VENICE – 1995




 by Harlan Kennedy


Venice is a tidal city with a film festival to match. The world may see the place as an architectural Narcissus, forever gazing at its perfect high-water reflection – high enough to flood the place at times and turn all St. Mark's Square into a looking-glass. But catch Venice in a rare low-water sea­son and you'd be flabbergasted. Water­ways drain to a trickle; Il Grande Canale is a snaking mudbowl; and in a town that relies on water transport it's night­mare time for hospitals and hotels.

Like city, like movie festival. Twenty-odd years ago we all tramped between the world's muddiest films and most silted-up seminars. Since then, the waters have risen spectacularly. This year's mostra must be the most high-tide on record. Only look at the celebri­ties who were armada'd in. If you stood on any landing dock and swung a cat – dozens of these felines offer themselves for loan or hire on the Lido – you would hit someone famous. Whereas Cannes '95 could barely muster Sharon Stone, Venice '95 brought Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Costner, Gene Hack­man, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and ... but rainforests are precious. It shows the value of positioning your improving Euro-fest in time for Holly­wood's world onslaught on the fall and Christmas seasons: Waterworld, Apollo 13, Braveheart, Crimson Tide, et al., et al.

Venice is showing other signs of returning to yester-glories. With attend­ance figures almost rivaling Cannes, near-riots accompanied admissions to some popular films – notably Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, during the scrimmage to which a critic was laid end to end outside the Sala Perla. Dust­ing himself off, he marched to the nearby police station, whose officers promptly marched back to oversee the next riot, which was for Antonioni's Pardela les nuages (Beyond the Clouds). Press chief Adriano Donaggio made a speech combining apology with blame-redistribution. Poor crowd control was the fault of the Biennale / of inadequate funding / of Italian bureaucracy / of God / of the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter in the seventh house of cine-mania. Actually, it was the fault of Messrs. Antonioni, Chabrol, and Co. for giving us a glimpse of the European art cinema of yesterday and why we miss it today.

Moments of thrilling beauty illumi­nate Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds, shown out of competition: a portmanteau of short stories about the death of love, or its reluctance to be born in a world of spaces and suspi­cions between the sexes. Ferrara, in the first story, is a geometry of red roofs and white walls, of Mondrian hotel rooms and murmuring highways, where a young man fails to consummate his romance with a young woman. The fur­thest he gets is to "caress" her without touching: chastely, sculpturally, on the virgin hotel bed. Why? Perhaps be­cause the memory of something un­realized lasts longer than imperfect reality. The other stories move through a like maze of colors, spaces, and meta­phorical breeze-blocks: a Toytown fish­ing village, a red-and-blue adulterers' love-nest, a collage of Paris streets test­ing the faith of hesitant romancers Irène Jacob and Vincent Perez.

Sometimes the too-impeccable archi­tecture warps into parody Antonioni. We did not really need Mastroianni and Moreau recalling La notte-ish glories as an old painter and passing admirer squaring off about the crisis in aesthet­ics. And we regret the series of linking sequences with John Malkovich as a film director, soliloquizing indigestible apothegms as he wanders in and out of the tales. Apparently these were directed by the man who helped the stroke-stricken Antonioni make the film, generously if not always enhancingly, Wim Wenders.

Claude Chabrol's bring-back-yester­day flick was the murder thriller La Cérémonie. This may be a minor-chord work, but so is Bach's B-Minor Mass. Magnificence doesn't always need pri­mary sounds and colors. Sandrine Bon­naire and Isabelle Huppert play dimwitted maid and malicious friend, respectively, infiltrating a provincial mansion run by Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel. It ends in shotgun blasts and a bourgeois bloodbath – what good Chabrol pic doesn't? But the road to hell is paved with exquisite tensions. Bonnaire's maid is St. Joan reincar­nated as an illiterate softbrain who hears only other people's voices. Hup­pert prattles brilliantly as the busybody postal clerk who opens other people's letters and lives. (The two stars shared Venice's Best Actress award.) And Cha­brol paints in his prototypical meals, his sinisterly colored rooms that match the characters' desires (chocolate for sweet-toothed Sandrine), and his sliding cam­era movements that stake out gestures and glances like some invisible, omni­present gumshoe.

"Yes, but what's it about?" someone asked me on the way out. It's about a quarter to 11, I said, yuk yuk (I was on sparkling form that night), as I marched over the indefinable to the next press show. Actually, of course, La Cérémonie is about the presence of madness in the most strictly monitored ménages, and of death in the most well-fortified lives.


The best newer-generation movies at Venice were about similar mat­ters. We live in a world where many experiences must be made safe by being secondhand. As someone says in Strange Days, you can't commit vio­lence because it will escalate into riot or holocaust, and you can't have sex because it will kill you.

So Portugal's A comedia de Deus (Comedy of God) is an erratically hilarious chamber epic in which "don't touch" sex shades into heavy-duty fet­ishism, with director-star Joao Cesar Monteiro resembling a cross, between Nosferatu and Woody Allen as he pores over the album containing his pubic hair collection and ogles his nymphet ice cream parlor customers. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Guantanamera is a road movie in which a trucker and a schoolteacher try to refuel bygone romance amid the encircling traffic of funeral coffins. (Love plus bureaucratic satire.). And in Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo (Xich Lo), love and death in that urban Hades called Ho Chi Minh City seem inseparable.

The lyricism of Tran's The Scent of Green Papaya has here turned into por­tentous pessimism; still, we gasp at the images' beauty even while lamenting their misappropriation by awful-warning generality. This is one of those pix wherein the main characters come dressed as sonorous abstractions: The Poet, The Mother, etc. That Cyclo ended up winning the Golden Lion only shows how desperate that beast was to find a gifted artistic eye in a competition short on great lenswork.

The renaissance of British and Anglo-Irish cinema, which seemed loud and definite at Berlin and Cannes, was more hit-and-miss at Venice. Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal is a nothing-original melodrama about Provos vs. Prots in Seventies Belfast. While rival "godfathers" square off in the wings, their violent scions (Ian Hart, James Frain) crisscross the barricades dealing out bombs and snarly accents. Cal said it all better – especially the Romeo and Juliet ironies about star-crossed friendship – and said it earlier.

Meanwhile, Gerald Stembridge gave us Guiltrip, stilted in staging but attrac­tively unnerving in its look at human passion inside and outside marriage. A martinet soldier-husband (Andrew Con­nolly) drills his wife into a routine of obedience and servitude – she even has a "Standing Orders Book" to consult over do's and don'ts in everything from cleaning to shopping – before releasing his own psychosis in rape and murder. And Kenneth Branagh came to Venice proudly trumpeting his Belfast birth – faith and begob, will everyone be claim­ing Irish patrimony now that it's safe to walk in that island again? – and deliv­ered In the Bleak Midwinter.

This is a sort of luvvies' Hell, saved by bits of roughhewn comedy heaven. A dozen no-hope actors "put on a show right here" in a rural church. It's Ham­let, and during run-throughs they run through what must be the entire con­tents of the Actors' Gag Thesaurus. John Sessions camps it up as a gay "Queen," Polonius cannot tell his arras from his elbow, and the fog machine turns Elsinore into Outer Newfound­land. But we love Joan Collins as a vampy agent, and applaud Michael Maloney's Branagh-ish brio as the troupe's director/leading man. As in the "Carry On" films, there is also a cumu­lative charm about rotten jokes when enthusiastically delivered. Even the grungy black-and-white photography had the freshness, in this all-color age, of chromatic novelty.

Venice, of course, is a difficult place to show movies. Nature and architecture always have something better. None of Italy's homegrown pix matched the skies over the Adriatic, whose Tiepolo cloudscapes – blazing bouquets of sil­ver, pink, and copper poised above a blushing, scintillant sea – heartened us as we slouched towards the Sala Perla each night to be reborn. Just think: We used to look to maestri like Visconti, whose Senso was reshown to the usual gasps, for world-leading visuals. Now we gloomed at Marco Tullio Giordano's Pasolini: un delitto italiano ( ... An Italian Crime), a docudrama inquest into the poet-filmmaker's death as dull as mourning weeds; or at Ettore Scola's Romanzo di un giovane povero (Story of a Poor Young Man), a trudgy cop plot wasting the comic scenes with Alberto Sordi as a would-be wife-murderer; or at Giuseppe Tornatore's L'Uomo delle stelle (The Man of Stars), which staggers round postwar Sicily trying to revive the charms of Cinema Paradiso in the tale of a carpetbagging cameraman who sells "screen tests." Lovely setting; molto tedioso plot.


The main innovation at Venice '95 was the presence of several "works in progress." This danger­ous, exciting gimmick has been tried at Cannes; Apocalypse Now and The Mission, you recall, were both Golden Palm'd even though unfinished. Venice now offered William Friedkin's Jade and Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book and nearly gave us Scorsese's Casino.

Critics are flattered out of their minds by this. It suggests their reactions might actually matter to a film's maker, instead of being dismissed as the whim­pers of a eunuch or misanthrope. The standards of the unfinished pix were variable, and so is my advice. To the director of Jade: Dear Bill, pay Joe Eszterhas another million to get off the project, and have the sex'n'murder she­nanigans rewritten by someone less con­tent to recycle Basic Instinct and Sliver. To the director of The Pillow Book: Dear Peter, I couldn't get into your film owing to a life-threatening scrimmage outside the Sala Volpi; also to your on-the-spot publicist's decision to pick out favored British newspaper critics for screening admission. Since this was a screening theoretically open to all accredited critics, this smacks suspi­ciously of Control Freak Behavior.

Two knockout works-in-progress I did see were Oleg Kovalov's Sergej Ejstenstejn: Avtbiografia (so spelt) and Vassily Silovic's Orson Welles: One Man Band.

The first knits a "self"-portrait of Russia's greatest lens-wielder from archive footage. Newsreels and home movies, as well as clips from Sergei's own masterworks, are needle-wrought into a sort of giant patch-cardigan. Any­one can try it on: even someone like me, who speaks imperfect Russian (not that there is much VO commentary), but who swoons at the feel of this kind of editing brilliance next to his skin.

Kovalov gives us early-century Russia in the rapid juxtaposition of street crowds, machinery, riots, spa-resort high society – all jumbled together in a rain of semi-scratched footage. And he imparts a "You Are There" feel to early Soviet filmmaking by intercutting great Eisenstein set-pieces – the white horse dangling from the drawbridge, the dis­integration of the Czar's statue-with film of the scenes actually being shot. To see an assistant crouched behind the Czar's metal neck hand-jiggling the head, while Sergei and cohort stand below with lights and cameras, is to watch film history as it came from the workshop.

Films about films always have a magic. Orson Welles knew that cinema was a hall of mirrors and gave us one, mockingly disguised as a plot develop­ment, in The Lady from Shanghai. In one scene of Orson Welles: One Man Band – not so much a work-in-progress as the ultimate film about works-in-progress – documentarist Vassily Silovic fol­lows Oja Kodar, Welles's widow, back to the Paris house they shared until 1975. She unearths old papers and memories in the now squatter-wrecked villa. And in the garden, nestling under a crown of brambles, is the rusting pink car in which the penny-pinched Welles impro­vised a rainy nocturnal drive on film for The Other Side of the Wind. Sweeping lights were done with colored flash­lights; rain fell courtesy of two Count­esses pointing a hose at the windscreen.

One Man Band gives us yet more undiscovered Welles footage. Some of it could have stayed undiscovered. His Merchant of Venice, shot on the run on the Dalmatian coast as well as here in Venezia, looks like Othello without the fire. And his multi-impersonation comic travelogue set in LondonWelles as policeman, flowergirl, etc. – comes on like a reject Monty Python skit.

Set against this are two haunting scenes from his late, uncompleted Isak Dinesen project The Dreamers: a con­certo for shadows with Welles and Kodar glinting among them like jewels. And Orson the actor is heartbreakingly good in the one-man Moby Dick that he had begun filming (we kid you not) with a backdrop and a couple of klieg lights.

Was Hollywood cruel and neglectful to him? Not really. What could Movietown USA do with this man who made fragments not, we suspect, because he kept running out of money but because, thirty years after Kane, his mind had moved on from epic poems to crypto-grammatic sonnets. Even The Other Side of the Wind looks like a series of audiovisual shards and slivers contemp­tuous of fitting into a larger mosaic.

Welles would have been in his element at this fest. Venice '95 left us happy, frustrated, confused, bom­barded – and without a clue as to what Venice '96 will bring; let alone Planet Cinema at large as we say ciao to its first hundred years from the city that, half a century ago, had the temerity to found the first festival in its honor.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.