Relative to its fellow grand European capitals, Berlin’s potential as a romantic playground has been rather under-explored on film, which is reason enough to welcome Lulu Wang’s slight, sprightly art-scene comedy “Posthumous” onto screens. The city’s scruffy-chic bohemian backstreets add pleasingly eccentric edge to an amiable farce predicated on the old maxim that artists are never appreciated in their time, as Brit Marling’s clear-eyed reporter unravels the truth behind the supposed death of Jack Huston’s dreamily tortured genius. The satire is tempered, however, as proceedings inevitably take an amorous turn. Though Wang’s debut feature — which received its North American premiere at the Miami Film Festival — skips a few steps in its tonal tango, it exhibits enough cheery commercial nous to attract distributor attention at the lighter end of the arthouse gallery.
Chinese-American filmmaker Wang, a recipient last year of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Fellowship, lists Woody Allen among her chief inspirations, and his influence isn’t hard to detect in “Posthumous” — which, with its airy tone and somewhat exaggerated portrayal of the privileged cultural intelligentsia, bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the veteran filmmaker’s recent Continental jaunts. As with those films, viewer mileage will vary depending on one’s degree of sympathy for decidedly First World problems — Marling’s protagonist is a cashmere-clad freelance features writer in a creative funk — presented with unabashed whimsy, though the pic’s appeal as a travelogue is more wide-reaching.
In Marling, moreover, Wang has secured herself the kind of winsomely intelligent female lead essential to so much of Allen’s work. An actress with the gift of making even fairly pedestrian lines sound earnestly considered, she props up the pic’s slightly strained first act, perkily laying the scene in a voiceover that sets up certain faux-noir expectations — and at least one symbolic red herring (“It all started with the bees,” she intones mystifyingly) that may or may not be at the audience’s expense. The comic tone is alternately broad and arch in the early going, as fish-out-of-water journo McKenzie Grain (Marling), newly arrived in Berlin with her slick German art-dealer b.f., Erik (Alexander Fehling), grows fascinated with the oeuvre of depressive British artist Liam Price (Huston). Long frustrated by his inability to make headway in the trend-fixated modern-art world, he fakes his own suicide — only to see his work soar in value when opportunistic gallery owner Daniel (Lambert Wilson) launches a posthumous retrospective.
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Posing as his own twin brother, Liam returns to the art scene to bask in his newfound glory: It’s a screwball setup out of the Preston Sturges playbook and one that McKenzie — not even the most intrepid of reporters — has little trouble seeing through. Sensing a deeper human-interest story behind the potential scandal of the ruse, she humors the fast-fraying Liam; meanwhile, it’s as the film shifts focus from more mechanized hijinks to the gradual personal connection between two insecure creative beings that it finds surer footing. There’s considerable charm in the pairing of Marling and Huston, whose performance similarly gains in stature as it moves beyond mad-artist affectation. A sturdy supporting cast is given comparatively little to do — with Tom Schilling, breakout star of the recent German hit “Oh Boy!,” especially underused as Daniel’s fey lackey — but adds a further veneer of class to proceedings.
Speaking of veneer, Berlin looks enticingly, autumnally lacquered in d.p. Stefan Ciupek’s rich widescreen images. Often employed on film for the cool severity of its streetscapes, the city here — with its range of rustic-urban parks, repurposed warehouses and offbeat outdoor installations — is ultimately made to seem a place for lovers, albeit ones of a melancholy, contemplative persuasion. Of particular note in the pic’s attractive tech package is the contribution of production designer Sebastian Soukup, who not only nails the balance of moneyed crispness and cultivated squalor in Berlin’s art scene, but also hits on a striking, credibly consistent aesthetic for Liam’s own painting and sculpture. Ace soundtrack selections are of a piece with Wang’s good taste and good humor; this bright if uneven debut suggests her future work may well be recognized in its time.