by Harlan Kennedy




Amazing changes.  In the 100 days between Cannes and Venice the world has re-learned the art of economy.  Average running time at the first, 2 ½ hours; at the second 100 odd-minutes.  Two possibilities leap at the surviving braincell of a happy, tired Venicegoer.  Either end-of-season cinephiles can no longer appreciate vaunting prolixity or else the Italian temperament, incarnate in second-year Venice chief Alberto Barbera, is marking its difference from the French.


The pair of French films that fought back by dominating the 57th Mostra's first week only bore out, ironically, the Barbera ethos:  ars brevis, vita longa;  life is long, art should embrace concision.  In Raúl Ruiz’s Fils De Deux Mères ou Comédie De L’innocence and Claude Chabrol’s Merci Pour Le Chocolat – two guerrilla delights – veteran storytellers revel in mythic miniaturism. Each movie is a compact thriller set amid the more-or-less beastly bourgeois.  Each stars Isabelle Huppert as a troubled mother.  Each anatomises the love-hate structures of family life.


Ruiz, the Paris-based Chilean, invokes magical realism from the start.  The visual loose change of the credits sequence – shot in fuzzily saturated colour as if for a home video – is accompanied by a little boy’s voice itemising each group of objects we see: Seashells, ashtrays, flower, alarm clocks…” (almost the classic repertory of Surrealism).  These few seconds brief us on the boy, his otherworldly mind and his birthday-given camera which will become a key to the central mystery.  Why does he tell his mother (Huppert) one day she’s no longer his mother and take her to an address containing a beautiful violin teacher (Jeanne Balibar, face of a Picasso muse) who lost her own son two years before and now treats Huppert’s boy as if he were her own?


It is a fantasy wrapped in an enigma encased in an anxiety-stricken APB: All Parents Bulletin.  What if your child inexplicably disowned you?  Huppert enacts the disorientation hypnotically, mask-face intensifying to a new pitch of deceptive impassivity, gestures like brief, stricken flowers of panic. (She is still the greatest screen actress alive, doing the absolute most with the absolute least).  What follows is an ‘explanation’ that is no explanation,  and later a ‘solution’ that is no solution:  not for the vagaries of child-mother love, nor for the holes that open up in reality, for the susceptible, from day to day or hour to hour.


Ruiz last dazzled us by conquering Proust (Time Regained).  His runic earlier films loved by some (Hypothesis Of The Stolen Painting, Three Crowns Of The Sailor) now seem less satisfying than these collisions between a knowable text – here a novel by Massimo Bontempelli – and a style in love with the unknowable.  In a Dadaist motif the army of white sculpture-busts in a room in Huppert’s home all turn, overnight, in a new direction, to gaze in unison at the freshly-hung engraving of the ‘Judgment of Solomon”: itself symbolic since it limns another tale of mothers warring over a child.  Elsewhere Ruiz’s flair for moments of eyeblink- or earblink – alarm is almost Hithcockian:  like the faint sound, unsourced and near-subliminal, of human cries under a shot of the child’s camera rearing periscope-like above the dinner table, or the variations, choric and haunting, on images of running water.


Chabrol, a surface realist, would never be caught with hand in the Surrealists’ till.  But what could be more irrational than Huppert’s conduct in MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT?  This housewife, mother and bourgeois fashion plate – as in Ruiz’s film she wears colour-coordinated Champs Elysees knockouts – likes poisoning people.  Potential victims include a pianist husband (dissipatedly handsome Jacques Dutronc), a stepson (Rodolphe Pauly) and a piano pupil (Anna Mouglalis) who might have been swapped at birth with Pauly.


Huppert, a woman with every advantage, would swap them all for a killer’s advantage of supreme power.  No other motivation is volunteered unless you listen closely.  The film is about – Chabrol’s words – ‘perversity’ and ‘solipsism’: the loneliness of the long-distance monomaniac, whether musician or murderer. Stylistically the film has a Dreyer-esque austerity, recalling that glacial proscenium masterpiece GERTRUD.  Impeccable deeds unfold amid impeccable furniture with, of course, impeccable food.  Until you get to the hot chocolate.  Even then, suggests Chabrol, in French haut-bourgeois society no one can hear you scream.


Social dysfunction, subtle or slapstick, was the semi-visible webbing connecting many Venice movies.  Noncompetitive comedy hits included Lukas Moodysson’s Together (hippie commune falls apart in the style of a Swedish Mike Leigh), Lucho Bender’s Felicidades (Happy Christmas) from Argentina (three sad-funny stories about Xmas Eve mishap, from the man trapped with a hired comedian in a stranded cart to a Farrelly-worthy dead dog episode).  David Mamet’s State And Main, in which a New England town is lovingly, innocently vandalised by a movie crew, and an entire season of ‘Beckett on Film’.


Beckett is about social breakdown?  Is funny?  Yes and yes.  This stage-to-screen project supported by British TV’s Channel 4 proves it.  A dozen Samworks were on show in Venice, from full plays to 10-minute playlets, each with a different,  prestige director, ranging from Anthony Minghella (Play) and Sir Richard Eyre (Rockaby) to that Mamet again (Catastrophe, starring fellow scribe Harold Pinter and a mute, valedictory Sir John Gielgud as a human statue).


The world has now recovered from modernism, helped by years of wearing those hardhats labeled Postmodernism.  No longer afraid of mental concussion we warm to the Irishman’s humour and allusive obliquity.  Fly intertextualisings flavour the bleak mantras with echoes of Joyce Proust, Shakespeare.  And Beckett’s portraits, we realise, are of foibled human interaction, not just dead-end loneliness.  Endgame, filmed by British playwright Conor McPherson in a set lyrical with timor mortis (Rothko bands of blurry colour round four dingy walls) is about the mad love between a master and servant:  Michael Gambon’s genteelly raving Hamm and David Thewlis’s gawky, touching Clov.  Patricia Rozema’s Happy Days, with Rosaline Linehans’s Winnie buried in a real sand-dune, conceal an imbroglio of relationships in its singsong memory-babble.  In Krapp’s Last Tape – one man and a recording machine, filmed by Atom Egoyan in a half-light with a spiky-haired John Hurt conjuring the ghost of Beckett himself – picks its way through the debris of a feeling past and felt, lost passions….


Beckett seems dated only by his determinism.  He can seem dictatorial in his prescriptions for hope-beneath-the-nothingness,  at least next to some manifestations of a newer, more serendipitous modernism.  The fresh-dawn movies at Venice were surely one from Iran and two from China.  Jafar Panahi’s The Circle, Jia ZhangkePlatform and Fruit Chan’s Liulian Piao Piao are large-cast frescoes reveling in their lose, surging realism and lack of a visible ‘structure.’  Are they the Orient’s answer to ensemble epics like Paul Thomas Anderson’s?  Or to the age of the random-event docusoap?


Actually all three pix have subtly wrought structures.  Iran’s The Circle , Golden Lion winner as Best Film, does a La Ronde with its portmanteau picture of persecuted women in the patriarchal new Persia.  Little has changed in that ineluctable land since Alexander the Great. Men still wage war, enact laws, carry-out punishments: but a monster religiosity underpins it all. Panahi’s half-dozen women in crisis – from the ex-convict searching to escape the city to the abortion-questing wife to the prostitute to the mother sacrificing her child – make the film seem a crueler, grownups’ version of The White Balloon. No little girl lost in the byways of adult exploitation, suspicion, superstition, just a whole city's harassed lower order, cast in that role by gender.  Circularity is the name and game: a camera endlessly panning around to record the impelling, entrapping disempowerments – the rite of non-passage – that are Iranian life for women, the unchosen.


There are three discernible acts in the 3-hour Platform, which starts with multi-character small-town scenes, irises in to a group of youngsters who form a touring rock band, then (post-tour) returns to the ebb, flow and social vicissitude of life in the town. Jia re-uses Wang Hongwei, the bespectacled hangdog youth from his slice-of-life debut Xiao Wu, but even he is scarcely central.  The protagonist of the new Chinese cinema is Everyone.  He/she/they are at once form and content in a large and dwarfing world. Sometimes they vanish into it, as in a wondrously staged boy-girl chat where each of the two to-ing, fro-ing characters takes turns casually to disappear from our view, while still talking, behind a bit of Great Wall. (Here endeth the omniscient P-o-V of the spectator).  In another scene the desert-stranded rock-group youngsters race uphill to hail a train passing over a giant viaduct.  Smaller than ants they seem enlarged – exalted – by the joy of being lost in the wilderness.


A nearly identical scene occurs in LIULIAN PIAO PIAO, another film with an ever shifting center of gravity.  A slim-plotted first half in Hong Kong – jostling scenes of immigrant life among work-permit Mainlanders, from a family selling hot food on a sidewalk to a girl making ends meet, in every forlorn sense, as a prostitute – yields to an Act Two in the snowy north.  The girl returns to find her folks, her friends, herself.  In a loosely edited, casually framed, scrapbook-style film, helmer Fruit Chan’s only concession to traditional cogency is to feature a unifying symbol: the ‘durian’.  This spiky watermelon-sized, coconut-hard fruit – available in all good Chinatowns – tastes good but apparently stinks.  It is variously used here as a weapon (a Hong Kong youth is biffed unconscious by an unknown durian-wielder), a hospitality icon (eastern pineapple) and an emblem of China’s love-hate attitude to the liberalisms of Hong Kong. The film can seem mad, untidy and very confusing.  But it stays with you.


So did much at Venice, including a raft of gay movies worthier of the Berlin Film Festival. Even Berlin might not have socked it to the evening dress crowd as much as Mostra chief Babera.  He put Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady Of The Assassins, Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and Joao Rodriguez’ O Fantasmo – all gay as pink ink – in the Main Competition.  The last crosses Genet with Feuillade in the tale of a Portuguese garbageman who likes men, handcuffs and Fantomas-style black rubber suits. Smelling salts were available for Mostra patrons swooning at the graphic fellatio scene. Schnabel, who copped a runner-up Grand Jury Prize, genuflects in a more platonic way to Cuban writer/hero/homosexual martyr Reinaldo Arenas (played by Best Actor winner Javier Bardem).  But the best film, pace Milos Forman’s jury, was Schroeder’s, who clearly had a whale of a time thrashing in the drug-tormented seas of Medellin, Colombia.


Shooting on digital video – now acceptable to all filmfests – the ex-Rohmer producer turned auteur (Maitresse, Reversal Of Fortune) adapts a quasi-autobiographical novel by Colombia’s Fernando Vallejo.  The movie’s Vallejo (German Jaramillo) returns from abroad to his native Medellin and a new male lover only to find the place resembles Prohibition-era Chicago on a Saturday night.  His boyfriend shoots anything that moves, including a noisy drum-playing neighbor; firework displays erupt whenever, as someone tartly observes, “another shipment has got through” (to the USA); and if you drive into the hills you wont come back.  Every Schroeder film is overwrought. But you cannot be bored by this one’s zesty alternation between philosophizing dialogue and bloodfest violence.


Italy lobbed four films into the competition in hope that one would explode.  Marco Tullio Giordana’s  I Cento Passi (The Hundred Steps), a truth-based anti-Mafia drama, won Best Screenplay award  for its tale of a young Sicilian agitator and radio broadcaster murdered by the Mob.  Later condemned for the deed was the hero’s Cosa Nostra uncle who lived just 100 yards away, hence the title.  In Sicily bloodshed is thicker than blood.


This critic’s Golden Kennedy, however, awarded irregularly to eccentric Italian allegorical comedies, goes to Gabriele SalvatoresDenti (Teeth).  The Mediterraneo Oscar-winner cranks up his style to a punk Expressionism for this drolly excruciating account of dental trouble – the hero is a snaggle-toothed Woody Allenish neurotic played by Sergio Rubino - which also hints at the layers of a larger, Dantesque paranoia you can find in every dentist’s office.  Hell is other people, burrowing at your nerve-ends.


Denti is also a fable about Catholicism, its agonies, awful warnings, root-canal moral fundamentalism. In this light are not dentists (or priests) as much to be pitied as the patients (or flock)?  “Be gentle with him” says the nurse to Rubino before he is ushered into the maddest fiend of all, a bearded Torquemada with singsong voice, played by veteran Italian ham Paolo Villaggio.  Salatores’ camera spares no character and no filmgoer. It runs, jumps, writhes, and when possible peers into or out of mouths, giant teeth like portcullises.  Suggestion for foreign distribution: double-bill it with this year’s 25th anniversary reissue of Jaws.


My trusty gondola ‘Orca’ reserved, I look forward to next year’s festival.  CIAO VENEZIA.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.