Winner of the Grand Prix des Ameriques at the Montreal Film Festival, Percy Adlon's SALMONBERRIES marked the motion picture debut of singer k.d. lang, who performs an evocative ballad, "Barefoot," in the film. That's the high point. Fans of Adlon's quirky romantic odysseys (SUGARBABY,
BAGDAD CAFE) will be completely floored, if not downright infuriated, by this glacial, portentous opus about frozen sexual longing and gender confusion.
Born a foundling in the North Alaskan town for which she was named, Kotzebue (lang) is an androgynous youth who fills her days with manual labor on the pipeline and her nights nursing romantic aches for the town librarian Roswitha (Rosel Zech). The rowdy Kotzebue disturbs Roswitha, a 45-year-old
immigrant from East Berlin; a reserved and proper European, she's never recovered from the death of her husband, who was shot when the two broke for freedom over the Berlin Wall 21 years earlier. She collects salmonberries, which she preserves in her bedroom as a kind of shrine to cherished
memories of beauty and romance. Kotzebue reveals her true gender and sexual identity, and begins courting the librarian in ways that frighten her. Discontented with her stifled ardor and with Roswitha's defeatist ethos, Kotzebue impulsively plans to heal her beloved's pain by forcing her to
confront her guilt-ridden past. They journey to East Berlin, but Kotzebue is gravely disappointed when the trip doesn't result in a romantic epiphany for Roswitha. Nevertheless, Roswitha experiences a spiritual rebirth after they visit her husband's grave. Physical relations remain unresolved, but
the women's emotional investment in one another strengthens them for the future.
SALMONBERRIES' schematized screenplay must have looked great on paper, but the finished film is static and overburdened by symbolism. As the barren arctic landscape obviously represents Roswitha's emotional stagnation, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall signifies an overdue closure of the past and
a furious reaching toward the future; these concepts, though beautifully realized in visual terms, remain lifeless as Adlon's shakily written passion play unfolds. The central relationship feels stiff and emotionally unpersuasive. The chief problem is lang, who is unable to bring the depth and
subtlety of her vocal performances to her acting debut. While physically suited to her role (which was written for a man), lang emerges, not as a force of nature, but as a spokesperson for intractability. SALMONBERRIES is undeniably complex and original, but it's also dreadfully dull and stilted.
Adlonites will catch cold waiting for all those damn allegories to thaw out into drama. Look for the late TV star Chuck Connors, of "Rifleman" fame, in a small role. (Adult situations, nudity, profanity.)
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