AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2011 – THE 68TH MOSTRA DEL CINEMA
A BRIGHT SHINING LION
by Harlan Kennedy
No Venice film festival ever started with such glamour, glitter and celebrity. We had hardly dragged our boats ashore, on the welcoming Lido, before we were set upon by Polanski’s all-star CARNAGE, ambushed by Soderbergh’s all-star CONTAGION, pummelled by George Clooney’s all-star THE IDES OF MARCH. Barely recovered from these, we were put in a warming cauldron by Madonna – her W.E. was a screen novelette about the greatest royal romance of all, between an abdicating English king and a divorced American socialite – and then our heads and brains were shrunk by TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. It was a pleasurable shrinkage. We couldn’t follow the plot but our still-seeing eyes could goggle admiringly at the Britpack cast. Oldman, Firth and Hurt: all in prime form.
And the whole thing might never have happened at all. You could have believed, on reaching the island’s centre and viewing its transformed topography, that there wouldn’t be any festival this year. There it was, a hole in the ground. A hole as big as the Colosseum, though in Venice they feed lions to Christians, not the other way round.
Yes, every September, leoni d’oro are shooed into the Lido di Venezia to be fought over by filmmakers. And this year you couldn’t help imagining it as a spectacle fit for an ancient arena since the arena, in a fashion, was there. A massive space and depth, groined from the earth. A deep-delved void girdling the current Mostra buildings. What was it? It was the aborted dig for the sadly, momentously abandoned film festival palace.
We were supposed to have it this year. Millions had been spent, then more millions on tackling a cruelly unforeseen cache of toxic asbestos. Who knew that the Lido long ago – Adriatic dreamspot – had deep-buried its old hotel and palace guttering, its beach-hut roofs, god knows what else. The Italians, seeing the murderous motherlode, threw up their hands. They said: “Fine. No more new palazzo. We’ll focus on improving the old one. We’ll honour the festival’s heritage instead of raising spendthrift new Babylons. (Why didn’t we think of this first?)”.
And lo! That’s what they are doing. They have expanded and redecorated the historic Palazzo del Cinema. By next year they’ll have done the same to other fest venues.
Amid the trumpets of a newly revised future came the cavalry of the famous. If this is the cast you get for a failed architectural dream, bring it on. George Clooney, Kate Winslet (in three films), Jodie Foster, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Al Pacino……These people weren’t in the mere lightweight sector of the festival: Hollywood’s usual raft of midnight matinee treats. Some of them were in the early competition’s two best and big-punching films: Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE, a New York-set four-hander starring Foster, Winslet, John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz, and Clooney’s THE IDES OF MARCH, a tinglingly intelligent political thriller.
IDES opened the festival, red-carpeting a troupe that also included Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. America does these “selling of a politician” dramas better than any nation on earth: films blending satire, suspense, sociocultural analysis. Think of THE CANDIDATE, BOB ROBERTS, PRIMARY COLOURS. Here Clooney is the Democratic state governor taking a shot at the presidency, on a no-compromise liberal ticket for which his two PR men, Hoffman and Gosling, hope to bring in the votes. But there’s many a slip. For starters – or perhaps in Governor Clooney’s case finishers – there’s the little matter of a sexy intern (Evan Rachel Wood).
There’s a bitingly witty face-off between rival spin wizards: Gosling and the Republicans’ Paul Giamatti. There’s Hoffman delivering a speech of mordant, magisterial wisdom. (The script is co-written by Beau Willimon from his stage play FARRAGUT NORTH). Clooney himself is dead centre, and dead right, as the political charisma marionette having his strings pulled by his own propaganda puppeteers.
Intelligent mirth – there’s a rarity in mainstream cinema. It’s available in THE IDES OF MARCH. And it’s copious in Polanski’s CARNAGE, whose cast will surely give this film (directed from another stage play, French dramatist Yasmina Reza’s THE GOD OF CARNAGE) a pass to world multiplexes. Two sets of Brooklyn parents go at each other hammer, tongs and fire-irons. Their sons got in a nasty fight in a park; Foster and Reilly’s son was injured, possibly disfigured; should Winslet and Waltz settle out of court – that is, hand over “hush” cash to the aggrieved couple in the latters’ sitting room where virtually the entire action is set?
The characters are scripted with a pen dipped in cyanide. Foster is a politically correct neurotic who has authored a book on Darfur. Reilly is a male chauvinist boar with ideas, social-political and sexual-political, from the Pleistocene age. Waltz is a lawyer forever waltzing into a corner of the room to take business calls, most of them demonstrating his shyster duplicity and ruthlessness. Winslet scowls and clucks every time hubby’s mobile rings, her moral nausea finally finding literal expression when she pukes up, violently, the pear-and-apple cobbler served in a moment of errant appeasement by Foster.
This calamity is the heart of the movie. It is monstrously funny, breathtakingly shocking. Polanski spares no detail of vomit-drenched coffee table books. The deed is delivered by Winslet as the screen acting super-stunt of the decade. She can forget TITANIC: now she’s acting with grownups. Once the upchucking is over the film, if possible, gets better still, with even the partners in each couple coming apart at the fissure points and quarrelling violently. Think of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, redone as a Euro-American boulevard tragic farce.
Winslet was back the next day on Venice screens in CONTAGION, striding across latitudes as an American epidemiologist. Steven Soderbergh’s global pandemic drama, shown out of competition, is a kind of microbiologist’s TRAFFIC. It hops world locations with a ritzy cast (Paltrow, Damon, Jude Law) and escalating plot. It varies visual styles with a freedom that can only be exercised by a director when he’s also, under Soderbergh’s nom de camera Peter Andrews, the cinematographer.
With Winslet also showcasing her TV marathon MILDRED PIERCE, this was another Mostra del Cinema in which we kept seeing the same faces, varied (or not) in different performances. British actor Michael Fassbender doubled up in David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD and Steve McQueen’s SHAME. Though he was a ‘dead actor walking’ in the first – lifelessly impersonating Carl Jung, opposite Viggo Mortensen’s no more vivid Freud, in Cronenberg’s creaky adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s stage play THE TALKING CURE – but a human powerhouse in the second.
McQueen, who made HUNGER, is a video artist turned filmmaker. He knows how to present a static-seeming screen image and flood it with slow power. The style is almost hydro-electric. Fassbender finds the actor’s equivalent in his own presentation of character. At first set-jawed and monolithic (and at moments eerily resembling a young Schwarzenegger), he later thaws and animates. By the last scenes he is a hero agonistes, stretched on the rack of his own emotional crisis
Fassbender plays an Irish-American ‘sex addict’: a serial thrill-seeker whose habit of instant gratification (prostitutes, one night flings, cyber-porn) kills his capacity for long-term relationships. Impotence comes, right on cue, with every threat of tenderness. The only girl who draws emotion from him is his sister (Carey Mulligan, another Brit rough-trading with an American accent). She’s a drifter and semi-junkie, dark eyes under a peroxide mop, who earns pin money as a lounge singer.
This is a New York seen by McQueen as the capital of glam decadence and glittery decay. He isn’t afraid of the accusation “shallow outsider’s vision.” He even has Mulligan sing “New York, New York,” of all hokey choices, in a gaudy midnight bar. But just when you think this is a coffee-table movie about high-style self-harm in the big city, SHAME delivers the harsh emetic realities. Only connect? No one connects here. The characters, and the audience, are trapped in a tunnelled world as blind, one-directional and Hadean as the subway scenes remorselessly punctuating the Manhattan lives.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS, another Brit contender for Lionisation, is a more pedigree’d vision of Heaven and Hell. Emily Bronte wrote the classic novel. Andrea Arnold (RED ROAD, FISH TANK) films with respect for this love story’s mad Moors-set passion, though she tramples the “literary” notes into the Yorkshire mud. Cathy and Heathcliff are laconic lovers moved about miry scenery – it rains a lot – and Heathcliff is black. An Afro drifter adopted by landowning peasants, he falls for the daughter of the house, then goes away, then comes back (older and unwiser), breathing sullen rage and stocked-up desire when she marries the weedy Linton. The dialogue soon dies out almost completely. By the end the landscapes do the talking; they and Robbie Ryan’s brilliantly expressive camerawork, often handheld to catch the trembling of a love that defies class and here too race.
In mid-festival you couldn’t shut the United Kingdom up. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY dishes out John Le Carre dialogue to aging Britpackers – Gary Oldman (as MI6 mole-hunter George Smiley), Colin Firth, John Hurt – and steers them through the logorrheic labyrinths of a story once thought the last word in BBC teledrama.
Back then Alec Guinness provided the lizardy minimalism and ambrosial drone. Now Oldman delivers the mandarin monologues amid mise-en-scene given a Nordic chill by Swedish helmer Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE). The characters get lost in the intrigues of cold war espionage; the audience gets lost – pleasurably – in a seedy world of post-imperial intrigue and bureaucracy. It’s the 1970s. The sets are piled with old files, the wallpaper is peeling and jaundiced, the rooms in the London espionage palaces are opaque with the misting vision of a country just beginning to lose its role, and way, as the torch-bearer of western democracy.
The Venice Film Festival, watching this film, may have thought it was looking in a mirror. How long can this festival bear the torch for western Mediterranean movie junkets? With a mere tittle of the Cannes budget – the eastern Med’s cine-spree – it struggles at times to keep its schedule flickering and its ideals afire. Subtitles kept breaking down. Late-night movies started very late. And the film sorpresa (film surprise), not for the first time a Chinese film contrabanded into Venice without its government’s blessing, PEOPLE MOUNTAIN, PEOPLE SEA, was interrupted by a fire scare. Several rows of cinegoers scampered into the night when a burning smell broke out. The film itself, a truth-based revenge thriller with a few side-snarls about work and living conditions in provincial China, was less incendiary.
Yet there is always renewal. One night, standing before the Palazzo del Cinema gazing at the row of movie hoardings fronting the Adriatic, I saw a new poster of a competition picture being glued and slapped up, by a bill sticker wielding a brush on a high ladder, over an old poster for the same film. Inch by inch, the fresh advertising space was being unscrolled over the fraying former one.
Symbolic or what? Just when you despair of the bygone, here comes the brand new. Even it’s a version of exactly the same thing. The fact that the film was Aleksandr Sokurov’s FAUST added to the poignant meaningfulness of the moment. The Russian minimalist has been, for years, the paragon of all things penitential: gloom, murk, obscurantism, the burbling of incomprehensible dialogue, the muffled music sounding like colliding stations on a shortwave radio. Sokurov made WHISPERING PAGES, MOTHER AND SON, MOLOCH: titles to instil terror in a film festival veteran.
Now comes FAUST and the audience rises, after 134 minutes, to cheer and clap. Sokurov hasn’t exactly changed. The images are still weird, obfusc and prone to moment-by-moment distortion. This is because his patented method is to shoot into mirrors and reflections. The dialogue and music are a macabre burble of the barely coherent. (Thank god for subtitles). But from the moment the camera wings down from a magicked heaven towards the heart of a magicked mediaeval city, perched on a coastal promontory, we are gripped by a faery enchantment. This is Germany in the Middle Ages. This is the mad laboratory of a scientist and his dad – “Faust and Son” – where frightful experiments, like stretching a spinal sufferer on a homeopathic rack, jostle with alchemy, chemistry and the demonic pursuit of knowledge and intellectual power.
And surely this is Mephistopheles, a sort of large-waisted human ant-eater who strips (in a bath scene) to reveal his grotesque frame including scaly skin and rear-placed genitalia. Actor Anton Adesinskiy speaks seductive obscenities with a helter-skelter sweetness, following Faust (Johannes Zeller) like a mixture of shadow and faithful hound. In midsection the film leaves the city to clamber around forests worthy of German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Here we canoodle with the beautiful Margarete, a vision of innocence played by the pearly-skinned, infant-cheeked Isolda Dychauk. What scholar, dried out by the bones of knowledge, pierced by the barbs of ambition, couldn’t fall in love with this girl-woman?
The blood signature is swiftly on the devil’s pact. Faust wants the world, the flesh and everything: the devil gives it him. His doom is sealed, yet still the film sings, soars and seesaws, between its multiplying heavens and earths, its myriad heavens and hells. In final sequences Faust and Mephistopheles don suits of armour like some imbecilic Quixote and Panza. (Who thought Sokurov had a sense of humour?). They clamber over lava-rocky landscapes in search of some clinching Vision of Truth. The image chosen to confront them and us with the ineffable luminosity – or dazzling lunacy – of existence is a geyser, which alternates ballistic blasts of upward-shooting water with longer periods of bubbling, enigmatic inanition.
It could be an image of Faust himself, or of all of us. We are lost in bemusement for most of our lives, vainly peering into ourselves, our souls or what we fancy is the common well of existence. Just occasionally, our minds blast off into space, replacing study with paroxysms of hope, fantasy, longing or speculation.
For many of us, FAUST was the Golden Lion winner from the moment it ended. Even the moment it began. It took us into another universe of imagination. Faustian penalty to be paid? We were dumped back in hell the next day.
What other terms do you use for the punishment of watching Chantal Akerman’s LA FOLIE ALMAYER (Joseph Conrad stretched on a rack of French-existential preciosity), Mary Harron’s THE MOTH DIARIES (the AMERICAN PSYCHO director lost to the TWILIGHT zone of girls’ school romantic horror) or Emmanuele Crialese’s TERRAFERMA. Only yesterday, battling for the host nation, this Italian director Venice-preemed the inspired RESPIRO: one woman’s psycho-spiritual crisis on a ravishing island. Now, on the same island, we get a dreary lecture about fishing crisis and illegal (African) immigration.
Moral: you don’t go to Venice, most years, for the Italian movies. Unless it’s Marco Bellocchio reissuing IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER in a bileful, brilliant new director’s cut – 20 minutes shorter than the original (there’s a message for other filmmakers re-scissoring their works) – and receiving a career-achievement Golden Lion for his pains. He got it, touchingly, from colleague and contemporary Bernardo Bertolucci, now confined to a wheelchair.
The Golden Lion checked out many movies and animals this year. There was a DARK HORSE, submitted by Todd Solondz, which cantered multi-directionally through black comedy, social satire and psycho-tragedy. This was the tale of two thirtish arrested developer (Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair) trying to find life and love in the teeth – not a gift horse’s – of purblind parents (his, played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and manic depression (hers), without the consoling highs of manic. It’s not HAPPINESS. But unlike other recent films by this director it’s intelligent, mordant and doesn’t tempt us to sing, “So-londz, it’s been good to know you…..”
Then the Lion slavered at WILDE SALOME, a sort of exotic fire-emanating reptile, submitted by one Al Pacino. Pacino is an actor, documentary-maker and ego wrangler. He trains and wrestles his own self-esteem. We forgive him his egocentricity since he also has moments of self-doubt, even self-ridicule: especially in this tribute to Oscar Wilde’s play, once the last word in wordy, voluptuous decadence. The movie’s in the same mould as LOOKING FOR RICHARD. Between scenes from a recent LA staging in which Pacino played Herod – with booming eccentricity – we follow actor-director and crew around Wilde tourist spots (London, Paris, Italy) learning of the author’s life, literature and unhappy loves. Someone must have thought, if only for the fraction of a moment, of calling it LOOKING FOR DICK.
The competition ended with a bang not a whimper. Two bangs. Abel Ferrara’s 4.44: LAST DAY ON EARTH and William Friedkin’s KILLER JOE prove that aging American directors never die, they carry on going berserk – with, perhaps, an ounce more of the elegiac. In Friedkin’s film all dialogue blazes and all performances crackle (Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch). But there are nice black comedy edgings – sardonic singe marks – in this play-based Texas murder thriller.
Ferrara, 20 years after BAD LIEUTENANT, still likes self-destructing heroes. Here it’s Willem Dafoe, a New Yorker anticipating the end of the world with live-in painter-girlfriend Shanyn Leigh. Leigh has discovered Abstract Expressionism at just the right moment, when there will be no need to clean the floor after use. Various religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, drugs, sex – fight for ascendancy as the clock ticks towards Judgment Hour. Skype is used to connect characters around the world. Planet Earth has become a global village, if only at the point when it is about to be a global ash-heap.
So to the prizes. The Golden Lion marched straight out and hugged Aleksandr Sokurov. The Russian director beamingly embraced it back. This was a record: no one had seen Sokurov smile before. Perhaps he could not believe that this fourth film in a tetralogy about power that has given him an uneven critical ride – previous movies, MOLOCH (Hitler), TAURUS (Lenin), SUN (Hirohito) – was such a thumping favourite with everyone.
FAUST was a worthy winner, which is more than one could say for the two runner-up victors. Crialese’s ponderous TERRAFERMA won Special Jury Prize. China’s Shangjun Cai won the Best Director Silver Lion for PEOPLE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE SEA, a movie smuggled into Venice without a Beijing visa, which had little to commend it beyond its outlaw status.
Michael Fassbender was named Best Actor for SHAME. The colourfully named Deanie Yip received the Best Actress trophy, for a touching performance as a maid of all work, and all epochs, in the admired social-historical span of Ann Hui’s A SIMPLE LIFE.
Venice was over. But Venice is never over. As history has proved, you can bury it in the ground, you can wash it out to sea, you can probably fire it into space; you can even climax it with the horrors of 9/11 as ten years ago. It will always come back. Some festivals, like some cities (whether on the Hudson or on the Adriatic), are for keeps.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved