For me, the enduring image of the 2011 Venice Film Festival occurred not on the screen, but on the lagoon between San Zaccaria and the Lido at about 8 am one morning as I looked out of the vaporetto to see a small motorboat gaining on us, bouncing as it scudded across the waves. In it was a single passenger, a handsome man in his early 50s – silver-haired, wearing Persols and what appeared to be an extremely well-tailored tuxedo – who, as I watched, gave a quick, appraising glance back in the direction of the mainland. Then he stared ahead again, his face set, as his small boat jetted past us. A minute later he was gone.
Had he liberated some jewels from a safe in the Danieli? Was there, in the inside pocket of that jacket, an envelope containing nuclear secrets, or compromising photographs? If nothing else, he served as a reminder (if one was required) that we are each of us the heroes of our own story, the lead character in the film we make, hourly, daily, of our lives – a genre that lurches from thriller to farce to melodrama, occasionally within the same scene.
Would that there had been more of this onscreen. “This” meaning drama, mystery, passion – the kind of basic, garden-variety thrills you look to the movies to provide. But all things considered, Venice 2011 was something of a drag. The lineup looked good on paper but failed to deliver and the event was hobbled by an even greater-than-usual degree of organizational chaos. At times it backslid almost to the disgrace of 2004, when an exasperated Harvey Weinstein had threatened to take then-newly appointed director Marco Muller out to the lagoon and drown him “with his feet encased in cement.”
Numbers seemed down. There were certainly fewer international press and delegates. (Even the festival publicly acknowledged this, citing a drop of over 300 on 2010’s figures.) But I also realized this year, for the first time, just how physically diminished this festival has become. The Hotel des Bains has closed, to be turned into luxury apartments for vacationing Russian oligarchs. The main thoroughfare is littered with construction work and is often all but impassable.
But worse still is the area in front of the main venues. Just a few years ago, you’d come out of the Sala Perla at night to find bands playing in the forecourt with people dancing, food stalls and impromptu bars – an air of happy celebration. Now it’s a vast, fenced-off hole in the ground, the site of a “festival center” that’s never going to be built, and the festival is forced to operate in the margins around it. It’s no longer very festive, this festival. Instead, it feels makeshift and fragmented.
The films, though, were mostly fine, a word I choose with care. There were few outright dogs (though I think Todd Solondz has by now managed to exhaust the patience of even his staunchest fans). “Alps,” by Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) was the best thing I saw. His premise, while not quite as sui generis as it appeared to be (Mr. Lanthimos has clearly read Tom McCarthy's novel “Remainder”), nonetheless attested to the coherence of its maker's worldview, a growing pictorial elegance and his effortless command of tone. The less said about this film in advance, the better (it definitely benefits from being seen cold), but one thing is certain: If anyone is ever going to adapt a George Saunders story, it should be him.
The other surprise came, appropriately enough, in the surprise movie. Indeed, the fact that the film sorpresa wasn't the ordeal it's been in recent years itself accounted for a good deal of the surprise. Cai Shangjun's “People Mountain People Sea” had reportedly come to Venice without first receiving permission from the Chinese film censors (when Lou Ye did this, premiering "Summer Palace" at Cannes in 2006, he was officially banned from filmmaking for five years), and halfway through the screening it seemed for a moment that their government might be striking back. There was a commotion across the theatre and then a muffled shout, followed by the sight of about 200 people suddenly rising from their seats and running for the exits, which were flung open. Everyone stood to see what was going on. After another minute the film stopped, and the lights came up.
For a long time everyone stood around, confused. ("People Wait People Worry," quipped Variety's Justin Chang.) There was no official announcement. The black-clad figure of Marco Muller was visible, looking as puzzled as the rest of us, but at no point did he or anyone else take the stage to explain what was going on, or to apologize – a move that struck me as both craven and lazy. Sometimes (and I speak from experience here) things go awry at film festivals. As festival director, it's your job – assuming that you're present – to take responsibility. Muller did not. Instead, at regular intervals, we had a recorded announcement over the PA, apologizing for the delay and assuring us the film would begin again shortly – presumably, the Italians' all-purpose disaster protocol. After 20 minutes, the lights dimmed and the film resumed. But by now almost one-third of the audience had fled.
It was doubly frustrating, not only because Shangjun's first screening, that morning, had also been canceled (a subtitling problem, apparently), but because the film itself was superb, easily one of the very best things here. The story of a man seeking to avenge the murder of his brother, it began with what looked like an ungraded image of a man walking along a dusty mountain road. But then he caught a lift from a motorcyclist – and then, when he stopped by the side of the road to piss, pulled a long knife from his belt.
The murder sequence that followed was tough and protracted, and it set the stage for a portrait of a remarkably cruel and lawless world, one which culminated in a trip to an illegal mine in the North, where justice proved as elusive and nominal as in a Friederich Dürrenmatt novel. Shangjun's storytelling was elliptical, with the viewer left to make many of the connections for themselves. Yet rather than seem maddening, as it might, this actually worked in its favor, increasing the clammy sense of dread throughout. And his direction was never less than absolutely assured.
That knife, though... it was kind of amazing, in retrospect, just how happy its appearance made me. How instantly I responded to the sight of this generic convention, amid a festival otherwise filled with worthy, high-minded fare. (I can, for example, go quite some time without watching another illegal-immigrant drama.) It meant that, at last, something was going to happen.
In much the same way, I’d looked forward to Johnnie To’s “Life Without Principle.” Coming as it did at the end of the festival, it looked certain to provide an adrenaline shot for viewers weary after eight days and nights – not an old-school bullet ballet, necessarily, but one of the director’s meticulous, process-driven underworld thrillers. Certainly, that title promised stern retribution; sure enough, the first shot was of a pool of blood on the floor of an apartment in Kowloon. Yes! we thought. Bring it on ... Our own blood hot with the promise of imminent carnage.
But then the action shifted from the murder scene to a sequence which saw the investigating cop inspecting a new apartment with his girlfriend – and then switched again, to a woman in a bank trying to lure unwary investors into a subprime-like mortgage scam. And there it stayed, until slowly it began to dawn on us that this -- a study of the financial crisis on various strata of Hong Kong society -- was, in fact, the film. No shoot-outs, no chases. “Is this it?” the friend beside me whimpered. “Seriously?”
Suddenly the “principle” of the title seemed like a typo – maybe it was meant to be “principal,” as in, a sum of money loaned? After an hour of mildly diverting to-and-fro, including what felt like a trip to one’s own bank manager (“So, how would you describe your investment experience to date?”), I left – but not before suggesting to the critic beside me a headline: “Life Without Principle Yields Low Interest.”
Rather better was "Twilight Portrait," a Russian film which continued this festival's primary leitmotif: the improbable mixture of erotic pleasure and self-knowledge women find through sexual assault.
In this one, an attractive Moscovite met her lover for an afternoon fuck in a hotel room. Then, left to get home alone, she broke the heel of her shoe as she walked to hail a cab. From this minor incident sprung a sequence of misadventures, first infuriating – her purse was snatched, no one would let her make a call on their cellphone – and finally horrifying as, picked up by some cops, and found to be without identification (it was lost in her purse), she was taken to a remote location and raped by two of them.
She made it home, finally, and pulled herself together. Then, feeling understandably slighted, she went on a mission to track down the men responsible. She found the leader of the cops and stalked him, eventually following him into the apartment building where he lived. She had a broken bottle concealed in her hand. Ah, you thought, here comes revenge. But instead, she gave him a blowjob, let him screw her, and then moved into his flat, cooking him dinner and getting smacked around every time she declared that she loved him. Which, for the record, she did a lot.
In its home territory, you feel, this might pass for a romantic comedy. (“Knocked Out,” as one friend termed it.) By far the bleakest vision of life yet in post-Soviet Russia, it was chilling and frustrating in about equal measure. Yet as I walked out of the cinema, I overheard a British girl in her early 20s, walking just ahead of me, murmur to her boyfriend, “That was the hottest fucking movie I've seen in years.”
Her guy stared at her, open-mouthed. He looked – to quote P.G. Wodehouse – looked like someone who’d just swallowed a north wind. “I know, I know,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I can't explain it. It was just so fucking sexy.”
But then, who am I to judge? I’d disliked the moralism of Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” even as I’d savored its masterful technique. As a string of fleeting moods and images, it was peerless; whenever it clung too closely to its redemption narrative, though, it seemed diminished. And its ending was too melodramatic by half, a complaint which certainly couldn’t be made of fellow Brit Andrea Arnold’s deconstruction of “Wuthering Heights.”
Her much-anticipated foray into literary adaptation, it had many things that were good (and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which was rather better than good) amid much that was not (the acting, the pacing, a general sense of self-indulgence and self-regard). It’s then kind of film you wish Harvey Weinstein could get his hands on and force its maker to cut a good 20 or so minutes out of it. It could easily bear it.
Otherwise, the usual array of hits and misses. With “Totem,” first-time director Jessica Krummacher set out, as she explained in her press notes, to create characters “without much motivation or thought,” and made a movie with no intelligence or point. William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” started a little rough – the rhythms in the opening scene sounded stagey rather than filmic (it’s adapted from Tracey Letts’ play of the same name) – but it soon settled down into bloody, violent fun and boasted not only a star-making performance from Juno Temple but also the most seriously fucked-up scene I can recall in some time, involving Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and a KFC drumstick. Sukurov was Sukurov, no more or less. The Italian films were mostly rubbish.
(And here I might extend a personal note to Cristina Comencini, who responded to the disastrous reception of her “Quando La Notte” by declaring that its critics were almost all men who, a priori, couldn’t understand women and that, as a prominent member of the anti-Berlusconi opposition, the screening had been infiltrated by rogue elements responsible for its booing. Signora, your film is garbage. And it’s neither my penis nor any fondness for the scumbag who runs your country that tells me so.)
Ten days, then – but it felt much longer. I usually enjoy Venice, but this one seemed unsatisfying. Frustrating. I kept thinking of that guy on the boat, running from something, or to something. I wanted to be where he was going.