Every film festival, like every orchestra, has a characteristic uniquely its own, a particular tone, running faintly but unmistakably beneath its noise and clamor. Berlin's watchword is efficiency. Cannes runs on glamour. Rotterdam promotes (I think falsely) the sense of moral improvement that is the raison d'etre of the ascetic. For Venice, the constant is inconvenience.
Part of it, admittedly, is its location: one of the world's most beautiful (and improbable) cities, it's also one of the most famously difficult to negotiate, placing the visitor strictly at the mercy of what few options there are. And, being Italy, one can depend on nothing. The boat will come, but it will be late. There are other, more certain options, yes, but they cost far more. Little wonder, then, that in Venice every departure has the air of an evacuation, tourists piling onto vaporetti with a barely-masked hysteria. Or that locals seem to run on Veneto Time, their internal clock ticking a couple of beats slower than any visitors'.
But the broader effect is more pernicious: an air of extortion that sees no reason to disguise itself. For the festival, it begins with the water-taxi from the airport (one hundred Euros, thank you very much), continues through your press pass (sixty Euros), and reaches its apogee with your hotel bill: running into a friend on the first day, she complained that her regular room had risen, this year, to a crippling four hundred and fifty Euros a night. ("And it's absolute shit!").
Yet it also extends downwards, to your morning espresso, or a gelato, or that half-liter bottle of soda, all of which can range anything from five to eight Euros a time. You're here now, these vendors seem to say, and you're trapped. What other options do you have?
(I'm reminded of a line from an American critic of my acquaintance, who traveled once to Cannes for the festival and never went back. When asked why, he said simply, "Because the fucking you get's not worth the fucking you get." Venice, you feel, would have turned his hair white with frustration and impotent rage.)
All this would be bad enough, had the Mostra itself not been in the grip of some vast, slow, Ovid-like transformation. Venues have closed, or become almost inaccessible; streets have been dug up; nearby hotels have shut - most notably, the Des Bains, the "Death In Venice" hotel, where the famously officious staff would do precisely nothing for you unless you tipped them a C-note when you arrived. Formerly one of the two main festival centre's, it's now dark and silent behind locked gates, and soon to be converted into luxury apartments.
The main promenade, already too narrow, is littered with hundreds of bicycles, strewn carelessly about, and various implements of heavy construction, stacks of metal pipes and wooden sleepers and seemingly-abandoned containers, making it almost impossible to walk the streets, or get from one screening room to another.
To be fair, a little of this is unavoidable: the entire festival zone, situated in the bland suburban precincts of the Lido, is currently under renovation, with a large new building, somewhat like Toronto's Lightbox, set to supersede the old Fascist-era Casino and Palazzo del Cinema. But when I peered behind the fence this time, the razed, empty patch of ground, devoid of even the most basic signs of activity, seemed to have advanced not at all from its state last year. At this rate, and given the Italians' seemingly boundless capacity for procrastination, the ribbon-cutting ceremony should coincide with the end of global oil, or of cinema. (Apparently, I later discovered, the project has already run out of cash.)
Still, if it does ever happen, it will at least mark an improvement on the current screening facilities, which with the exception of the Sala Grande, are badly unworthy of one of Europe's top three festivals. Sitting in the Sala Darsena or the Sala Volpi, with your knees pressing up against the chair in front of you, and your shoulders bumping against those on either side of you, feels a little like being transported in the Middle Passage. Worst of all, it places an extra burden upon the film being watched, which now must be very good indeed to make you forget the sheer discomfort of the experience.
This was not the case, alas, with my very first screening: "The Happy Poet", by Paul Gordon. Knowing only too well the tender sensibilities of US indie filmmakers - particularly when criticized on this website, which seems to be considered akin to sucker-punching your kid brother in his own bedroom - I should refrain from much comment, except to note two things. Firstly: that hi-def, even as carelessly lit and composed as here, is horribly unforgiving of people's complexions. And secondly, that of all human attributes, extreme diffidence is by some margin the least interesting - and certainly the shakiest upon which to base an entire narrative. So pale and uninteresting was this film's protagonist, you soon stopped caring if he succeeded in his venture (the vegan fast-food stand that gives the film its title), or not - or even, for that matter, whether he lived or died.
It's not like I'm demanding that characters be as charismatic as Milton's Satan. I just want someone slightly more interesting than the tree they happen to be standing next to. Someone who projects something deeper and more compelling than mere indifference.
To compare this effort to the latest from Darren Aronofsky, "Black Swan", would on the face of it seem unfair. One is a micro-budget indie; the other, a Fox Searchlight production. However this is not about money spent, or resources at hand, but something else: a fundamental competence and assurance with the medium. By which I mean the ability to conceive and compose visual images, to move the camera, to utilize sound, to direct actors - and to piece these elements together in a way that's vividly, undeniably cinematic. You can do this for almost no budget whatsoever - as Aronofsky himself proved with his debut film, "Pi." "Black Swan" is a bigger production, of course. But it's also in every respect a superior one.
Charting a crack-up, the descent into madness of Nina, an ambitious young ballerina (played by Natalie Portman), it played less like "The Red Shoes" - as everyone kept insisting - than another Archers' film, "The Tales of Hoffmann". Crossed, naturally, with "Repulsion" and "Single White Female". The result was overblown, melodramatic, faintly ludicrous - and as such, perfectly congruent with the milieu it was depicting. One friend disliked it, claiming that, while Portman certainly _looked_ the part of a ballerina, her dancing was terrible; she had, he said, no sense of the body's weight or how it was distributed. He might be right: he's certainly a ballet aficionado. But I have about as much interest in la danse as he has in drone-metal, and to be frank, the only technique I was noticing was the director's. Which was virtuosic.
Whether in rehearsals or in the final, climactic concert, the ballet scenes were tense, thrilling - filmed mostly in long, unbroken takes, with the camera rushing behind the dancers, following their feet onto the vertiginous darkness of the stage, like divers preparing to leap into the void, then coming up close, moving with them, wheeling as they pirouette or leap, seeming itself part of the choreography. (Baz Luhrmann, take note: this is how you film a dance sequence.) Another scene, in a nightclub, a succession of strobe-lit vignettes, was similarly remarkable - and as beautifully edited as the rest of the film. And Portman herself was mesmerising: her voice half-an-octave higher than usual, her manner raw and petrified throughout.
Complaints as to the film's improbability seemed to me to miss the point, given that any pretence at strict realism had been swiftly dispensed with - certainly from the first moment we saw her mother (Barbara Hershey), a figure of Grimm-like malevolence. This was as much a fairy tale as "Swan Lake" itself: a story of fragile, spiteful, broken-bodied little girls, who puke up their meals and mortify their flesh until it bleeds. The scenes of Portman carefully lacing her wounded feet into slippers, then scoring their soles with a pair of scissors, had the air of a soldier preparing for combat. Like Aronofsky's previous film, "The Wrestler", "Black Swan" is ultimately about the extraordinary toll, both physical and psychological, a form of entertainment exacts upon its participants.
What's also remarkable, is how well they each work as entertainment. How can two films be so programmatic in their narratives, so utterly unsurprising in their revelations (nothing about the doubling of Nina and her doppelganger, played by a strong Mila Kunis, could be called either subtle or unexpected) - and yet at the same time, be so gripping, and so finally moving as these?
There was a similar level of craft - and another young woman sliding into madness - in Tran Anh Hung's long-awaited adaptation of Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood". The production design was immaculate; Jonny Greenwood's score was suitably anxious; and Mark Lee Ping-Bin's cinematography established beyond question his equal mastery of digital and celluloid. (One long, high shot, of clouds casting a deep green valley into shadow, was worthy of Malick; another, of sunlight coming through a kitchen window, caressing a woman's neck and shoulders, of Vermeer or Bonnard.) And one can never underestimate the elegance of Tran's direction: both as a maker of exquisite images, and as a poet of melancholy, he is almost freakishly gifted.
Why, then, did this feel so hollow? The problem resides, I think, in the source material. Of leading contemporary novelists, Murakami is one of the most wildly uneven, and despite its bestseller status, this novel very much falls among his Lesser Works. Without much of a story to tell, the energy and momentum of its first half-hour began to leak away. Scenes became almost comically attenuated, and silences grew deeper (it is, for the most part, an unnervingly quiet movie), until finally you were left with a beautifully mounted, dramatically inert study of some attractive young Japanese men and women rather too enamored of suicide, a 133-minute bummer.
Ironically, one of the only other Murakami adaptations to make it to the screen so far, Jun Ichikawa's 2004 take on the short story "Tony Takitani" - while far less visually ravishing - provided a rather more acute and moving study of most of this novel's concerns: bereavement, mourning, love and sexuality suspended by fate. And did so, furthermore, in a concise 75 minutes.
Briefer, but no better, was "The Clink of Ice", the latest from veteran French provocateur Bertrand Blier. Essentially a stage piece, a two-hander transposed none too subtly to the screen, it was little more than a series of dialogues about life and death and art and - being Blier - sexual rapacity, between a bitter, alcoholic old novelist (Jean Dujardin), and a literal personification of the cancer (Albert Dupontel) that's set to kill him in three months. Perhaps befitting this conceit, the film itself had a hollowed-out, convalescent quality, suggesting that the now 71-year-old filmmaker's best work, from "Buffet Froid" (1979) through to "Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil" (1993), is now behind him. Alas.
[Editor's Note: Due to a technical error the first several paragraphs were regretfully left out of this article when it was originally published. iW apologizes for the error.]