This year's Berlin Film Festival gives us a leaden race for the Golden Bear

It's one of cinema's big events – but it is having a bad year. Surveying the contest, Geoffrey Macnab gives thanks for Juliette Binoche

The 63rd Berlin Film Festival has been a curiously muted affair. Critics have been grumbling about a competition that hasn't yet delivered much excitement. Well over midway into the two-week event, the only contender for the festival's Golden Bear prize that had really excited the reviewers and the marauding packs of distributors was Gloria, a Chilean feature about a 58-year-old divorcee looking for love.

Wong Kar-Wai's long-gestating martial arts movie The Grandmaster (which opened the festival) was well liked but was showing out of competition and wasn't a world premiere. Richard Linklater's Before Midnight was likewise out of competition.

Jaws dropped at some of the films that were contending for the Golden Bear. The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman perplexed many critics. The debut feature from Swedish advertising wunderkind Fredrik Bond was as slickly shot as any Benetton ad but was undermined by a screenplay that verged on the deranged. Shia LaBeouf stars as a young American who heads to Romania on a whim after the death of his mother. In short order, he falls in love with a musician (Evan Rachel Wood, adopting an absurd Eastern European accent), provokes the wrath of her gangster boyfriend (the excellent Mads Mikkelsen) and takes drugs with Rupert Grint while staying in a hippie youth hostel.

What was most startling about Charlie Countryman was its utterly random quality. Bond (working from a screenplay by Matt Drake) seemed to be aiming for the freewheeling energy that characterises old Nouvelle Vague films from Godard and Truffaut. There is lots of handheld camera as we see LaBeouf running wildly through the streets of Bucharest or having phantasmagoric experiences in nightclubs. The film's view of Romania is patronising in the extreme. The jokes about Eastern European Viagra don't help and the voice-over from John Hurt does nothing to make matters more coherent.

There were several films in competition about incarcerated women. The most austere was Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915, starring Juliette Binoche as the artist and former lover of Rodin. She has been confined by her family to an asylum. Dumont depicts her daily life in grim detail. She refuses to wash so the asylum nurses force her to bathe. Her only freedom is that she is allowed to cook her own food. Camille seems far more sane than many of her fellow inmates but when her brother, the writer Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent) comes to visit, we begin to realise why she has been incarcerated. The pride and independence that made her into an artist have eaten away at her sanity.

Dumont tells Camille's story in a deadpan and detached way. This is more like an anthropological study than a conventional drama. Binoche portrays her with great subtlety, capturing both her feral quality (the sense that she's an imprisoned animal) and her sensitivity. We also gradually begin to realise that Camille is a monstrous egotist. This is a forbidding and difficult film to watch but its formal rigour and seriousness come as a relief after the flippancy of Charlie Countryman.

Guillaume Nicloux's The Nun, adapted from Denis Diderot's 18th-century novel, was also a study of a woman imprisoned against her will. The film unfolds like a very dark version of Cinderella. Pauline Etienne plays Suzanne, a young woman from an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. She has been placed in a nunnery because her parents can't afford to pay her dowry. Her married sisters have no desire to help her. Shot handsomely by Yves Cape, the film recounts Suzanne's attempts to stay afloat in a hostile, humiliating world. The film was respectfully received although distributors grumbled that the storytelling faltered with the introduction of an older nun (Isabelle Huppert) with Sapphic desires in the second half.

Alongside the “official” films screening in competition, there have been hundreds of films showing in the Berlin European Film Market. Ron Howard was in town to show distributors a near completed version of his Formula One movie Rush, which tells the story of the rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth.) The press was kept out of the screening but the buzz from the distributors was very positive.

One of the stranger titles available in the market was Paul Verhoeven's latest effort, Tricked. Made for the small screen, based on a plot that the public helped write as part of a reality TV show, this played like a very overwrought soap opera. Its main character is a sleazy middle-class businessman (Peter Blok), who is being blackmailed by a former mistress and is carrying on an affair with his daughter's best friend. It didn't have the visual sweep and flamboyance that you find in Verhoeven films from Soldier of Orange to Basic Instinct but there are a few of the schlockmeister's familiar touches.

Many of the films screening in competition and in the market this week are destined never to receive mainstream distribution and will never be seen by big audiences. That is not the case, though, for young Swedish director Simon Klose's TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay away from Keyboard, a feature doc about the founders of the notorious file-sharing website. Klose made the film (whose backers include the BBC) available online for free at exactly the moment (5pm last Friday) that it began its official screening in the festival. Since then, the film has received more than a million hits. This isn't going to make Klose rich. (He told me the doc had earned around $30,000 from online donations.) Nonetheless, at a Berlin Festival full of esoteric and marginal fare, this is at least one movie that already has a life beyond the festival.

Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' re-released

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
TV The second episode of the hit HBO featured a surprise for viewers
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Arts & Entertainment
Andrew Motion would send 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
booksLeading writers protest against government restrictions on prisoners receiving books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?