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Film: Blame Spielberg, not me

David Cronenberg's latest is typically extreme, although that's not what he'd have you believe.
"Compared with Saving Private Ryan, you think this is extreme?" This was director David Cronenberg's response to one squeamish journalist who suggested that eXistenZ (which had its world premiere in Berlin earlier this week) might be too much for US audiences to stomach.

Cronenberg had a point, really. Spielberg showed soldiers with their guts spilling out, and was praised for revealing war "as it really happened". Cronenberg does something similar and is immediately vilified.

eXistenZ starts from the premiss that humans have evolved a new organic game which they can download into their nervous systems. Cronenberg pointed out that this is not as outlandish as it may seem: whether by tattoos or by piercing, even the earliest societies attempted to change their bodies.

Despite some macabre imagery - for instance, a gun made out of human bones which uses teeth for bullets - and much shoving of strange objects into orifices - eXistenZ is unlikely to provoke anything like the controversy that Crash did. This is Cronenberg at his most playful. Neither the audience nor the characters in the film know where reality ends and the game begins. They can take the movie on an existential level ("You're born into a world whose rules you do not know," Cronenberg proclaimed during Tuesday's press conference), or simply enjoy it as a surreal comedy in the vein of David Fincher's The Game.

With its air of distorted reality, eXistenZ is a remarkably apt film to be showing at the Berlin Film Festival. The two-week long event has witnessed a bizarre collision between Hollywood hype and self-conscious European artistry. This year, the lines have been blurred by a series of Hollywood movies that are more radical and inventive than their European counterparts.

Prime among these is Alan Rudolph's wildly inventive adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's satirical novel Breakfast of Champions. Bruce Willis, who financed the film, is a long-time fan of the book: "It reflects a lot of the lunacy which exists in the States."

Despite being one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars, Willis claims not to be "that challenged by the larger budget films I do... It's only in the independent field that actors are really allowed to act". Hence his decision to play a character as unhinged as Dwayne Hoover, Midland City's car salesman extraordinaire. Somehow, you just don't expect to see Willis as a neurotic, middle-aged man on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but his performance is a revelation.

Nick Nolte is equally striking as Hoover's assistant, a strapping businessman who likes to dress in slinky red lingerie and high heels in his spare time. Nolte was allowed to design his own dress for the film. Accepting that he was flat-chested ("and I didn't want to get silicon implants"), Nolte went for the "Phoenician" look by wearing the dress back to front. "My line will be out this fall," he joked.

Rudolph is known as a stylist who makes intelligent, leisurely paced movies in the Altman mould. In Breakfast of Champions he goes haywire. The film may often be uneven, but it's as brazen a satire on modern American society as you could wish to see.

Equally eccentric, albeit much more lugubrious, was Aki Kaurismaki's feature, Juha (which also had its world premiere in Berlin.) It's the first full-length silent movie since Mel Brooks made his ill-advised attempt at Mack Sennett-style slapstick, 1976's Silent Movie.

Kaurismaki is a director in the Fassbinder mould. When he was introduced to the audience following Juha's screening,most could smell the beer on his breath. He is alleged to have made the film drunk and edited it sober. Whatever else, Juha (like Breakfast of Champions and eXistenZ) is wonderfully perverse. Like all his films, it is shot in such deadpan style that it takes some time to work out whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. Kaurismaki seems to have been inspired in equal measure by Soviet- style social realism (there are lots of shots of tractors, spanners and farm equipment), Buster Keaton and Charles Bukowski.

Asked why he made the film as a silent, Kaurismaki replied in typically gnomic fashion that people "talk too much". Then he fell quiet and wobbled off into the night.