide if it wants to be outright goofy or subtle. This seems to be the appeal for those who are enamored by it; director Bruno Dumont has done the unachievable and produced a film that defies explanation. Or maybe he made it up as he went along.

The story revolves around opposing alien tribes undercover as ordinary French folk in a seaside town. There are squabbles over an heir to the throne, which range from petty arguments to beheadings with a laser sword. Confusingly, this is brilliantly shot, but lacks convincing visual effects. Even the musical score is a clash — mostly somber and unnoteworthy, with sudden unexpected intervals inspired by Alexandre Desplat. Baffling.

Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be a point. But the pointlessness… may indeed… be the point. Contrasting these villagers’ mundane lives with battles of galactic proportions produces oddly hilarious results; my pal and I couldn’t stop giggling during a space scene in which the Emperor letches after a twerking, armless blob. I don’t think either of us could tell you exactly why.

It’s difficult to fathom the stakes or invest in the characters. Yet somehow I’ve been left with the inexplicable sense that this is an almost spiritual journey. Something about the futility of it all? Also: Jony is surprisingly fuckable.

All of Us Strangers (2023)

I nearly gave myself a brain hemorrhage trying not to cry.

Crikey. I’m not really sure how to describe this. Suffice to say, I was sat alone in the front row — as if on a literal emotional rollercoaster — and I nearly gave myself a brain hemorrhage trying not to cry. All of Us Strangers is extraordinarily powerful.

On the surface, I’d have labelled it an arty-farty, dream-like experience too open to interpretation, but it totally swept me up. Its non-linear, patchwork quilt-quality is precisely why it’s so darn good at conveying FEELINGS. But it’s not as fluffy as you might think.

Most queer people will connect to the content of this film. It stares deep into that mighty reservoir of untapped trauma we all know is there — but the community is too terrified to look at. We’re stuck, trying to process things privately (while we party in public, waving rainbow flags).

There’s more than that, though. Childhood. And the relationship we have with our parents. Adam’s parents died when he was a child, so — drafting his screenplay as a framing device — when he rediscovers them, they’re as young as he remembers. He explores the possibility of being vulnerable and coming out to them, with so much said between the lines, via a simple look or stutter. Directorially, this is incredible work.

Andrew Haigh juggles so many complex themes with almost supernatural tender-heartedness.

The Visitor (2024)

Stuffed with gurning as fake as Amy Kingsmill’s wig.

If this was the only film you caught at the Berlinale this year, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d muddled your tickets with the 74th Amateur Sex Tape Festival.

Bruce LaBruce — renowned for creating provocative gay sex flicks — was inspired to remake Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema; I’ve not seen the original, but this amounts to nothing more than vague porno cliches strung together with a story about a horny naked “alien” (Bishop Black) who moves in with a whacky family — who look as if they buy their clothes at the fancy dress shop. They’d only be tolerable if part of a grotesque Saturday morning cartoon. Here, each of them take it in turns to fuck him. It’s not subtle, brooding, or abstract.

Rather, this looks a lot like racial fetishism. Unfortunately, it seems Bruce is under the impression that if he shouts anti-racist slogans and bangs on about colonialism, loudly and in flashing colours, everything will surely even out in the end. Only one of these slimy sex scenes, in blue, is remotely erotic. The rest are stuffed with gurning as fake as Amy Kingsmill’s wig, overcompensating for a total lack of plot.

Repetitious “shocking” imagery, peppered with pseudo-political dialogue as if from an edgy, vacant teen. The Visitor is infuriatingly dull. Watch it if only to inspire your own creativity. If this tripe can get made, yours can too.

No Other Land (2024)

Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham stood ahead of us united.

Audiences arrived tetchy. And despite everyone clearly being moved by the the documentary, they couldn’t hold it together during the Q and A. Some started yelling “fuck off” at each other. Meanwhile, filmmakers, Basel Adra (Palestinian) and Yuval Abraham (Israeli), stood ahead of us united. Germany’s minister of culture, however, said she was applauding only the Israeli journalist in what amounts to a ridiculous inversion of the “I was saying Boo-urns” scene from The Simpsons.

It’s not as complicated as the Berlinale would have you believe: ceasefire now (or a long time ago). I think this is the least controversial thing anybody can really say about the situation in Gaza. Minimise any further loss of life.

I’m a total geek, so I’ll quote Peter Capaldi’s iteration of Doctor Who: “When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die. You don’t know who’s children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they’re always going to have to do from the very beginning — sit down and talk!”

I’ve been mostly quiet on the topic, especially on social media — rather, I’ve been choosing to have discussions as and when they arise in real life. I’m not foolish enough to pretend that I understand even a fraction of the nation’s history, but I do know that not killing people indiscriminately — or at all — is a reasonable demand.

This is a really vital film. Find it somehow.

All of Us Strangers (2023)

Also recommended:

  • Another End (2024) — An intriguing journey with profound questions about life and death, but it’s also remorselessly dour.
  • Dealer (1999) — Conveys stuckness well. Understated but beautifully shot. Berlin still looks like this.
  • Sixty Minutes (2024) — It’s like Run Lola Run crossed with John Wick. Cartoonishly bouncy bones, but good fun overall.
  • All Shall Be Well (2024) — Well constructed. No music, just a strong script about a widowed lesbian and her family’s shocking disrespect.

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