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Berlinale 2015 preview

Taking a peek at the gay headliners in this year’s film festival

James Franco and Zachary Quinto star in I Am Michael, screening at Berlinale this year.

The 65th Berlin International Film Festival kicked off Feb 5 in the German capital, ushering in 11 days of the latest, best and most eclectic in international cinema — and as usual, enough stellar LGBT premieres to make it the envy of any gay-only film fest.

Attended by more people than any movie festival on the planet, the Berlinale (as attendees know it) has a knack for mixing global vanguard cinema with Hollywood royalty and luring the stars themselves to Berlin to help celebrate (as proven by the plane James Franco and I shared from Newark on Wednesday, albeit on opposite ends of the aircraft). This year’s Berlinale is already abuzz with several highly anticipated world premieres, including Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (with Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman), Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (with Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Robert Pattinson), Wim Wenders’s Every Thing Will Be Fine (with James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams) and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (with Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård).

More than 25 gay films from across the planet will also screen at this year’s Berlinale, covering a gamut of topics: clandestine LGBT lives in Kenya; unapologetic pedophilia in the Czech Republic; and bucking traditional gender roles in Albania. In this first of three Berlinale preview installments, we’ll take a look at the queer headliners of this year’s festival — four features that will be gracing LGBT film fests and topping gay must-see lists around the world throughout 2015, plus a new gayed-up director’s cut of a 1990s Hollywood camp classic.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Netherlands/Mexico/Finland/Belgium, 2015
Directed by Peter Greenaway

One of Berlinale 2015’s buzziest titles, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a veritable film buff’s wet dream — a slice of the life of one of cinema’s greatest visual innovators as told by one of its most creative living directors. Early-20th-century Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is widely revered as a pioneer of film artistry, but his 1930 debut in Hollywood proved disastrous when art and commerce didn’t mesh well. With the help of Charlie Chaplin and Upton Sinclair, Eisenstein managed to extend his leave from Stalinist Russia to head south and create what eventually became known as ¡Que viva México! — a project that ultimately proved to be another disaster but an experience that provided both spiritual and sexual liberation for the gay (but thus far non-practising) Eisenstein. Starring Finnish actor Elmer Bäck in the lead role, this is the first of two Eisenstein films from director Peter Greenaway, famous with gay audiences for 1996’s The Pillow Book. Special queer bonus: though it’s not yet clear how much attention this will be given in the film, Eisenstein was greeted upon arrival in Guanajuato by Mexican art royalty Diego Rivera and his wife, LGBT icon Frida Kahlo.

Watch Peter Greenaway explain why he is drawn to Eisenstein.    

Sworn Virgin (Vergine Giurata)
Italy/Switzerland/Germany/Albania/Kosovo, 2015
Directed by Laura Bispuri

Several news reports — and even entire books — in recent years have drawn attention to burrneshas, people who by peculiar but time-honoured Albanian highland custom choose to forsake their female birth gender to live the rest of their lives as celibate men. Sworn Virgin is the tale of one such burrnesha, who, after living as Mark for several years, experiences an identity crisis and flees to Italy to rediscover Hana, her original female self. Sworn Virgin is one of two LGBT-themed world premieres (along with Eisenstein in Guanajuato) submitted in the esteemed Competition section of this year’s Berlinale — and if we had to wager, we’d venture that this one has a better shot of taking the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. Interestingly, both films involve the awakening sexualities of adult LGBT characters.

I Am Michael
USA, 2015
Directed by Justin Kelly

In the late 1990s and early ’00s, Michael Glatze was one of the most visible young American advocates for LGBT rights, launching the revolutionary magazine Young Gay America and travelling the country (along with the rest of his handsome young throuple) to document the lives of gay teenagers on video. Then came a shocking identity crisis, which led to Glatze’s near complete about-face: a rejection of any gay identity and the embrace of a new life as a heterosexual preacher. Starring James Franco in the lead role and Zachary Quinto as his longtime pre-conversion partner, I Am Michael had its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year, where positive reviews praised the performances and credited the film for its bias-free telling of the two sides of one man’s very controversial story.

Watch Zachary Qunto discuss working with James Franco on I Am Michael.

Nasty Baby
USA, 2015
Directed by Sebastián Silva

Another high-profile LGBT-themed film fresh from Sundance, Nasty Baby stars director Sebastián Silva and Tunde Adebimpe as a Brooklyn gay couple who ask their white female best friend, played by Kristen Wiig, to help them have a baby. Wiig, of course, also starred in last year’s The Skeleton Twins alongside former SNL costar Bill Hader.

Watch the cast and director of Nasty Baby talk about the film to the Hollywood Reporter at Sundance.

54: The Director’s Cut
USA, 1998
Directed by Mark Christopher

Before it was released by Miramax in 1998, Mark Christopher’s film 54 — an homage to the iconic 1970s New York City disco Studio 54 — had more than half an hour of its footage sliced, much of it involving the bisexuality of Ryan Phillippe’s character. Worried that the public would balk at scenes of things like Phillippe getting cozy with costar Breckin Meyer, the studio ordered replacement footage of Phillippe and a female love interest, played by Neve Campbell. Ten years later, Christopher restored some of the original scenes and showed a one-time-only new version of the film at a semi-secret screening during Los Angeles’s Outfest. Now he’s gone even further and restored more than 30 minutes of original footage, some of it from newly digitized dailies that haven’t seen the light of day since 1997. Greatly different from the box-office-bombing original, the newly completed (and gayed up) director’s cut of 54 will have its world premiere during Berlinale 2015.

Watch the trailer for the original gayed-down version of 54.