Why do good actors do bad movies? There are numerous possible answers to this question including financial necessity, returning a long-standing favor, and sheer boredom. But rarely (except in the case of Nicolas Cage) can a talented performer’s presence in an awful film be neatly and fully explained. Occasionally, their performance can improve a sub-par script, but rarely does a mediocre movie bring out the best in a skilled actor. Berlin, I Love You boasts a roster of talents that includes Helen Mirren, Diego Luna, Keira Knightley, and more. Why would such competent performers participate in such an incompetent film?
The film provokes something unfamiliar and unsettling within, and by the film’s end viewers may find themselves gripped by an overwhelming jadedness, somehow exhausted and agitated at once. Somehow, Berlin, I Love You is almost enough to make you hate love. Thankfully, it only last through its hour-fifty-minute run-time.
But first, let’s acknowledge the good.
Berlin, I Love You is the latest installment of the Cities of Love franchise, preceded by Paris, je t’aime (2006), New York, I Love You (2008), and Rio, I Love You (2014). Each installment is an anthology film, comprised of multiple vignettes each helmed by a different director. The ensemble casts the Cities of Love films have recruited are often impressive, as are some of the directors (Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen Brothers, for example, participated in Paris, je t’aime). The intention of the Cities of Love franchise is genuinely admirable. It’s an artistic celebration of multiculturalism and a wholehearted endorsement of cultural exchange. Women and people of color helm many of the vignettes, some of them first-time directors. And the overall thematic thread of the franchise—love in all its forms across the world’s urban epicenters—is delightful.
Berlin, I Love You does make one truly wise decision: it has only one director of photography, Kolja Brandt, overseeing the cinematography of every vignette. Where the first three Cities of Love films had multiple cinematographers, Berlin, I Love You maintains an impressively unified and rather lovely visual style thanks to Brandt. If anything, the film is undeniably well shot.
And, bless their hearts, Mirren and Knightley and Luna give it their all. The latter two have each other to play off of, and theirs is the best acted vignette of film’s ten in total. The reliably capable Iwan Rheon and Jim Sturgess also do their best with what they have while German actress Sibel Kekilli shines particularly brightly in her brief appearance.
We’ve now exhausted all there is to say about Berlin, I Love You that is relatively good. It’s time to get real.
Berlin, I Love You feels like a collection of student films slapped together haphazardly into a single movie. Each independent narrative, we’re assured, is sort-of connected: characters sometimes pass each other unknowingly on the street or in a bar, and half of the cast unites at the end of the film at a strange outdoor karaoke session. But beyond these tenuous links, the ten vignettes of Berlin, I Love You share nothing except a common setting and exceptionally bad, cliche-ridden writing.
Of all the sins Berlin, I Love You commits, perhaps the most egregious is its betrayal of its own namesake. (For a fun drinking game, try taking a shot every time someone says “Berlin.” You’ll be properly besoffen by minute thirty-two.) David Bowie once called Berlin “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine,” but you’d never know the depth of the city’s vibrant creative spirit from watching it sulk, dull and lifeless, in the background of Berlin, I Love You.
Across the board, the film underutilizes its setting. For all lip service the characters give Berlin, and the purportedly significant role it plays in many of their arcs (Sturgess’ character “came to Berlin to die,” Dianna Agron‘s “came to Berlin for a bit of a rebirth,” and so on), Berlin, I Love You might as well have been set anywhere. Characters sometimes vaguely refer to the city’s expansive history—there’s a weird Berlin Wall joke flung into one scene, a heavy-handed comment that Berlin “knows something about rebirth,” and a hazy Holocaust reference tucked into an exchange—but, overall, the film disrespects its titular backdrop by not bothering to mine it deeply enough for story and significance.
The fundamental project of the Cities of Love series is not only admirable but also rich with creative possibility. The anthology format can afford artistic and narrative freedom to filmmakers that a feature may not. But instead of taking advantage of this possibility, Berlin, I Love You squanders it by indulging in all the ways the format can be deficient.
Each vignette is too brief to feature any meaningful characterization or emotional arc; characters try to get our attention, earn our empathy, and then undergo some kind of meaningful change all in a matter of minutes. It just doesn’t work. When Sturgess finally finds his first post-heartbreak romance or Knightley finally reconciles with her mother, it’s impossible for us to care, as we’ve only just dropped into these people’s (deeply uninteresting) lives. There’s an odd and artless nature to the film with the painfully unsubtle and shockingly puerile “Me Three” segment illustrating that problem best. The vignette is perhaps the clumsiest cultural comment on the #MeToo movement you’re likely to see—it truly has to be seen to be believed.
There is so much more awfulness to mine here from the forced emotional beats and the hackneyed musical cues to the inconsistent voice-overs and the jarring distraction that is Mickey Rourke. There’s the feeling that most of the vignettes were penned by someone with a tenuous grasp of the English language and the realization that almost all the female love interests are stale manic pixie dream girls. The magnitude of Berlin, I Love You’s troubles can be best summarized by a single phrase scribbled in my notes: “holy fuck so bad.”
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