February 9, 2009

BERLIN '09 DISPATCH: Ricky

Ricky [Andrew Grant checks in with his first of two reports from the Berlin Film Festival, currently underway.]

Greetings from the 59th Berlinale, where the mood thus far is as grey as the wintry German skies over the capital city. Today marks the halfway point of the festival, and critics here are in agreement that, as of yet, there has not been a single standout competition title. Several of the films have received half-hearted praise at best (Gigante; Storm), while others have been met with outright hostility (the appropriately titled Rage; Mammoth.) Things aren't faring much better in the other major sections of the festival, where none of the films in the Forum or Panorama have generated anything close to a buzz.

If there's a grim tone, it's decidedly so in many of the European films here, which deal with hot-button topics such as Iraq, the new wave of immigration and the growing economic crisis, or issues surrounding nations coming to terms with both their post-war and immediate past. With such a tremendous amount of thematic overlap, the films frequently seem like mirrors of one another.

Ricky The most contentious film of the festival to date is Francois Ozon's Ricky, which has found critics entrenched in either love-it or hate-it camps, with a greater percentage in the latter. It's a reaction not dissimilar to his last Berlinale appearance with Angel, which screened in competition back in 2007. I've never fully understood why his films are so polarizing.

When he's not being overtly audacious (Sitcom, 8 Women), Ozon can be a remarkably sensitive and gifted storyteller, and whether dealing with a crumbling relationship (5x2) or the final months of a cancer patient (Time to Leave), his forays into serious drama are rich character studies that steer clear of schmaltzy melodrama. Ricky is something of a hybrid -- a poignant look at the struggles of a working-class single parent in contemporary France and the concept of family, though with a fantastical element tossed in.

Yes, Ricky's special ability is without question an outlandish conceit. [NB: If you haven’t seen the complete trailer, and would rather not know the secret, stop reading now.] Yet this isn't about Ozon being playfully provocative -- quite the opposite, in fact. For the first half of the film, we're presented with a detailed portrait of Katie (Alexandra Lamy), a factory-working single mom doing her best to raise her young daughter Lisa, while struggling to keep the roof of their shabby council flat over their heads. She begins a relationship with co-worker Paco (Pan's Labyrinth's Sergi Lopez), and it's not long before Katie finds herself pregnant.

Ricky Life with little Ricky is a struggle for the new couple, and his constant need for food and attention soon drives them apart, further fueled by an accusation of child abuse when mysterious bruises appear on the baby's back. Once again alone with the emotional and financial responsibility of raising a family, Katie desperately turns to the state for support, but receives nothing. When it becomes clear that Ricky's growths turn out to be functioning wings, her immediate response is to adapt and support her (very) special-needs child.

Ozon uses something as absurd as a flying baby to emphasize the tenacity of the maternal bond and the unyielding heroic spirit of motherhood. Is it subtle? Not in the slightest. But does it work? Absolutely. A lesser director would no doubt milk the laugh factor in a series of comic set pieces, but Ozon shows restraint, limiting the visual effects to but a few sequences. Critics here seemed to be put off by its neither-fish-nor-flesh approach, with some complaining that it doesn't follow through on its fairytale premise, and others finding it too corny as a familial drama. The obvious twist on the Annunciation (the film's finest moment, in my opinion) was also a thorn in some viewer's sides who were offended by Ozon's use of Christian imagery. Though the fantastical conceit may appear superficial at first glance, Ricky is a surprisingly moving parable on the concept of family in an age where its very definition has become a political construct rather than a social one.

Ricky screens again in Berlin on Feb. 15 (festival page). Over at The Daily, David Hudson has more to say, plus links.



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Posted by ahillis at February 9, 2009 12:34 PM

Comments

Were you at the screening where the Romanian director mentioned that an actress had died before the film's completion... and members of the audience *tittered* (to his bewilderment)?

Posted by: Steven Augustine at February 14, 2009 3:40 PM
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