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Want to see what cinema under COVID-19 looks like? Just take at look at the lineup for the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. Movies like Francois Ozon’s Peter von Kant, Claire Denis’ Fire (aka Both Sides of the Blade), Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and Graham Moore’s The Outfit, with their small casts, contained sets and limited location shoots, provide a glimpse of a new COVID-era cinema.
Of course, last year’s online-only Berlinale saw the debut of Radu Jude’s Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a film not only shot during the first COVID lockdown, but one that used the madness of that time, including the rise of anti-social behavior and conspiracy theories, as inspiration for its madcap plot and style.
But here in Berlin 2022, we may have reached peak COVID cinema, with a slew of films made under pandemic conditions that more closely resemble stage plays than widescreen cinema.
Strict coronavirus regulations in France last year forced both Ozon and Denis to put off plans for bigger and more expansive projects.
“It was during the French lockdown when all French directors were wondering if we could continue to make films and under what circumstances,” noted Ozon at the press conference for Peter von Kant in Berlin. His solution was to adapt The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a stage play, and 1972 film, by the late, legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Ozon’s film, which was warmly received by Berlin audiences and critics when it opened the festival on Thursday, clearly shows its theatrical origins. Aside from a handful of exterior shots, all the action in Peter von Kant occurs in an expansive, candy-colored apartment meant to be set in Cologne in 1972, but shot entirely on a Paris backlot.
In Denis’ case, Robert Pattinson’s COVID-19 infection, and the resulting delays it caused for the London shoot on Warner Bros.’ The Batman, meant the British actor was unable to re-team with his High Life director for the Central America-set The Stars at Noon.
“Everything was blocked because the virus came,” noted Denis. “So I spoke with my producer and with [Fire stars] Vincent [Lindon] and Juliette [Binoche]. They had never been in a film together, so we wrote this story and shot it during the confinement and the shutdown [in Paris].”
Even Focus Features’ The Outfit, the only studio-backed title in the Berlin 2022 lineup, is as decidedly restrained in its set-up as its lead, Oscar winner Mark Rylance, is in his performance. An action-thriller — Rylance plays Leonard, an expert tailor who takes on the mob in 1950s Chicago — the film takes place entirely in the three rooms of Leonard’s shop.
“Because of the pandemic, it made sense to shoot in London near Mark Rylance,” Outfit director Graham Moore told THR. “We knew we could build that set anywhere.”
In the end, Moore had the set built from scratch on a sound stage in a small studio about a block away from Wembley Stadium.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which premiered at Sundance online before its competition bow in Berlin, is an even more extreme example. The comedy-drama is set entirely in a hotel room and, essentially, with just two actors: Emma Thompson as a prim, widowed teacher who hires sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to help her experience her first-ever orgasm.
These COVID-era films may be remembered as just a footnote in cinema history. Already, countries worldwide are lifting restrictions and international travel has resumed, making bigger, more expansive productions easier.
“We shot Expendables 4 over three countries with a huge cast and had zero problems, zero COVID infections,” notes Millennium Films co-president Jonathan Yunger, commenting on the latest entry in the action franchise starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Megan Fox and Tony Jaa.
But fears of a new coronavirus strain or infection spike — like the one in Australia earlier this year that shut down shooting on Universal’s George Clooney/Julia Roberts romantic comedy Ticket to Paradise — means producers are building COVID contingencies into their budgets and call sheets.
A more lasting legacy than small casts and contained stories might be virtual production. For its upcoming Red Sonja reboot, Millennium has built a virtual reality studio, based on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine technology, on its Nu Boyana backlot in Bulgaria. Germany’s Studio Babelsberg has a state-of-the-art LED studio that was used on the production of 1899, the new Netflix series from Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (their production company Dark Ways operates the VR studio together with Babelsberg).
“The pandemic had a massive impact on production and safety was a major consideration,” said Amir Endalah, the CEO of The Other End, a Toronto-based production house shortly to open a 10,000 square foot virtual production stage in the north of the city. “We see a lot of projects show interest because the word on the street is [VR] is a safe environment.”
Etan Vlessing and Alex Ritman contributed to this report.
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