Top Girl or La Deformation Professionnelle: Berlin Review

Top Girl oder la de?formation professionnelle Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Top Girl oder la déformation professionnelle Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Sex workers of the world unite.

Micro-budget drama about a Berlin escort girl combines clunky polemic with spiky satire.

BERLIN -- A corrective antidote to the forest of tumescent erections in Lars Von Trier's extended cut of Nymphomaniac, this low-key Forum entry at the Berlinale offers a welcome female-directed perspective on sexual politics and male erotic fantasy, complete with some unappetizing flaccid penis shots. Filmed in Berlin on a limited budget, Top Girl has plenty to say about the harsh iniquities of gender politics, but little that is original or entertaining.  Despite a few intriguing digressions into dark satire, its afterlife will likely be limited to small specialist screenings and festival platforms dedicated to feminist film-making.

With a background in video and performance art, which clearly informs her directing methods, writer-director Tatjana Turanskyj screened her debut feature The Drifter at the 2010 Berlinale. Marginally more conventional in style and structure, Top Girl is billed as a semi-sequel, part of an ongoing trilogy about working women in a male-dominated culture.

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The actress and singer Julia Hummer, best known to non-German audiences for her role in Oliver Assayas' terrorism epic Carlos, stars as Helena, a 30-year-old single mother who supplements her patchy career as an actress with a far more lucrative sideline as an escort. Top Girl features several of her encounters with clients, which run the gamut from creepy to comical to humiliating. For one, she dresses up as a Catwoman dominatrix. Another favors dressing in women's clothes and penetration with sex toys. But playful performance masks harsh economic necessity.

Between clients and auditions, Helena has fractious discussions with her mother Lotte (Susanne Bredehoft), a singer and music teacher from an earlier feminist tradition. She also attends promotional lectures in which genital cosmetic surgery is sold as female liberation. Eventually, under threat of losing losing the apartment bankrolled by one of her wealthy regulars, Helena bows to pressure to recruit female colleagues for a corporate event at which their lowly social status is exploited in sinister patriarchal power games.

Shifting in tone between domestic naturalism, stylized agitprop and darkly funny commentary on gender politics, Top Girl is a frustratingly half-baked mix. The grim financial options faced by cash-strapped sex workers have been anatomized countless times on screen, and Turanskyj has little fresh to add to the subject. Likewise her use of sloganeering political rhetoric, which feels like a clumsy throwback to 1970s student theater. Her no-frills shooting style is adequate, but  pedestrian.

In her favor, the film's most powerful sequence is a queasy satirical depiction of a male-bonding session in the woods outside Berlin, in which naked women are reduced to hunted animals. Turanskyj has the premise for a terrific feminist horror movie here, with potential to subvert a mainstream genre rather than preach to the converted on the margins. Hopefully her next big-screen polemic against penis power will rise to that challenge.

Production company: Turanskyj & Ahlrichs
Producers: Tatjana Turanskyj, Jan Ahlrichs
Cast: Julia Hummer, Susanne Bredehoft, Jojo Pohl, RP Kahl, Simon Will
Director: Tatjana Turanskyj
Screenwriter: Tatjana Turanskyj
Cinematographer: Lotta Kilian
Editors: Stephanie Kloss, Ricarda Zinke
Music: Niels Lorenz
Sales company: Turanskyj & Ahlrichs, Berlin
Unrated, 94 minutes