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The Venice film festival is normally the most relaxing A-list event on the European film scene. Leisurely walks to the Palazzo del Cinema, pasta lunches under the trees, plenty of films you don’t really need to catch in a hurry… But not this year. Three months after a low-key Cannes, the 75th Mostra grabbed the high ground with a sparkling selection filled with A-list titles that you couldn’t miss – from the calibre of the Coens, Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass and even, from beyond the grave, Orson Welles. Not only that, there were several films well over the two-hour mark, some nudging or even over three hours. That makes a lot less time for slurping Camparis.
You should always prepare for disappointments when festivals offer a high concentration of star names, but Venice this year produced remarkably fewer duds and a whole crop of engaging and audacious films that will give Guillermo del Toro’s competition jury plenty to chew over – and encourage the selectors at Cannes and Berlin to raise their rivalrous game.
Venice had the advantage of benefiting from this year’s spat between Cannes and Netflix, so that some titles expected to play on the Croisette turned up on the Lido instead. The six Netflix films premiered here included Cuarón’s Roma, Greengrass’s 22 July and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The latter, one of two westerns in competition, was a cheerful but dark portmanteau of tales, but the Coens’ perfectionist way with pastiche can be a little airless to be really pleasurable. More organic was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, which played Patrick DeWitt’s novel surprisingly straight, featuring John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as travelling assassins: a pleasurable ride, not exactly profound but evincing the French director’s genuine love of the western genre.
Other competition highlights included The Favourite, by The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, a brittle early-18th-century tale of political and sexual intrigue at the court of Queen Anne. In effect, a Restoration All About Eve, it could have emerged as a brilliantly scripted, by-the-book English costume piece, but the eccentricity of its wit is teased out by Lanthimos’s stylised direction. There’s a fine trifecta of performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and a full-tilt Emma Stone, showing herself to have an intense edge you might never have suspected. As a tale of female rivalry, it was strangely paralleled by Luca Guadagnino’s beyond-crazy horror remake Suspiria, with Dakota Johnson embroiled in witchcraft at a dance school run by Tilda Swinton: pure delirium, but at times infuriatingly silly.
Way ahead of anything in terms of formal audacity was Sunset, from Hungarian prodigy László Nemes – his follow-up to the controversial Holocaust drama Son of Saul. Set in Budapest in the 1910s, this was a breakneck, borderline-impenetrable story of a young woman trying to solve a family mystery while tangling with cloak-and-dagger imperial intrigue behind the scenes at an upmarket milliner’s. Juli Jakab, in a role defined by a piercing, unblinking stare, plays the sleuthing lead, while a cast of thousands rushes by, often blurred, in the background. It was the festival’s prime head-scratcher, and a grandiose feat of flamboyant experiment.
No less audacious was Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman as a media-savvy, very Gaga-esque pop star. Brady Corbet’s film is a bold, unashamedly cerebral cogitation on the zeitgeist and parallels between terrorism and the entertainment industry. It’s as stylish as it is contentious, and Portman’s spiky, neurotic performance was mesmerising – way outdoing Lady Gaga herself, who was commendable but downbeat in Bradley Cooper’s lukewarm A Star Is Born remake.
Although it won much praise, I couldn’t really warm to Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, the story of the massacre of political demonstrators in Manchester in 1819. Laden with (no doubt scrupulously authenticated) speech-making, the film often relies on broad strokes, especially when representing the corrupt indulgences of the English powers that be. It’s a story that needed to be told, but the weight of the topic seems to have blunted Leigh’s usually gimlet acuity when it comes to character.
Also tackling a challenging topic was Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, the second film this year to reconstruct the killings perpetrated in Norway by extreme-right fanatic Anders Breivik. While the other, Erik Poppe’s U – July 22, concentrated on a real-time reconstruction of the events on Utøya island, Greengrass’s film takes us right up to Breivik’s trial, and features a mesmerising performance by Anders Danielsen Lie as Breivik, a chilling portrait of deluded inhumanity.
One thing that took the sheen off this year’s all-star selection was the fact that there was only one woman director in competition – Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, who made the hugely original chiller The Babadook. Her follow-up, The Nightingale, is a period adventure story, fired by feminist rage and anti-colonial protest. Set in 19th-century Tasmania, it’s about a young Irish woman (Aisling Franciosi) out to avenge an atrocity perpetrated by English soldiers. She’s aided by a young aboriginal tracker, played with brio and dry wit by newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, and their quest takes them through dense forest and a maelstrom of blood-letting. The film is over-long and suffers badly from repetition and hyperbole, but somewhere in here is a politically charged B-movie with real fire.
An unexpected genre treat was Dragged Across Concrete – a taut, complex thriller from S Craig Zahler, with a real Michael Mann touch. It stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as cops getting out of their depth as they try and cash in on a bank robbery: laden with positively baroque tough-guy banter, the film plays cleverly if cynically with Gibson’s own tarnished reputation, and the execution is downright steely. The violence is jaw-dropping, though. Entrails in a heist movie? Surely a first.
It’s too early to deliver a judgment on Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind – after all, it’s only 48 years since he started shooting it. His legendary final film has at last been completed, with Netflix backing, and it’s a rum ’un indeed, covering the final night in the life of a Wellesian film director, played by another Hollywood patriarch, John Huston.
Much of the film is a dizzying party sequence, with a young Peter Bogdanovich essentially playing himself as the director’s protege. Nested within this black and white film are colour excerpts from a parodic arty number in which Welles’s muse and co-writer Oja Kodar strides, mainly naked, through highly expressionistic scenes that suggest Michelangelo Antonioni in charge of a 1970s Penthouse shoot. It’s sometimes embarrassing, sometimes impenetrable, sometimes dazzling – and, above all, a testimony to the late Gary Graver, who shot the film piecemeal over many years.
So, finally, did Venice give us any masterpieces? Yes, resoundingly – a proper old-school one. It’s Roma by Alfonso Cuarón, the virtuoso director of Gravity and Children of Men. Dropping the spectacle, and photographing the film himself in sheened, metallic black and white, Cuarón has produced a riveting film inspired by his own childhood in Mexico City. Roma is set in a middle-class home where everyday life ticks along against the background of political turbulence. The action is seen through the eyes of a young housemaid, Cleo, played by non-professional lead Yalitza Aparicio – in real life, a recently qualified teacher – whose candid, beautifully modified performance was one of the outstanding human factors of this festival. It might be compromising for a jury headed by Guillermo del Toro to award a Mexican film the Golden Lion, but Roma is a film absolutely in the great Italian neorealist tradition, so Venice would be just the place to honour it.
The best of Venice
Best film Roma by Alfonso Cuarón.
Worst film Capri-Revolution: Italian goatherd girl joins proto-hippy colony, embraces naturism, interpretative dancing and levitation. In 1914!
Best performances (female) Mexican newcomer Yalitza Aparicio in Roma; Natalie Portman in Vox Lux; Emma Stone in The Favourite.
Best performances (male) Anders Danielsen Lie as Anders Breivik in 22 July; newcomer Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale.
Best star-to-be Tory Kittles as an African American ex-con, holding his own against Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn in Dragged Across Concrete.
Best script The Favourite, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
Best soundtracks Michel Legrand’s bustling new jazz score for Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind; and the bizarre double-header of pop hitmaker Sia and anti-pop experimental legend Scott Walker on Vox Lux.
Worst cowboy songs Bradley Cooper’s stomping country rock in A Star Is Born.
Best cowboy songs Tim Blake Nelson’s singin’ and gunslingin’ turn in the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Yee haa!
Best animal performances A resounding win for Mexico this year. A tie between the raging bulls of Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time and Borras in Roma, a family dog with a nice line in leaps (and disconcertingly active bowels).
The 2018 ‘Have You Met My Wife?’ award – for male directors of a certain age prone to filming their partners in, er, indelicate fashion. Joint winners: Carlos Reygadas, filming his wife, Natalia López, as a woman with a voyeur husband (played by himself) in Our Time. And Orson Welles, whose The Other Side of the Wind proved he was very fond of his girlfriend Oja Kodar (even if he didn’t give her any lines).
Source: The Guardian
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