The Venice Film Festival, the oldest in the world, is winding up its 67th edition, my first. (UPDATE: The Golden Lion award went to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere on Saturday amid charges of favoritism on the part of jury president Quentin Tarantino; they once dated.) Venice is more intimate than Cannes, with less of a junket/market/party/circus feel, and very European. And yet for seven years fest director Marco Muller has lured more than a few star-studded Hollywood event films to the Lido (the small island is a vaporetto-ride from the most elegant tourist attraction in Europe). (Check out my flip cam interview with Muller below).
Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, The Queen, The Hurt Locker, Lost in Translation and The Wrestler all broke out of Venice before the fall award season was properly under way, arriving in Oscar-crucible Toronto with built-in buzz and must-see status. But Muller, an Asian scholar, is most proud of breaking out Hou Hsiao-hsien and many other directors over the years, providing them with a launch pad for wider distribution and exhibition. While the over-crowded press room was crammed with photographers and videographers uploading photos of Michelle Williams (above) and Tarantino on the red carpet or alighting from water taxis (the fanciest hotels, the Bauer, Danieli and Cipriani are on the big island), just as many critics were focused on filing their reviews—first. The consensus out of Venice has an impact on any film’s future: Oscar prospects, selling territories around the world, theater bookings, or even a U.S. pick-up.
Venice Oscar hopefuls:
Black Swan, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel
Somewhere‘s Stephen Dorff, Beyond‘s Noomi Rapace, Reign of Assassins‘ Jung Woo-Sung
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Best of Fest
1. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
2. Silent Souls
3. Black Swan
7. Black Venus
8. Meek’s Cutoff
11. Reign of Assassins
13. I’m Still Here
On the other hand, what’s the point of showcasing a movie like I’m Still Here or Essential Killing and Promises Written in Water if their stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Vincent Gallo, are too messed up or narcissistically inclined to do the honors? While Phoenix is a gifted actor, I’ll happily keep my distance from Gallo, before or behind the camera. UPDATE: Clearly the jury does not share my views: they awarded Gallo the best actor prize for the film he did not direct, Essential Killing. Best actress went to Ariane Labed for Attenberg.
Muller has earned the gratitude and loyalty of many filmmakers and stars he has done right by over the years (next year his lengthy Venice term comes to an end), from Tsui Hark and John Woo to Coppola and Darren Aronofsky, who rewarded him with two of the fest’s highest-profile movies. Muller lined up Somewhere, Black Swan and Julian Schnabel’s Miral so early, before Cannes, that he wasn’t able to offer other films prime slots; Never Let Me Go and The King’s Speech went on to Telluride.
Most of the media in attendance are from Europe or Asia, not America. The fest brings in several faraway journalists, such as Time’s Richard Corliss and The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, who participated in a spaghetti western panel (inspired by the fest’s programming of some films by Sergio Corbucci) and a 3-D jury, respectively.
I spent eight days in Venice, and mightily enjoyed my too-brief forays to the ancient city, where yes, I did eat cuttlefish with black squid sauce, pay through the nose for a gondola ride with a central-casting gondolier who ducked under canal bridges in style, acquired vintage jewelry, and listen to an accordion player perform the theme from The Godfather and O Solo Mio.
Speaking of Italian music, Italian-American actor-director John Turturro is beloved by this festival–they treat him like a huge star. In fact, the ill-fated Romance and Cigarettes, which was caught in the backdraft at the end of United Artists, was such a hit in Italy out of this fest that several financeers stepped up to give Turturro the job of directing a doc about the music of Naples. Passione is not unlike Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge: it’s a “musical adventure” showcasing the music, old and new, of Naples, via a mix of old footage and new performances by the city’s top artists. The film was exhilarating, and more than one moviegoer walked out of the theater humming. I admired Mac and Illuminata, even though American moviegoers have yet to click with his movies. I hope Passione comes to the states and that more folks give this talented director more shots.
The high point of the fest was the tribute to John Woo. Tsui Hark, his mentor at the start of his career, a heartfelt Tarantino and Muller presented him the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award. Woo was overcome (as was I). The fest also showed a restored print of The Killers, a Hae-sung Song’s Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow, and Woo’s latest, Reign of Assassins, “co-directed” by Taiwan filmmaker Chao-Bin Su. It’s a straightforward Hong Kong period action picture starring Michelle Yeoh and my fave Korean star Jung Woo-Sung (The Good, The Bad and the Weird). The romance between the duo works well–Yeoh’s more-or-less playing the role of the veteran gunfighter (sword-flying assassin) trying to go straight who falls in love with a regular guy. But I found the overall film not to be at the Woo level. The co-director label is misleading; Woo and Terence Chang produced, and Chao-Bin Su mostly directed.
More successful by far was Tsui’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which is an effective Hong Kong epic adventure jammed with extravagant VFX and starring high cheek-boned Andy Lau as the canny fearless incorruptible policeman of the title. He’s working for two powerful women, the power-hungry would-be first woman empress in China, and her lieutenant, who is sent to aid the detective (and spy on him) in a toxic environment where many oppose the empress and nobody trusts anyone. Dee is trying to figure out why a series of people keep spontaneously bursting into flame–and keep the empress alive until her coronation. It’s Tsui’s homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hong Kong style. It seems that as the West’s film industries implode, Asia is where the action–and the money–is. Tsui’s picture was the hit of the festival and was expected to be a strong contender, with Tarantino chairing the jury, for the Golden Lion. (Muller reminds that Tarantino has catholic tastes; he was also a huge fan of Jane Campion’s Bright Star.)
Asian money is also backing Dreamworks, and India’s Reliance had the wherewithall to fund not one but two versions of Raavan–the Tamil one is better, says Muller, which played here to more acclaim than met the Hindi version I saw in the states starring Abhishek Bachchan.
Dee’s empress and Yeoh’s powerful martial arts warrior were not the only tough women on display in Venice. Another fest fave was Ozon’s feminist comedy Potiche starring the comedic Catherine Deneuve as a 70s trophy wife who takes over her husband’s umbrella factory while he is away and loves it so much that she tries to take it back from him. She has been flirting with an old lover, Gerard Depardieu, for decades. Even though the vet French star is as big as a house, their scenes together are delicious. This comedy is commercial enough to score with a stateside art-house boomer audience.
Only at a film festival would one see two films back-to-back involving the sponging down of a dead naked woman. The first takes place early in Silent Souls, from Russian filmmaker Aleksei Fedorchenko, an adaptation of a novel about two men who keep alive their village ritual of preparing their dead with love and tradition. In this case a factory owner asks a friend who works for him to help him prepare the body of his dead wife, tie strings in her pubic hair (as her girlfriends did when she got married), and take a long drive with the body wrapped in the back in a blanket during which he shares intimate memories of their life, an unburdening that will help with the grieving process. Finally, they send her on her way. Similar in some ways to the Japanese Oscar-winner Departures in its utterly specific detailing of one culture’s death ritual, Silent Souls is beautiful, sad, dour, poetic—and universal.
The last film I saw in Venice was the most disturbing. Abedellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus, which will also play the NYFF, tells the story of Saartjie Baartman (Yahima Torres), a woman known as the Hottentot Venus, a South African family servant whose parents and child are dead. Her Afrikaner employer brings her to London, then Paris, to play a “savage” in a horrifying freak show. She’s part King Kong, Elephant Man, and Precious. She’s degraded, defeated, depressed, oppressed and exploited, and the only way she can make it through is to swallow large quantities of wine. When she tries to add real music and beauty from her culture to the show, her two bosses beat and scream at her. They hand her over to French scientists to examine her, but have to give the money back when she refuses to let them look and measure her genitals. This excruciating, well-made movie is controlled and coldly effective (and a tad sensationalist). The ending sticks with you.
Another strong woman emerges from the background in Kelly Reichardt’s frontier saga Meek’s Cut-Off. A three-wagon train heading for Oregon takes a side route and winds up lost, under the leadership of unreliable guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood, under a Joaquin Phoenix beard). As the families struggle to find water, the men capture an Indian and battle over what to do with him. Michelle Williams is strong, fierce, intelligent, and moral. And her husband Will Patton trusts her. But can they trust the Indian they pick up to guide them? As in Black Venus, the whites don’t know what to think about this strange, alien creature. Their ignorance feeds their fear. That’s what Reichardt is getting at: their projection onto the unknown is scary indeed.
I interviewed Muller on the flip cam.
Part Two (more to come):