AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1989 – THE 46TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
This year Venice went green – the festival catalogue with matching poster, the bunting outside the Palazzo del Cinema, the algae-infested Adriatic. Greenpeace's new Rainbow Warrior II boat was on hand. It's a green world and the 46th Mostra del Cinema is doing its bit for peace, the environment and world harmony.
Festival director Guglielmo Biraghi insisted when he came to power three years ago: no jingoism, please, we're a global village. Films now enter Venice under their maker's name, not their country's. This year the Brotherhood-of-Man (-and-Woman) ethos has spread through the festival like greenfly. Paul Cox's Island, Alain Tanner's La Femme de Rose Hill, Gabriel Axel's Christian: the competition seethes with films in which a group of irreconcilable people get together and, well, reconcile themselves.
The upside is the encouragement this gives filmmakers to sew ambitious sutures in the body geographic: finding the common humanity that spans or synergizes different cultures. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City of Sadness (Taiwan) is a Far-Eastern history lesson humanized as the story of a family: postwar turmoil, as China and Japan struggle over control of the island, is mirrored and counterpointed in the lives of three Taiwanese brothers. Tanner's La Femme de Rose Hill is a female bonding pic set in a Swiss Village in which an "arranged bride" from an Indian Ocean island moves in with an old lady villager after quitting her male chauvinist spouse.
Best of all, Russian director Otar Ioseliani's Et La Lumiere Fut is an African tribal comedy in which hut villagers resist encroaching white tree-fellers. Fleeing townwards to join civilization ("Ssss!"), they sell their rain gods as sidewalk souvenirs – an over-obvious didactic payoff to a delightful movie.
The downside to harmonize-the-world cinema: it fosters that monster of our times, the co-production. How about a movie directed by Alain Resnais, scripted by Jules Pfeiffer and starring Adolph Green and Gerard Depardieu making mincemeat of each other's languages? We have it in I Want To Go Home: the tale of a Cleveland cartoonist (Green) who goes to France to be feted for his funny pages. Laugh? You're too busy wincing at the clumsiness of Pfeiffer's Franglais dialogue.
You may prefer – but I doubt it – a movie made by a Dutch-Australian director on a Dodecanese island with a mixed Greek-French-Australian-Indian cast. In Paul Cox's Island, Irene Papas is the lifeforce heroine who befriends drug-addicted Aussie tourist Eva Sitta. Round these two gather a crowd of polyglot weirdos (artists, heroin-pushers, village idiots) speaking in what the Venice catalogue called "mistilingui," – the shape of things to come perhaps, especially in a world full of greenness, glasnost and geo-political detente.
Gabriel Axel's Christian (Denmark) even implies a religious dimension to all this. The eponymous teenage hero flees juvenile prison for roamings and self-discovery in France, Spain and Morocco. Stumbling through the desert, he's taken in by a friendly Berber tribe. This is inspirationally implausible. The smiling Berbers invoke Allah, the smiling boy undergoes a Christ-like passion/redemption and a smiling Berber girl promises to be his bride. Even from the director of Babettes Feast, this vision of a world saved by hospitality – the Third World offering bread and moral uplift to the First World – has an optimism verging on the loony.
It takes Peter Greenaway to remind us that food is as often a casus belli as a means of peace. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the Brit filmmaker's best yet. In a world trying to green itself back into Eden, Greenaway throws enough serpents into the scenario to remind us that even when every prospect pleases, man is still around, vile to the last.
In a crimson-colored restaurant thick with luxury, owned by roaring London gangster Michael Gambon, across a landscape of boar's heads, steaming venisons and rearing cornucopias of fruit, Gambon's wife Helen Mirren and lonely, bookish diner Alan Howard exchange looks and rendezvous in the loo. Will Gambon – stupid, foulmouthed and deafening – suspect? If so, will the all-seeing French chef (Richard Bohringer) protect this modern-day Adam and Eve (who spend much of the movie in the nude) from his wrath?
If you can form cogent questions like this while watching the film, you're cooler than I. It took me two days to recover from its unforeseen splendors. Greenaway, whose movies never showed much sympathy for realism, has finally assassinated it here. The film sets up four zones of action, each with their own dominant, all-saturating color: red for restaurant, green for kitchen, white for bathroom, night-blue for the studio-built street outside.
This last is a stunning Fellinian caprice: steam, neon and prowling dogs. The dogs throw vast shadows and bark approvingly whenever Gambon and his minions take a client outside and beat him up. They also gobble up the restaurant scraps thrown out by perfectionist chef Bohringer.
In Greenaway's fable of a reverse Eden, God's a gangster, the serpent's a French tastebud-tempter, and Adam and Eve fall from sin into a kind of innocence. Hell laps at the garden gates, and Heaven is in the forbidden luxuriance of the Tree of Knowledge – not just the visible "fruit" of the feast, but also the leaves from books: Howard, to Gambons disgust, reads as he dines, and the couple's lovenest is a gilded Xanadu of books.
The movie's miracle is that it's never just an egghead director's parlor game. It's two hours of cinematic brainstorming. Epic tracking-shots drag us from one color-coded thematic zone to another, powered by the mantric rhythms of Michael Nyman's music. Hyperbole is unapologetic: the lovers flee in a truckful of worm-seething meat carcasses. And expressionist conjuring tricks are taken in joyous stride: Mirren's clothes change color chameleon-like from zone to zone; a cook-choirboy's icy-beautiful soprano bursts forth in inexplicable waves in the kitchen.
Witty, sensual and intelligent, this movie is one of the masterpieces of the Eighties.
Why it wasn't in competition is a mystery. Apparently, Sgr. Biraghi decided to limit himself to one British entry (I thought we weren't bothering about flags or nation quotas), and preferred Peter Hall's She's Been Away.
God knows why. This dim little caper written by Stephen Poliakoff (Hidden City) depicts the budding buddiness between wacky frustrated socialite Geraldine James and her in-law relative, ex-mental patient Peggy Ashcroft. Far from finding her a nuisance, Geraldine finds her a kindred spirit. Soon they are charging across England getting drunk, vandalizing hotels and having a whale of a time.
The audience has a minnow of a time, never believing a frame, thanks to Ms. James' overacting and Hall's direction-by-cliché, (e.g., the "rich can't communicate" scene of husband and wife sitting at opposite ends of a long dining table.) There's also a déjà vu factor – She's Been Away is Rain Man in drag. Without Dustin Hoffman. (Needless to say, Ashcroft and James shared the Best Actress prize: there's no reasoning with some juries.)
America herself, though she may not have offered movies about the mad, did offer mad movies. Wendell B. Harris' Chameleon Street, a collection of narrative loose ends masquerading as a comedy, shows what happens if you try to make a Spike Lee film without being Spike Lee. (Sometimes it doesn't even work if you are Spike Lee.) And Oja Kodar's Jaded shows what happens if you're a beautiful Yugoslavian who spent the prime of her life as helpmeet to Orson Welles. You develop delusions of genius. For your first feature you create a crazy-quilt of sex, violence and Z-movie dialogue set in Venice, California. And you shove in five seconds of Welles's The Merchant of Venice to show you have access to the Master's estate, if not to his talent.
Henry Jaglom's New Years Day, America's competition entry, was much better. This was known in Venice as The Kook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover and Any Other Friend of Jaglom's Who Turned Up On Set to Grab a Part.
At least there's a cogent mind ticking away inside the kookiness. Jaglom lies back and thinks of Freud as the human contents of his sublet New York apartment spill their grief, lust, wit and hysteria. Jaglom hardly needs to change subjects from film to film. The mixture's always fun and here's one old chum of O. Welles who does his own talented, un-Wellesian thing. (No clips from The Merchant of Venice.)
The festival jury, starring the likes of Polish helmer Krzysztof Kiéslowski, Italian eyeful Mariangela Melato and American Werewolf John Landis, wrestled with many hours of celluloid, some of which should never have been exposed in the labs, let alone to an audience: Amos Gitai's Berlin-Jerusalem, a stilted conscience-basher about Jewish persecution and early Zionism (ripe subject, rotten treatment); Jean Jacques Andrien's slumbrous Australia, in which French-accented wool trader Jeremy Irons is torn between a good woman in Belgium (Fanny Ardant) and his sheep down under; George Panassopoulos's M'Agapas (Do You Love Me?) (Greece), a string of soft-porn interludes masquerading as a dying hedonist's memories; and Kei Kumai's Sen No Rikyu, detailing the mystical rites of the Japanese tea ceremony.
This last stars Toshiro Mifune as the aging tea-master Rikyu, who commits hara-kiri just before the audience starts considering the idea. The film is two hours long, deeply obscure and almost wholly static. Set to music and re-titled Everybody Comes to Rikyu, it might have a chance.
The only competition pic to win hurrahs from nearly everyone was Ettore Scola's Che Ora E? (What Time Is It?). Scola is Italian cinema's Mr. Softee. Whenever you hear the ice-cream jingle come over the hill, you know it's another rueful, rollicking comedy from the director of Macaroni and Splendor. This one has Marcello Mastroianni and Massimo Troisi (both wonderful and joint winners of the Best Actor prize) as a semi-estranged father and sailor son sparring through a long day of knockabout, tears and classic paternal faux pas. All ends sweetly. There's a heraldic aptness about a two-handed Italian movie shot on a tiny budget in overcast weather in a one-horse location. The festival itself is facing lean times: budget gnawed at by inflation, its annual consignment of Hollywood celebs thinning and the later-and-later start date, dictated by Venice hoteliers wanting to stretch the summer season, means we're shivering in our Guccis by final week.
Will we be back next year? You betcha..
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1989 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.