Leila Albayaty’s “Berlin Telegram” is the kind of deeply personal filmmaking that wears its Gallic sensibility with the cool nonchalance of a gamine sporting a beret. So intertwined is reality with fiction that it’s impossible to distinguish re-creation from invention, as the multihyphenate helmer charts her emotional trajectory from distraught to reinvigorated after a bad break-up. At times painfully masochistic in the name of film-as-therapy, this undeniably solipsistic pic is intermittently rewarding for those in tune with the subject’s intensity, though finding an audience beyond Euro festgoers will be a challenge.
“French” is often jokingly considered a state of mind as well as a nationality, and Albayaty, a half-Iraqi, half-French musician and visual artist raised in France, is certainly connected to her Euro side. Defining what that means becomes tricky: Is it the raw exposure of self, the moodiness, the citizen-of-the-world hipsters projecting an air of studied insouciance even when in turmoil? The opening scene, with tear-stained Leila (Albayaty basically plays herself) fronting a band and singing about the end of a relationship, couldn’t be more Gallic in spirit, the handheld lensing deliberately unrefined so as to express an aching immediacy.
Leila’s been dumped, and she’s not coping well: Rarely has anyone sung Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in quite so distraught a manner. To start her life over, she moves from Brussels to Berlin, a city she has no connection to apart from the sensation, shared by so many artsy types, that it’s a welcoming destination for the creative. As winter turns to spring, she works on her music and interacts with friends, her sister Anna (played by the actress-helmer’s real sis Hana Al Bayaty) and new acquaintances, slowly coming to terms with the memory of her cuckolding ex and their failed relationship.
Viewers receptive to Leila’s heart-on-her-sleeve demonstrativeness, which makes every love a tragedy that has happened or is waiting to happen, will feel as uplifted as the character when she’s able to finally take control of her life (the end-credit song could have been “I Made It Through the Rain”). Others, however, may react less appreciatively to the sensation of watching a blatantly self-centered form of therapy.
Leila’s whispered voiceovers (the hushed tone is heavy-handed) come too frequently, and with no sense of her ex, it becomes difficult to know what to think of their severed bond. Around the halfway mark she tells herself, as if talking to him: “I used to know who I am because you watched me.” It’s clear Leila, and therefore Albayaty, needs to filter herself through others’ eyes to know who she is, making the watchful camera the new means of self-discovery.
Even those in harmony with Leila’s emotional curve may reach saturation, thanks to her near-inability to see beyond her own skin. As she adapts to Berlin, Leila speaks of only seeing similar-minded young artists in the city: old people, the bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat may as well be nonexistent, so wrapped up is she in her own life. Expanding her wavelength even a smidgen would have infinitely increased the pic’s appeal.
While undeniably low-budget (it was made for around $200,000), the film doesn’t feel cheap, relying on intimate, informal visuals that underscore the sense of the personal. Together with a certain jauntiness, it’s a style that suits the material as well as the music, and while the final image may seem a bit more conventional, it’s what’s needed to give Leila her well-earned sense of peace.