The juxtaposition of moments in time, such as one person experiencing immense joy and another hitting rock bottom, or someone dying while someone else is being born, has always been an intriguing concept in film. But there’s a certain finesse that goes into making each separate vignette engaging — and in some cases, even urgent — so that these slivers of tales resonate with the audience. Unfortunately, “Berlin, I Love You” lacks that essential finesse.
This fourth installment of the “Cities of Love” franchise (the series has previously traveled to New York City, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro) centers on Berlin and, like the other segments, tells ten not-so-interwoven stories that illuminate various themes including love and loss. There’s the woman (Keira Knightley) who takes in an abandoned Arabic child, much to the chagrin of her disapproving mother (Helen Mirren). There’s also the Hollywood actor (Luke Wilson) grappling with his stagnant career and looking for something, or someone, who can exhilarate him once again.
Then there’s a model (Lili Gattyán) who is reeling after coming all the way to Berlin for what she thought was her first big break only to get sexually harassed by the photographer. There’s the cross-dresser (the director insists Diego Luna’s character is not a trans woman) who just broke up with her boyfriend and encounters a teenage boy confronting his sexuality. And the young woman (Toni Garnn) who decides to slide up in a barstool next to her dad (Mickey Rourke), who has never met her. These are just a smattering of the instances that occur while the heart of Berlin continues to beat.
It’s important to stress that these storylines simply happen and don’t actually unfold. In other words, scenes aren’t allowed to breathe or to be processed. They merely arise. That’s because the number of vignettes doesn’t permit much room for plot or character development. Certain narratives, like Knightley’s and Gattyán’s, could have definitely used some fleshing out. They raise questions more than they offer any insight. Editors Peter R. Adam (“Bye Bye Germany”) and Christoph Strothjohann (“Head Full of Honey”) certainly had their work cut out for them trying to piece together the staggering amount of stories that don’t really intertwine, which would have at least given the film more of a flow. Instead, “I Love You, Berlin” comes off clunky and hollow.
The real attraction here is the cinematography, which is essential to the franchise as each installment primarily serves as a valentine to its setting. But as lush and striking as the images from cinematographer Kolja Brandt (“The Young Karl Marx”) are, they don’t give Berlin much of a distinct personality and instead simply candy-coat it. What makes these stories so pertinent to Berlin culture and history? How is the landscape used effectively to amplify the story? It’s not. Every scene is gorgeous to look at, but it doesn’t serve, or even affect the flat, unrefined storytelling.
Still, there are some interesting moments in the film, which ultimately don’t come to much but are worth calling out anyway. Rourke delivers an authentic portrayal of a lonesome single man who decides to have one vulnerable moment with a female stranger in a bar, and it pivots the direction of his life. Gattyán’s exasperated performance is at once a #MeToo fist pump and a statement of female solidarity, even when we’re not always in exact agreement.
But other storylines, like the one about a male artist (Robert Stadlober, “Summer Storm”) in angel wings who falls for an Israeli woman (Rafaëlle Cohen) new to Berlin, are far too contrived to be engaging. While Cohen is effervescent, there’s just not enough story. In fact, the film ends with them just falling into each other’s arms after her rousing vocal performance in a park that brings almost every character to the location (without necessarily tying up any of their individual plots). Nor does the brief, befuddling dance sequence narrative featuring Jenna Dewan make any definitive point. It’s yet another occurrence in the film that takes place without any actual meaning.
The bevy of writers and directors behind Berlin, I Love You” — including Dianna Agron (who pulls double duty as director and star alongside Wilson), Justin Franklin, Massy Tadjedin, and Dani Levy — highlight a collective of rich voices and potential stories that would have been better delivered with longer and fewer vignettes in the film. Some stories might have even been better combined as one.
As well intentioned as its flurry of feelings and sentimental performances are, “Berlin, I Love You” isn’t given the space or the format to truly sail. It fails to build on political landscape or culture and instead tries to pull on the heartstrings of its audience with half-baked concepts.