by Harlan Kennedy



IT CAME. It soared. It conquered.

We gasped at the fluttering mane, marvelled at the crackling wings, trem­bled at the six-track roar! The beast that turns to gold each September, to hug the latest nervously lionized auteur, starred this year in his very own, new, digitally animated logo-movie. It preceded each program and was a knockout. In glorious color, the CGI lion flies over Venice's canals and roofs before settling with a stern roar on its St. Mark's Square pillar and morphing into the film festival trademark: a bossed shield aglow with gold lettering. People instantly noted the likeness to new Venice chief Felice Laudadio. Laudadio is a man of hand­somely shaggy appearance – picture Yves Montand after being dragged through a barbed wire fence – and he did his own share of combative roaring. (Even his name has a declarative flour­ish: "Happy To Praise God").

He had to put himself about, since in early days this Mostra looked suspicious­ly like business as usual: semi-controlled pandemonium. Press screenings beset by delays and technical hitches unspooled, or didn't, in the Palagalileo, a hangar-style hall and former open-air arena named after the man who helped to invent space, gravity, and the telescope. Galileo said it first, but we all said it again this year as a chant of faith: "E pur si muove" – There will be movies!

Laudadio kept dashing before the audience to make speeches in passion­ate Italian. He said things would get bet­ter and they eventually did. For this was the new Venice era, he assured us, in which freshness and quality would replace duty sideshows (like the old "Italian Panorama") and danegeld show­ings of Hollywood blockbusters. There would be no more – or at least fewer – US action epics aimed at keeping in with the big chiefs across the sea.

America still managed to smuggle in Air Force One and Cop Land, with crowd-gathering appearances by Harrison and Sly causing terramoti on the Lido. And we wondered how long the new British bubble could last, even though enchantment was found in three early Britpix here, The Winter Guest, Wilde, and The Tango Lesson.

The Winter Guest is directed by Alan Rickman, once known for delivering such momentous lines as "Ziss is a gun, Mr. McClane" (Die Hard) and "Cancel Christmas!" (Robin Hood). Rickman maroons Emma Thompson and a support­ing cast of seven in a frozen fishing village somewhere in Fableland. Against pellu­cid, gorgeous backdrops, four cross-gen­erational couples – a pair of woman gos­sips, two schoolboys playing on the beach, two lovestruck teenagers, and Emma her­self plus real-life mom Phyllida Law as her mom – act out barely intersecting duologues on hope, love, loss, and emotional horizons. The line readings are overtutored, as we might expect from a stage actor turned movie helmer. And at times the snow-crusted scenery seems like Ultimo Thule by way of Hallmark greeting cards. (Cancel Christmas.) But at best the film's abstractions are bold, Beckettian, hypnotic. And Thompson herself, crack­ing open a fine Scottish accent, sets a tone of muscular wistfulness sustained in the movie's words and images.

Wilde is another go at the downfall of dear Oscar. Brian Gilbert's biopic was no doubt prompted by a new age of graphic liberalism in the movies – there is a lot of all-male embracing – and by the avail­ability of an actor designed by nature to play the heavyweight dandy with the feather-fine wit. Brit comedian Stephen Fry is tall, elegant, and whimsical, and wears fin-de-siècle clothes as if born in them. Though a touch underpitched, his performance is a perfect center for others to whirl around, including Jude Law's Bosie – an angel with dirty thoughts – and Tom Wilkinson's mad, bad Lord Queensberry, whose sidewhiskers look like smoke seeping from a volcano. Vanessa Redgrave is brief, barmy, and sensational as Wilde's Irish mom, and Gilbert has the taste and sense to let the lush period design sit back and act as foil to the thespian folderol.

The Tango Lesson was quite the oddest pic in the festival. A critic friend came up to me after it and said, "I don't want to watch two hours of Mrs. Thatcher learning the tango." And yes, writer-director-star Sally Potter does look like a bit like Mrs. T, though you could hardly call prior feminist syntagmas like The Gold Diggers and Orlando Thatcherite. But in throwing her plain, pinched features into a factual/fictional romance involving a hunky tango dancer (Pablo Veron), several musical numbers, and triangulated dashing between Paris, London, and Buenos Aires, you must give her points for courage.

Potter, playing Potter, wants to parlay her newfound passion for the tango into a movie. So she signs up three men who earn their livelihoods tripping and teaching the dark fantastic, starts to hunt for finance, and well, that's about it for plot. That and her love affair with Veron, a sort of young Gilbert Roland with exploding hair and beard.

But this black-and-white yarn – as shadowy and beautiful as a Lang movie – is full of subtle caesurae: little dialogue scenes or visual entr'actes in which the larger themes are allowed to breathe and grow. It's about the synaesthetic frustra­tions of love and art. It's about the trials of human faith in every arena from romance to moviemaking to religion. It's about the dilemma of who leads whom when a woman used to giving orders on a movie set seeks creative, and amorous, entente with a lord of the dance trained in the most male-chauvinist mating ballet in the world.


WHO LEADS WHOM? It was the question of the fortnight at Venice. In his competition choices Maestro Laudadio seemed to be ceding to the populace one moment, set­ting a pace for the élite the next. Theoretically, the popcorn crowd could enjoy Benoît Lamy's Combat des Fauves, a stuck-elevator thriller from Belgium (except that the plot itself got stuck between ground floor and mezzanine) or Guillermo Del Toro's monster pic Mimic, with Mira Sorvino fighting a mad mutant from another dimension, something she probably gets enough of at home.

And both theoretically and practically, popcorners could enjoy Paolo Virzi's really good Ovosodo from Italy. This is Au revoir les enfants for deregulated Italian imaginations, a funny growing-up tale that shuttles between Rome and Livorno. The film justly won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize. Virzi's student hero (Edoardo Gabrielini) grapples with love, life, and literature in a world where an unstable family background (convict father, retard brother) is merely the antipasto to greater madnesses, including ill-karma'd romances with a manic-depressive teacher and a rich girl gone radical. Virzi cracks the whip on a galloping narrative, and the dialogue is non sequiturs deliv­ered in racy argot.

For sterner tastes there were austerity gigs like Portugal's Ossos (Bones), in which the entire country seems to have been seized by Tableau Vivant Syn­drome; or anfractuous narratives like Italy's Spins of the Moon Between Earth and Heaven, where, if you sur­vive the title, you still face the zeitgeist-hopping plot. Set on the volcanic island of Pozzuoli, it involves the Emperor Nero, the composer Pergolesi, St. Paul, and a modern fishing family. And you thought life in New York was complicated.

The Venice competition was a prob­lem area. Mainland Europe largely strug­gled; all the Brit films save Rickman's showed fuori concorso; and America fielded clinkers like Niagara Niagara and Mike Figgis's political-correctness paroxysm One Night Stand. These two films were later consolation-guerdon'd with Best Acting prizes for Robin Tunney and Wesley Snipes, respectively.

So the East was expected once again to wrest or rescue the Golden Lion. But even here the first high hope, Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool, was a letdown. His modern-day urban comedy begins as Cyrano de Bergerac, with the stammering hero hiring passers-by to yell endearments at his highrise-dwelling beloved. Then it turns into a bilious buddy romp, built around a feud with another man over a computer busted in a street fight. Zhang has decid­ed on a stylistic change of pace. Out with lush classical symmetry; in with hand-held camera, bulging closeups, hectic editing. It's Wong Kar-wai on steroids; MTV gone east; Peking vu par St. Vitus. If the plot were actually funny, it might help. But how many times can you laugh at closeups of a man wielding a cleaver endlessly intercut with those of an antag­onist wielding a look of executive stress?

Wayne Wang's tribute to the last days of colonial Hong Kong, Chinese Box, was little better. West meets East in a movie that's like outtakes in search of a script. Gong Li clenches majestic cheek-bones as the courtesan who loves – ah! too late – the dying Jeremy Irons, while Oriental action star Maggie Cheung plays the scarred, defiant street waif who won't lie down with the Brits or the Chinese. Irons is a photojournalist with a "rare form" of leukemia: that is, one favored by movie screenwriters. His history-con­scious doctor, diagnosing him in late '96, gives him "three to six months" to live, so we're pretty sure he'll beg out symboli­cally around handover day. His death, like his whole life in this movie, is a dis­play of chic cutting, gestural rhetoric, and glassy cliché, again proving that great historical moments are not foolproof tem­plates for great historical movies.

The other keenly awaited flick of Eastern origin or ambience, Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi (Fireworks) was qui­eter and slower, and Zen some. Kitano's self-played cop hero Sergeant Nishi has become a modern Japanese icon: Dirty Harry in the shadow of Mount Fuji. This film kills him off, but ever so gently. He robs a bank, partly to buy gifts for friends, including the crippled cop who has become a painter (cut in Kitano's own canvases of flower-headed animals), but mainly to pay for a last vacation with his leukemia-stricken wife. Bits of vio­lent backstory bite into the modern idyll. But the pace is increasingly and seduc­tively elegiac, right up to the double gun-shot that signals the end of a remarkable policier fleuve. A critic I much admire, Michel Ciment of Positif, whispered pas­sionately to me post-screening that Fireworks would win the Golden Lion. And no one could complain when the Lion heard, and on prize night obliged.

No one could really complain about anything by the end of this friendly fest. Laudadio was known to drag unprotesting critics off to vinous lunches. The age­lessly gorgeous Charlotte Rampling was everywhere, doubling as jury member and star of Britain's non-competing The Wings of the Dove. And jury prez Jane Campion smiled over a happy team, even though Laudadio said he'd first had to get The Piano director's nomination rubber-stamped by no fewer than seventeen bureaucrats, some of whom said, "Ehhhh, 'oo ees thees 'Champion'?"

Since Jane herself gave us a Henry James pic at Venice last year (The Portrait of a Lady), there were two jurors indebted to the late-century prosemaster. Rampling's Aunt Maud acidulates nicely through lain Softley's Wings of the Dove, which closed with a flourish the British Renaissance sideshow (and costarred a skillfully smoldering Helena Bonham-Carter as Kate Croy). You come out humming the haberdashery a bit. But that's a plus when the costumes are as expressionistic as those by ex-Derek Jarman couturier Sandy Powell.

Expressionism is the new British forte. Twenty-four hours before this high-octane heritage flick we savored the mad brutalism of the best Limeyland late-show of all. Jez Butterworth's Mojo proves that Britain really is growing into a new filmic freedom. Though it could be called half a movie rather than a whole one – taking its main power from a stage play – its tale of war­ring gangsters has a swish, groomed, terrif­ic fury. It's Tarantino by way of Pinter, who cameos cheekily as a gang boss. And it's directed to the nines by a man unafraid of airy flourish (spiraling craneshots) and Antonionian artifice (a streetfront painted the same shade of livid green).


EVEN THE BEST of British, though, baled beside the cargo of imagination arriving on the last day from Denmark. Rats scur­ried from the ship; the sun wrote creep­ing shadows across the creaking deck; the festival world's new favorite son was back, feral in tooth and claw. At a trifling five hours, The Kingdom Part 2 con­tinues Lars von Trier's tale of medical malpractice and mystical gobbledygook in a Danish hospital. The chapter head­ings of the four-part movie – beginning with "Mors in Tabula" and ending with "Gargantua" – show we are into serious mock-mythic shtick, and the Venice audience lapped up Trier's blend of goth­ic menace and higher camp.

The same characters go through much the same Laocoon wrestling with life and death, good and evil, medicine and meaning. But Kingdom 2 is better than a superior sequel: it's a deconstruc­tion of the nature and expectations of the "continuing story." The struts and gird­ers of individual subplots – a monster-baby (Udo Kier), a Masonic lodge, a kamikaze ambulance driver, a voodoo doctor who plucks out pausing patients' affected organs barehanded – are extended way beyond their architectural (or psychological) plausibility. Hence rupture, collapse, and warping become the new design structure.

The stories and characters in Kingdom 2 are almost uniformly crazed. But the film's madness grows from organ­ic faultlines and slyly deliberate over­reachings, as if in imitation of the Kingdom Hospital itself, which has inherited its disastrous present from its decay-inducing past as an old bleaching swamp.

Trier again directs with a restive hand-held camera in a range of pale, sickly yel­lows and oranges. First shots of individ­ual scenes flatter with a slightly richer color range, just like the frontispiece tableaux in Breaking the Waves. But this is just to dangle the "normal" world before us prior to exposing its fraudu­lence. The film is a postmodern ER, at once exegesis and parody of the wicked charms of the hospital saga. It is, of course, about these institutions as a model of the world, the universe, even of collapsing systems of faith. When one doctor says to another, "We always feared the day when patients would learn Latin – it's a code that stops them understand­ing," we hear a Reformist's dig at Catholicism – except that Trier would never stop at Reformation, he'd go right on, and does, to a high-romantic nihilism.

The Kingdom was the one movie at Venice that was all things to all people. Cracking fun. Cosmic meditation. Cinematic original. And a work that, like Kitano's Lion winner, suggests that the cinema's future, in these heady days of open-sesame delivery systems, might lie in the film fleuve as much as in the one-off feature.

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©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.