Berlinale: Soderbergh unveils ‘Unsane’ thriller shot only on iPhone

Steven Soderbergh premiered his new thriller shot on an iPhone at the Berlin film festival Wednesday, showing what little gadgets can do to push the limits of style on the big screen.

Berlinale: Soderbergh unveils ‘Unsane’ thriller shot only on iPhone
Unsane. Photo: DPA

The American director, who had only a few years ago declared his retirement from filmmaking, told reporters that “Unsane”, his first time using a smartphone for a full feature, had been invigorating.

“This is a really fascinating time to be making films,” he said, noting that “Unsane” had been shot in just two weeks.

“The gap now between the idea and the execution of the idea is shrinking. I wish I had had this equipment when I was 15.”

“Unsane” stars British actress Claire Foy of the Netflix series “The Crown”, who swaps her cut-glass accent as a young Queen Elizabeth II for the drawl of Sawyer Valentini, a Pennsylvania office worker.

Sawyer has left her hometown under mysterious circumstances and, feeling lonely, turns to online dating to meet men.

After an ambiguous encounter that leaves her upset, she seeks help from a counsellor at a local clinic, who tells her to sign a routine form before she leaves.

Within minutes, she is committed to a mental institution against her will and pumped full of pills.

A fellow patient, who says he is an investigative journalist, tells her she's been locked away as part of a massive insurance scam but that if she keeps her head down, she will be released within days.

However when Sawyer encounters an orderly she claims has been stalking her for two years, the audience begins to question her sanity as well — giving the film its ambiguous title.

'Inches from their faces'

Occasionally grainy iPhone sequences resemble surveillance camera footage, enhancing the Hitchcockian sense that Sawyer is being watched.

Soderbergh, 55, who also serves as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, said working with the smartphone had created an unprecedented speed and immediacy for him on set.

“I had the lens closer to the actors in this movie than I ever had a lens close to an actor before,” he said, after a well-received press screening.

“There were moments where it was inches from their faces. I felt it was necessary and appropriate for a movie that had to feel very visceral.”

Soderbergh said that for audiences, seeing phone images on a big screen should create an eerie sense of deja vu.

“We're so familiar with the aesthetic of phone imagery that I think without even knowing it, there's an intimacy between the viewer and the screen,” he said.

“There's a quality to those images that you're surrounded by in your life.”

The plot resonates in the #MeToo moment, with various characters appearing to try to “gaslight” Sawyer by telling her that her ordeal is all in her head.

“Unfortunately these are issues that have been around forever,” Soderbergh said, adding that the “topicality” had been “pure coincidence”.

“But I'm certainly interested in these kinds of dynamics, not just gender driven dynamics but power dynamics,” he said.

'Tricky to go back'

Soderbergh said that despite a few technical hiccups like a greater sensitivity to vibration, iPhones were likely to remain in his filmmaking toolbox.

“It's going to be tricky to go back to a more conventional way of shooting,” he said.

“Unsane” is not the first feature film made on a smartphone.

US director Sean Baker, whose current movie “The Florida Project” is nominated for an Academy Award, made his name in 2015 with “Tangerine”, which was shot on iPhones due to his shoestring budget.

And France's Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) made the short film “Detour” last year on iPhones for Apple.

Soderbergh, best known for the “Ocean's” heist movies, “Erin Brockovich” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, is an avid innovator who likes to play with genres and formats.

His recent HBO series “Mosaic” with Sharon Stone was released last month on television and as an interactive mobile app, allowing the viewer to choose the perspective from which to watch.

Further features let audiences do their own research, supplying background material on the plot such as characters' emails and voice mails.

“Unsane” is screening out of competition at the Berlinale, which will award its Golden and Silver Bear top prizes on Saturday among 19 contenders.


French films with English subtitles to watch in November

As days get shorter and temperatures drop, November is a great month to enjoy a warm and comforting moment at the cinema. Here’s a round up of the French movies with English subtitles to see in Paris this month.

Cinema in France
Photo: Loic Venance/AFP

The cinema group Lost in Frenchlation runs regular screenings of French films in the capital, with English subtitles to help non-native speakers follow the action. The club kicks off every screening with drinks at the cinema’s bar one hour before the movie, so it’s also a fun way to meet people if you’re new to Paris.

These are the events they have coming up in November.

Friday, November 5th

Boîte Noire – What happened on board the Dubai-Paris flight before it crashed in the Alps? In this thriller Matthieu, a young and talented black box analyst played by Pierre Niney (star of Yves Saint-Laurent among other movies) is determined to solve the reason behind this deadly crash, no matter the costs. 

The screening will take place at the Club de l’étoile cinema at 8pm. But you can arrive early for drinks at the bar from 7pm. 

Tickets are €10 full price, €8 for students and all other concessions, and can be reserved here.

Sunday, November 14th

Tralala – In the mood for music? This new delightful French musical brings you into the life of Tralala (played by Mathieu Amalric), a 48 years old, homeless and worn-out street singer, who one day gets mistaken for someone else. Tralala sees an opportunity to get a better life by taking on a new personality. He now has a brother, nephews, ex-girlfriends, and maybe even a daughter. But where is the lie? Where is the truth? And who is he, deep down?

The night will start with drinks from 6pm followed by the screening at 7pm at the Luminor Hôtel de Ville cinema. There is also a two-hour cinema-themed walk where you’ll be taken on a “musicals movie tour” in the heart of Paris, which begins at 4pm.

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here. Tickets for the walking tour cost €20 and must be reserved online here.

Thursday, November 18th

Illusions Perdues – Based on the great novel series by Honoré de Balzac between 1837 and 1843, this historical drama captures the writer Lucien’s life and dilemmas who dreams about a great career of writing and moves to the city to get a job at a newspaper. As a young poet entering the field of journalism, he is constantly challenged by his desire to write dramatic and eye-catching stories for the press. But are they all true?

The evening will kick off with drinks at L’Entrepôt cinema bar at 7pm, followed by the movie screening at 8pm. Tickets are available online here, and cost €8.50 full price; €7 for students and all other concessions.

Sunday, November 21st

Eiffel – Having just finished working on the Statue of Liberty, Gustave Eiffel (played by Romain Duris) is tasked with creating a spectacular monument for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. It’s ultimately his love story with Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey) that will inspire him to come up with the idea for the Eiffel Tower.

After a first screening last month, Lost in Frenchlation is organising a new one at the Luminor Hôtel de Ville cinema, with pre-screening drinks at the cinema bar. 

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here

Thursday, November 25th

Les Héroïques – Michel is a former junkie and overgrown child who only dreams of motorbikes and of hanging out with his 17-year-old son Léo and his friends. But at 50 years old, he now has to handle the baby he just had with his ex, and try not to make the same mistakes he has done in the past. 

The film will be followed by a Q&A with the director Maxime Roy who will discuss his very first feature. 

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here.

Full details of Lost in Frenchlation’s events can be found on their website or Facebook page. In France, a health pass is required in order to go to the cinema.