German drama “Valerie” finds the titular washed-up fashion model spending a very un-merry Christmas being homeless in Berlin. Birgit Moller’s well-crafted directorial debut won the MK Award for first feature at San Francisco’s Berlin & Beyond Fest, and it’s an accomplished character piece that sustains interest in a conceit nearly as slender as its protagonist — major debit being that Valerie herself is such a blank slate, it’s hard to work up much emotional involvement in her plight. Pic opens on home turf March 8; offshore prospects are likely to skew small-screen.
It’s never clear why 30ish Valerie (Agata Buzek) left Paris, her last abode, for Berlin. Nor why she’s so broke she can’t pay for her Grand Hyatt hotel room or the parking-garage fees that would release her car. But that is the state of things. Now the blonde, rail-thin, Polish-born model finds herself stranded.
Her agent (Sabine Vitua) ominously suggests she’s had a good run and hopefully saved some money (clearly, she didn’t). A photographer ex (Birol Unel) has moved on to a new, younger model girlfriend. Valerie has to depend on the kindness — or at least gullibility — of strangers like parking attendant Andre (Devid Streisow), who takes pity and breaks the rules by letting her sleep in her car. She manages to sneakily deploy the hotel’s services a couple times, flirts almost accidentally with prostitution (but seems disinterested in sex, period, let alone sex for pay) and tries to use her connections to get some new gigs.
Even forced to change clothes and primp in the garage, or in public toilets, she still knows how to pull off an upscale look or three, which makes her seem an absurd candidate for homelessness. But when all else fails, she’s stuck just getting drunk on someone else’s tab at a bar, or walking the frigid winter streets alone.
Moller, who’s done more work as a cinematographer than as a director to date, shows a keen visual sense for the glittering urban isolation, and lends enough humor and restraint to avoid the situation’s potential hand-wringing pathos. She also handles thesps well — though it’s Buzek’s apt rendering of a not-especially-sympathetic heroine that both anchors the pic and limits its impact.
As played, Valerie doesn’t seem an airhead, but neither does the script afford her any interests (unless cigarettes and alcohol count), goals, meaningful human ties or explanatory past. She knows how to wear good clothes, do her own hair and makeup, and look glam — and that, as far as we can tell, are her defining characteristics. No doubt there are professional models whose personalities are exactly this surface-bound. But the suggestion that Valerie might be an empty or simply indifferent vessel doesn’t make her a protagonist who excites much rooting interest.
Kolja Raschke’s lensing tops a well-turned production package that, like Valerie herself, shows resourcefulness on cramped means.