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September 1, 2008 10:27 AM
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DISPATCH FROM VENICE | Competition Confounds in Venice; Cinema Star Claire Denis Shines Out of Compe

A still from Claire Denis' "35 Rhums". Image courtesy Venice Film Festival

With the press incensed by the lack of major interview opportunities (George Clooney and Brad Pitt, in town for "Burn After Reading", politely but firmly declined all requests), and industry numbers noticeably down from previous years, the Venice Film Festival had to deliver in terms of films, if it hoped to silence a growing army of naysayers. After three days, however, its competition was looking decidedly thin, and the chorus of jeers was growing louder by the hour.

It had begun well, with "Jerichow", an elegant reworking of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" which radiated assurance from its very first moments, and demonstrated yet again why Christian Petzold is the most talented, if overlooked German filmmaker of his generation. Screening on the first day of the festival proper, after the mostly warm reception for the Coens, it set a lofty standard, and augured well for the rest of the programme.

Thereafter, however, things went rather wobbly.

Like Paul Schrader and Billy Wilder and, er, David Zucker before him, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga longed to direct. Why put his children into the hands of another? And so, inevitably, Venice saw the world premiere of "The Burning Plain", his elevation to the lofty realms of the multi-hyphenate. One can hardly begrudge writers looking to protect the integrity of their scripts. It's just a pity that, in this case, the result was so perfunctory.

Most of his usual preoccupations were in evidence: broken families, psychologically-damaged women who sleep with any man vaguely proximate (and where exactly does one FIND these women, anyway?), a general mood of suffocating misery. And as it happened, his direction was perfectly competent, even (in one sequence: following a crop-dusting plane as it flies low over a sorghum field, set to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's music) capable of genuine power. Yet, though all the necessary ingredients were in place, this particular souffle comprehensively failed to rise. Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger struggled gamely with the little they were given - their motivations remaining obscure, and their dialogue being little more than a string of cliches - but the film's greatest asset was a young actress, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, who managed to communicate a sense of real emotional complexity, and a wary intelligence. She is, on the basis of this performance, clearly a talent to watch.

But as with Arriaga's scripts for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the effort went less into the tale than its telling - the action cutting back and forth between different locations (thoughtfully color-coded), characters, and even time-periods. The trouble was, when you unpacked this structure and placed it in chronological order, the story being told turned out to be awfully conventional, even rather dull - a charge that could also be levelled at his previous screenplays, whose only real point of interest, when all was said and done, was the ingenuity of their construction. And the effectiveness of this technique has become dulled by repetition; he's like a stage magician with only one trick, the M. Night Shyamalan of fractured narratives. As British critic (and occasional indieWIRE contributor) Damon Wise put it, "He's so innovative, isn't he? Do you think he has his dinner for breakfast? 'Golly, I'm even surprising myself...'"

Still, his feature at least nodded in the direction of actual coherence, which was rather more than could be said for Yu Lik-wai's "Plastic City", a sort of underworld thriller set among the Asian community of Sao Paolo, Brazil.

A puzzling case, Yu seems at once fascinated by, yet utterly disdainful of, the stricter conventions of genre. His previous film, 2004's excellent "All Tomorrow's Parties", was a sort of SF art-movie set in a dystopian near-future - imagine, if you will, Hou Hsiao-hsien directing "Children of Men". This one, more ambitious still, seemed intent on mixing together a melange of influences: some Wong Kar-wai (both the demi-monde of "Fallen Angels", and the Latino exoticism of "Happy Together"), a little Johnny To - even a CGI-enhanced fight sequence atop an implausible piece of architecture (how DID they get up there, anyway?) that played like nothing so much as an outtake from "300". Visually ravishing - Yu is a cinematographer by trade, typically for Jia Zhangke - it was also undisciplined, self-indulgent and maddeningly pretentious.

Compared to the latest from Barbet Schroeder, however, it seemed a work of towering genius. His first dramatic feature since 2002's "Murder By Numbers", "Inju: The Beast In The Shadows" saw a French crime writer (Benoit Magimel) travel to Kyoto - ostensibly to promote his latest novel, but actually to track down a mysterious Japanese rival, a reclusive bestseller who seems intent upon dispatching his competition. Perhaps it's a crime-fiction thing: it's hard (if tempting) to imagine Salman Rushdie and John Updike ever taking literary bad blood to quite this level.

Film festivals are by definition a mixed bag, and one is bound to encounter things that displease or disappoint. It's rare, though, to see something genuinely inept. But from the very first frames, it was clear that this was precisely that. Leaving aside its reverential awe for the "exotic" East (though not SO exotic that most locals, when encountered, don't speak perfect French), and its appalling screenplay (in which the "surprise twist" was evident from the first fifteen minutes), the actual direction - the blocking of scenes, the individual shots, the direction of actors, or lack thereof - could most charitably be described as "amateurish". As if its maker had perhaps suffered some kind of stroke, and forgotten most of what he knew about making movies. The sheer, transfixing, car-crash horror of it held me for 40 minutes; thereafter I bolted for the exit. Astonishingly, I was assured by the handful of friends who stayed, that it became much, much worse.

I was looking forward to a number of films here, but none more than the latest from Claire Denis. Such anticipation usually ends in disappointment, but "35 Rhums" only confirmed her mastery. Her finest piece of work since 1999's superb "Beau Travail", it seemed like nothing so much as her version of a late Ozu, a latter-day response to "Equinox Flower" and "Late Spring" -- and like those films, it's about the bonds of family, and people being kind and desiring the best, for themselves and for each other. Yet it's no mere homage; rather, it's imbued with Denis' own, unmistakeable sensibility, the patient and watchful eye that disinguished earlier Paris-set masterpieces like "I Can't Sleep" and "Friday Night".

A father and his daughter live together in a Paris apartment. He is a train driver; she works in a fast food restaurant. They are perfectly happy together, settled in a routine of comfortable domesticity. Upstairs lives a man who is hopelessly in love with the daughter, and across the courtyard lives an older woman, a taxi driver, who pines for the father. These four players, and the cat's-cradle of their relationships, define the world of the film, which, though intimate, never feels circumscribed. On the contrary, it teems with life and detail (for which, credit must also go to her longtime cinematographer, Agnes Godard).

One could hardly imagine a sharper contrast to the Arriaga, whose every frame practically beseeched you to care deeply for its characters, yet never actually inspired so much as a flicker of sympathy or interest. Denis' approach is more restrained, and her craft more expert. One sequence, of the four principals taking shelter in a bar during a rain storm, is as perfect an example of screen direction as I've witnessed this year: wordless, communicating solely via the exchange of glances and the movement of actors within the frame. Her greatest achievement, though, is to make you feel connected - to this world, to these people. (It also suffers not at all by having, at its centre, the great Alex Descas, one of the most beautiful men in the world, and a grave, compelling screen presence.)

Yet bizarrely, it screened out of competition - an inexplicable decision that made even less sense when we learned, a day later, that it had also been rejected by Cannes.

So, to recap: the Yu Lik-wai (incoherent, nonsensical) and the Schroeder (crude, bungled) WERE in competition here. The Denis (magnificently directed, faultlessly performed, alert to the beauty and mystery of commonplace things) was not. There's no reason that this should have filled me with such fury: it's only a film festival, after all. There are more important things. But it did, and it does.

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