Lang is an engaging actor in chilly 'Salmonberries'

June 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Salmonberries" is the lesser of the two films with which the Charles begins its separate admissions policy (it plays at 9.30 p.m.; "Jamon, Jamon" at 7.30 p.m.). Directed by Percy Adlon, famous for "Bagdad Cafe" and "Sugar Baby," it's a chilly, ambiguous, lesbian drama which finally warms up and becomes interesting at the halfway point.

Set in Alaska and Berlin -- did you ever think you'd see the two of them in the same movie? -- it follows as an angry orphan, Kotzebue (k.d. lang) tries to deal with the sexual attraction she feels for an older woman, a German expatriate named Roswitha, called "Switha" (almost like "Sweeta,") and played by "Veronika Voss's" Rosel Zech.

Out on a far bleak tundra where a few hundred doughty souls peck out a living by servicing the pipeline, there's awkwardness. Right off, we have clashing archetypes. Lang is the prototypical manly-girl, hiding her femininity under heavy work clothes and a butch haircut, comporting herself like a tough guy, seething with fury and yet . . . strangely attracted to the pipeline station librarian.

This is Zech, prototypical disillusioned emigre, with a thousand-yard stare and a slow way of moving that suggests that she's come out here to the northern wastes in search of oblivion or at least escape from the weight of a tragedy.

When the movie is charting Kotzebue's slow and halting attempt to seduce, or at least engage, Switha, it's at least quite touching. Too often in the early going, however, Adlon indulges in "touches" out of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder school of hey-look-at-me filmmaking, such as blinding flashes of light, or strangely placed spotlights that spookily illuminate only a face in an otherwise naturalistic setting.

But, strangely, the movie settles down, and ultimately becomes quite affecting. Lang, a brilliant singer, is an unaffected movie presence, and the camera catches her rawness and vulnerability, turning her into an ultimately awkward and engaging personality. As for Zech, she's an old German pro and completely believable from first second to last: She has that weird sense of "otherness" that aliens feel in their new culture, never quite seeming comfortable.

The story is contrived to take them back to Berlin, where Switha goes to face her ghosts and demons and betrayers and ultimately confronts the meaning of Kotzebue's needs. It's very touching at the end.

"Salmonberries"

Starring k.d. lang and Rosel Zech

Directed by Percy Adlon

Released by Roxie Releasing

Unrated

** 1/2

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