Memorable perfs but few breakouts

The 57th Berlinale turned out to be one of the more disconnected in the event’s long history: The sales bazaar trundled along at various locations around the periphery of the Potzdamer Platz, while the festival unspooled in the middle. And rarely the twain did meet.

In both of these parallel universes, excitement was in short supply. The fest did serve up more stars than ever, generating an exponential increase in German media coverage (important for politicians and sponsors who bankroll the event), but neither the market nor the competition stirred the blood of the critics or business crowd with any hot-button issues or must-have movies.

Berlin was full of celebs tub-thumping their pictures — Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, Cate Blanchett (in for two movies), Judi Dench, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez.

Kosslick called it “the most star-driven festival in Berlinale history.”

Stone came not only to support her widely panned competition pic “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” but also to strut in front of a well-heeled crowd to raise money for the Cinema for Peace initiative. (Her rather wacky exhibition became an instant classic in cyberspace).

Lopez flew in for competition pic “Bordertown,” Gregory Nava’s film about the systematic murder of women in the Texas-Mexico border town of Cuidad Juarez, stopping to pick up an award from Amnesty Intl. for raising awareness of this problem.

The three Yank titles in competition — the inevitable duo of “The Good German” and “The Good Shepherd” as well as Zack Snyder’s “300” — were received respectfully by the fest crowd, but hardly rapturously.

Closest the market and festival came to a buzz film was the footage from Morgan Spurlock’s top-secret comic doc “The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden,” screened by Wild Bunch. But with buyers forced to sign draconian confidentiality agreements about the movie’s content, there wasn’t much chance for it to stir debate.

In similar territory, First Look launched sales of its untitled Larry Charles/Bill Maher doc taking a satirical look at religion. But with just one provocative pitch sheet by Charles to show buyers, there wasn’t enough material to stir controversy.

A number of titles in the competition traversed difficult terrain — including the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and AIDS. While English-language critics were tough on most of the pics, applause in the auditorium suggested that Europeans may respond differently.

A handful of sales agents such as Summit, Focus, Fortissimo and Wild Bunch did report intense dealmaking and long lists of sales, but overall, business seemed slow and difficult.

Still, there was a modicum of heat among several projects still in the works, and curiosity about others that are just a glint in the eye of producers.

The Spurlock doc was a hot seller, picked off by the Weinstein Co. for North America.

John Woo’s upcoming epic “Red Cliff,” the most expensive Asian-financed film ever, will start lensing in China next month, and sold to most major territories.

Other titles that surfaced included Volker Schlondorff’s Afghanistan-set “Uzlan,” Michael Hoffman’s Tolstoy biopic (with Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep) and the Arthur Cohn-produced remake of Shochiku’s “The Yellow Handkerchief,” which will lense in New Orleans in May.

Only scandale on the market side was the decision by ever-cantankerous French sales company Wild Bunch to set up shop outside the market headquarters at the Martin Gropius Bau to protest fest topper Kosslick’s “disrespect.”

Kosslick had declined to invite one of Wild Bunch’s films for the competition and, to add insult to injury, allegedly didn’t relay his decision personally. Kosslick dismissed the spat as little more than a bid (admittedly successful) by Wild Bunch topper Vincent Maravel for free publicity.

That’s what passed for excitement at this year’s event.

On the competition front, there was little to provoke protest let alone outrage.

On paper, several pics looked to be involving or even controversial, but so faltered on the artistic front that they just didn’t rouse enough emotion.

In the ho-hum category were “The Other,” “Desert Dream” and “In Memory of Myself,” and in the thumbs-down group were the Taviani brothers “The Lark Farm.” Even auteurs like Bille August (“Goodbye Bafana”) and Jacques Rivette (“Don’t Touch the Axe”) failed to ignite.

What did arouse some enthusiasm among festgoers were several reasonably well-made and moving movies, with commercial prospects across Europe and perhaps beyond.

France’s “La Vie en rose,” a conventionally plotted but still engrossing biopic about French chanteuse Edith Piaf, boasted a glowing performance by Marion Cotillard. Pic was picked up by Picturehouse in the U.S. many months ago and will open later this year.

“The Counterfeiters,” an unrelentingly bleak German production about concentration camp inmates forced to forge currency to prop up the Nazis, received loud applause at the premiere. By its very nature, the Teutonic pic will probably attract only a limited audience. Nonetheless distrib Beta has sold it to a host of territories. A deal with the U.S. is pending.

Kosslick defended what he termed “the balance between big splashy movies and tiny indie pics in the competition,” saying that as long as he is fest director, that mix will prevail.

But if this Berlinale is to be remembered for anything, it will be for performances rather than directorial revelations.

Thesps ruled the roost, from the U.K.’s Marianne Faithfull (“Irina Palm”) and Judi Dench (“Notes on a Scandal”), through Germany’s Nina Hoss (“Yella”), Karl Markovic and Devid Striesow (both in “The Counterfeiters”) to China’s Yu Nan (“Tuya’s Marriage”).

Rumblings also resurfaced. Some Americans and Asians seem increasingly dissatisfied with the venue and timing, though the Europeans seem pleased with the rendezvous in their backyard.

European Film Market head Beki Probst says her org hired consultants to help come up with suggestions for managing the Berlin market’s growth.

She also says there might be new regulations ordering companies to screen only new product, not movies already screened in Cannes.

Derek Elley contributed to this report.

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