Coming of Age in Cocoon (2020)

Words by Gillian Coyne

 

Historically, film festivals have been more of a welcoming space than Hollywood for films with LGBTQIA+ topics, whether at big-name festivals like Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, or more obviously, at queer festivals like Fringe! in London, Frameline in San Francisco, or Rainbow Reel in Tokyo. The 2020 Berlinale was no exception. Award winners at the Berlin International Film Festival receive the iconic Golden Bear or Silver Bears, but there also exists the Teddy Award. This award is given to an LGBTQ+ film in one of the categories of feature, documentary, short, jury’s selection, reader’s choice, and activist. This year, 41 films deemed LGBTQ+ by an independent jury were up for the award, including scriptwriter and director Leonie Krippendorff’s newest coming-of-age feature.


At first glance Kokon (in English: Cocoon) may seem like a German rendition of the French hit festival film Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. But make no mistake, Cocoon establishes itself as a film interested in far more than a sexual awakening. Cocoon was selected as the premier film for the Generation 14Plus competition program of the Berlinale. This category features “coming-of-age-stories: awesome, wild and angry, heartfelt and headstrong” according to the program’s page. Cocoon couldn’t fit this category any more perfectly as it chronicles the sweltering summer of 2018 in Berlin through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Nora (Lena Urzendowsky).



Seen by her sister Jule (Anna Lena Klenke) and Jule’s best friend Aylin (Elina Vildanova) as a wallflower and tag-along younger sister, Nora spends the hottest summer in Berlin’s recorded history dealing with the mortifying stains of her first period, navigating complex family ties, tentatively exploring her sexuality for the first time, and most importantly, discovering who she is. The film opens with a dreamy synth soundtrack and a sequence that seems to have been shot on an iPhone as two teenage girls draw a penis on a homeless man’s face. The golden, light-saturated frame radiates the heat of the summer. The girls’ screams of delight and the thrill of their recklessness as they run away from the now-awakened man are drowned out by Nora’s voiceover and the beginning of the soundtrack. Nora places viewers in her corner of the world, Kottbusser Tor, as the montage increases speed to show a neighborhood that is distinctly Berlin. As the camera comes to focus on Nora, she is watching the video from the film’s opening on her phone. While Jule and Aylin are the action, she is the onlooker, the occasionally resistant participant, who they see as the ideal assistant for their shenanigans.



While this setup seems straightforward at first, Krippendorff complicates the simple tag-along younger sister trope by gradually revealing the absence of Nora and Jule’s alcoholic mother (played by Anja Schneider), most notably when they have to go to the hospital for Nora’s broken hand. As it turns out, Jule depends Nora for emotional support just as much as Nora needs her for socializing. Even though Jule is primarily concerned with getting the attention of her crush David, posting on social media, and partying with her friends (with Nora in tow), her protective instincts jump out occasionally. She isn’t entirely reckless teenager in the same way she isn’t entirely maternal older sister. Likewise, it is Nora who holds her older sister when their mother abandons Jule’s take-home baby from health class. Through a torrent of tears, Jule explains that she thought that maybe having a grandchild - even just a hypothetical one - would get their mother to drink less. Twice during the film, both Jule and Nora turn to YouTube for life advice for topics that their mother could have provided some guidance or parental wisdom for. Krippendorff explores this oscillating relationship as the sisters gracefully fend for themselves and protect each other while getting wrapped up in their own love interests.



When it comes to sexuality, Jule and Aylin obsess over boys. Boys at the pool, boys in their class, YouTube tutorials on how to know if a boy likes you. While Jule and Aylin adjust their bathing suits in hopes of catching a guy’s eye, Nora is fascinated by Romy (Jella Haase). After Nora gets her period for the first time while on the balance beam in front of the whole gym class (in a brilliantly shot sequence of cuts between the students’ reactions and Nora’s increasingly anxious expression as she walks on the beam), Romy comes to the bathroom and offers to wash Nora’s jeans out. As anyone who gets their period knows, this is a mortifying situation by all counts, but Romy’s steadiness and non-judgmental help ease Nora’s embarrassment. This scene in particular, especially the act of having to wash period blood out of clothing, is something that has been written and filmed by someone who knows the pain and embarrassment. Compared to any other first-time period scenes onscreen (and they’re rare), this one touches on the panic, shame, and solidarity that come uniquely from a place of experience on the part of the filmmaker. This is a scene that resonates and drives home the importance of having women (including people who identify as women and people who have vaginas) write their own experiences for the screen.


And so, with an incredibly kind and intimate first introduction, Romy steps into Nora’s life. With her Léa Seydoux aesthetic à la Blue Is the Warmest Color, Romy exudes an indifference to boys and a laissez-faire approach to fashion that seems otherworldly compared to Nora’s experiences with Jule and Aylin. She’s the “new girl”, the alt. chick who shows Nora her Berlin. Romy’s Berlin is skinny dipping in the public pool at night, dying their hair at a hippie hangout, being totally comfortable sleeping with no clothes on. For what seems like the first time, Nora is seen, instead of being gawked at or overlooked.



The relationship between Nora and Romy is decidedly anti-male gaze. Their intimacy is depicted through dreamy and/or sun-lit sequences of their day spent at a lake, a heartfelt conversation in bed when Nora sleeps over, and most notably through their eye contact with each other. Sure, they kiss. And yes, there is a scene where Romy gently nudges a butterfly up Nora’s thigh until it flies away, but Krippendorff omits any gratuitous or explicit sex scenes between Nora and Romy. In lieu of intimacy constructed by and for the male gaze, Krippendorff replaces the physicality with something intangible: joy. While Blue Is the Warmest Color essentially follows a lesbian relationship from its genesis to its slow and cruel disintegration, Cocoon is about a teenage girl growing up over the course of a summer. Nora’s relationship with Romy is just a part of her experience, and although it does lead to heartbreak, there is joy for a while there. In a world where the LGBTQ+ community was historically villainized onscreen and is now often commodified and stereotyped, it is incredibly important to have films that show genuine pride.



Structurally, Krippendorff establishes a clear metaphor between Nora and her caterpillars that parallels her experiences over the summer. The safety, the hardship, the rebirth are all stages in the process of Nora becoming her own butterfly. The synth of the soundtrack and the ultimate song of happiness and empowerment were exquisite choices by Krippendorff and her team. Really, what better song is there for dancing in your first Pride Parade or for strutting around Berlin in a unicorn suit than “She” by Alice Phoebe Lou? Krippendorff has created a coming-of-age film that reflects the ups and downs of your first period, your first love, your first heartbreak, your own messy family, without hypersexualizing her protagonist or falling prey to a male-gaze cinematographic style. (Not to mention that her attention to diversity and authenticity is commendable. For casting the friend group, Krippendorff had scouts attend a local rap battle and hired non-professionals to play the guys, as she explained at the Berlinale). The result is a poignant, nuanced, and ultimately complex film that follows Nora’s search for self within her own corner of the world.



Cocoon / Kokon is still screening at virtual film festivals, most recently at AMPLIFY! Film Festival. Keep an eye out for more viewing opportunities!


 

The author of this Guest Post, Gillian Coyne, is a master's student in Film Studies in London. Gillian focuses her writing and research on film festivals and issues of representation in film programming. A New Yorker born and raised, she is almost always on the go, but remains an avid supporter of local café culture and recreational film photographer, no matter where she is.

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