Let's start with something breathtaking: the Russian film in competition, Alexsi Fedorchenko's "Silent Souls," which announced its excellence from the very first shot - of a man on a bicycle riding down a country road, a wooden birdcage balanced behind the seat. The surface of the road glittered, cobalt-blue and black; beside it were shoulders covered in autumn leaves, and beyond this, the long, damp, pea-green grass. Overhead, the sky was low and heavy, the colour of wet clay.
With this perfectly judged palette, and the unfussy elegance of its composition, the image had the vivid clarity of an hallucination, yet proved to be only the first of many visual splendours here. From a mansion wreathed in morning mist, like an apparition from late Tarkovsky, to a bridge comprised of a linked string of floating pontoons, coiling in the water like a serpent, to a long, unbroken take of two men reverently washing the pale, limp body of a dead woman, every shot was surprising, deeply considered, intensely satisfying. And every cut had the force of a small detonation.
Its plot was deceptively simple: Miro, the owner of a paper mill, enlists a friend who also works at the mill - Aist, the film's narrator - to help him cremate his recently-deceased, much younger wife. They are not Russians in the strict sense, but Merjans, "a peculiar people," descended from the Finno-Ugric tribes rather than the Slavs, and particular to the north-west of the country. As such, they must commit the woman's ashes to the waters which, for them, connote immortality. But along the way the audience learns some of the Merjans' rituals, and a little of their temperament, until it is left finally with the suggestion - so subtle as to barely register - that what the audience has been watching is actually a kind of murder-mystery. The implication being that the wife met with foul play, almost certainly at the hands of her husband, and that he is now considering revenge upon the man he thought to be her lover.
The Russian title, "Ovsyanki," refers to a species of birds, though sadly loses much in its English translation ("Buntings"). It's a superior title - less Gogol-like, more commonplace and mysterious, and as such, better suited to the film's narration, which unfolds like an unusually eloquent short story. I watched it unfold in a state of rapt fascination; two days later, unable to get it out of my head, I went back to see it again. Fedorchenko's direction was masterful - no other term applies - and the soundtrack was extraordinary, veering from eerie, nearly subliminal electronic pulses, accompanied sometimes by a soft, wordless moan, to a whirling, Arcade Fire-like flurry of tuned cymbals, keening horns, and fiercely strummed guitar.
Similarly extraordinary was "Post Mortem," Pablo Larrain's follow-up to his remarkable 2008 debut, "Tony Manero." As grim as its title would suggest, the one focused again on the brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, viewed this time through the perspective of another outsider: a middle-aged civil servant with a haircut only slightly less unfortunate than his mostly unrequited desire for the dancer who lives across the road; like Tony Manero, he was played by the creepily imperturbable Alfredo Castro.
This was far less ironic than that film, though. Darker, more anguished. As the bodies piled up, and the protagonist meekly acquiesced to every cruel command, dragging heaped trolleys of the dead through the dark basement corridors of the hospital where he worked, one had the sense of a filmmaker still passionately enraged by the crimes of that era, and determined to make a definitive statement, albeit in the most low-key and tangential of ways.
I like the way Larrain shoots: his keen compositional sense, his intelligent use of negative and off-screen space, his eye for the sordid and pathetic; I like the grungy texture of his desaturated, 16mm images. But most of all I appreciate his ability to refract political tumult through the lens of private experience, his awareness that the most telling historical points may be revealed, not via grand set-pieces (though there was a street-march here - glimpsed through a car windscreen, yet vaguely reminiscent of Angelopoulos), but by charting, in unflinching detail, the deformation of an individual psyche, the squalour of a man's soul having much to say about the culture that shaped him.
Sofia Coppola might well agree, though to be honest, I can't be sure. I don't know her politics and I'm not entirely sure she does, either. I don't have a problem with her, per se - though it's clear that many do. What's interesting, I've noted, is that often this has less to do with the predictable resentments (her illustrious lineage, the many doors that have opened like magic in her path), than with her chosen subject-matter, the fact that all of her films to date have been set in the same gilded world she has inhabited since birth.
I've never understood this, and never will. Why, exactly, is a drama about working-class people a priori more interesting, more worthy of attention or respect, more "real," than one about those with wealth and power? The idle rich undoubtedly exist - indeed, more so today than ever; they are an empirical fact. Therefore their lives, while undoubtedly different to yours or mine, are no less deserving of scrutiny.
Unfortunately, scrutiny is precisely what Coppola does not bring to bear. Emblems of an unexamined life, affectless and jejune, her films have the air of a child taking someone into their bedroom to show off all their cool stuff. The images are exquisite. The music is terrific. And the surfaces are uniformly sleek and covetable. The trouble is, the viewer never so much as scratches them, to see what might lie beneath.
Here one witnesses what appears to be the Existential crisis of an A-list Hollywood actor (Stephen Dorff), a man saddled with a loving, if slightly anxious daughter (played, beautifully, by Elle Fanning), a seemingly loyal best friend, and the tender ministrations of a succession of attractive, quickly naked young women, apparently single-minded in their eagerness to share his bed. This is not, it should be noted, necessarily a recipe for contentment; something may yet be amiss here. But Coppola so obviously sides with her protagonist, in his ennui and self-pity, that she never bothers to ask why he might be such the asshole that a series of anonymous text-messages suggests...a plot-point breezily dismissed by character and director alike.
When this kind of thing is done well, one gets "The Leopard" and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and "The Beautiful and Damned." When it's done badly, one has an episode of "Entourage." Coppola's film was not a disaster by any means. It had weaknesses - almost every joke, for example, went on one beat too long - but it also displayed craft and affection, indeed perhaps too much affection, and not the depth, the rigour of analysis, required to make this seem like anything more than a Vanity Fair cover story. But for this reason, it was tough to shake the feeling that "Somewhere" was simply an upscale version of Daddy-Daughter Day, made by someone determined to keep working out their own issues in public.
In this sense, Coppola is like the hedgehog who only knows one big thing: how it feels to be isolated amid extreme privilege, and to believe yourself wiser and more sensitive than any of the shallow, coked-out wastrels around you - a stance that might mean a little more were the end credits not packed with shout-outs to the Chateau Marmont set. As a result, she's made some interesting, callow films about extreme solipsism, and only come badly unstuck when this stance bumped up against the harsher lessons of history. (What was her Marie Antoinette, anyway, except an Olympic-level consumer, a lonely young girl with a Platinum card?)
Ultimately, the best, most complete review of "Somewhere" may be the tattoo glimpsed on the underside of Dorff's bicep. It read, simply, "Made in the U.S.A."
Personally, I felt a good deal sorrier for Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Who with "Incendies" delivered his most ambitious feature to date, and was reportedly all lined up for a Competition slot at Venice - only to get bumped down to Orrizonti, the festival's George & Ringo section, in favour of Julian Schnabel's similarly-themed "Miral," a work of such staggering ineptitude in every aspect of its manufacture, that you wondered if its maker might have suffered some kind of stroke. (Which would at least explain that headache-inducing wobble-cam.)
A meditation on the way violence can alter the trajectory of individual lives, "Incendies" took the viewer inside the tinderbox of the Middle East, to follow a Canadian brother and sister as they attempt to honour the final wish of their recently-deceased mother - herself a veteran of the conflict, a witness to atrocities - and make contact with a father long thought dead, and the brother they never knew they had.
The action alternated smoothly between past and present, its stages marked by chapter-headings (like Schnabel's, alas), and slowly, steadily turned up the heat, leading to a final revelation, a twist in this bitter little tale, that was both appalling and at the same time, a kind of coup de theatre. Villeneuve is a phenomenally gifted writer and director, as anyone who saw "August 32nd on Earth" or "Polytechnique" will attest; and this film stands as the summation of his achievements to date. The standing ovation he received at its public premiere was entirely deserved. Not least, for sidestepping both the cliches and the slippery moral equivocation that made other films on the same subject - "Miral," for instance - so laughable.
Similarly harrowing was "Beyond," the feature directorial debut for actress Pernilla August: a painful study of a woman (Noomi Rapace) coming to terms, both in the present day and via flashbacks, with her alcoholic mother and father, and the death of her young brother. The storytelling seemed less restrained, in that Scandinavian way, than clenched tight with grief and anger; I spent most of its 95 minutes either fighting back or succumbing to tears. It set out to shake and, to move - and it did. Perhaps for this reason, I vastly preferred it to Kelly Reichardt's latest, "Meek's Cutoff," which began majestically, with ravishing images of 19th-century American families crossing a barren Oregon landscape - shot in natural light and Academy ratio (!), to better convey the vastness of the sky and earth - but soon ground to a halt amid the dust and dirt, much like their convoy of wagons.
Here, as in "Old Joy," Reichardt - who began as an experimental filmmaker - seems a little too in love with protraction for its own sake, and while this film's longeurs could be said to serve a narrative purpose (if nothing else, we certainly shared the travellers' sense of interminable distance), they also presented a serious impediment to the audience's sympathies, rendering what might have been a gripping tale of survival a rarified, self-selecting slice of Arthouse Cinema. By 40 minutes in, I looked around, blearily, to find that almost everyone in my vicinity was fast asleep.
A pity, since there were some good points being made, mostly about the powerlessness of women in Ye Olden Days, with the wives obliged to walk demurely behind the wagons, frightened by the alien world they move through, yet utterly subordinated to the decisions of their menfolk. (The script was apparently inspired by diaries kept by pioneer wives of the period.) Yet even on its own, lofty terms, it wasn't entirely successful: for the first half-hour or so, the dialogue was almost entirely inaudible; and while Michelle Williams was excellent as ever, hearing Bruce Greenwood's accent, as the eponymous, boastful Meek, I was instantly and unfortunately reminded of the Jive-talking passengers from "Airplane!"
Regrettable. But then, but one's sense of humour grows steadily more juvenile as a festival proceeds. (During Tsui Hark's flashy, tricked-out "Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame" - perhaps the best title Scooby-Doo never used - a huge laugh greeted the subtitle, "We have to see Donkey Wang!") Perhaps it's cabin fever, or the self-conscious Gravitas of too many of the entries. I could barely contain my giggles, for example, at Antony Cordier's "Happy Few," a tale of unusual reciprocity among two married couples, which played just like a visit to a swingers' club: the couples could swap, and the girls could get it on...,but if the guys so much as touched, they were out of there.
A textbook example of a film that wanted to have it both ways - if you'll excuse the expression - it titillated with some reasonably explicit sex scenes (including one flour-covered four-way, which frankly just looked uncomfortable), only to subsequently condemn its characters for their reckless immorality, sentencing them to lives of hollow misery forever and ever after, amen. It actually ended with one wife staring wistfully out her kitchen window, lost in memories of the polyamorous fun she'd had, and lost...C'est une grande tragedie, c'est vrai.
A friend remarked to me afterwards, "This is basically everything that's wrong with French cinema. And the French." Thankfully, the same could not be said for the Francois Ozon movie, "Potiche," which seemed to me the best thing he's done since "Sous le Sable": a sharp, funny, flab-free adaptation of a French theatre classic, it featured sparkling performances from both Catherine Denueve and Gerard Depardieu, and a final song, from the former, that was surprisingly moving, like some bittersweet summation of her career to date. Or, for that matter, the small, quietly powerful, Normandy-set drama "Angele et Tony," whose virtues were all quiet, enduring ones, the finest kind.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the screening rooms, Italy continued to assert itself in the most curious of ways. In our press boxes, on the first day, we were surprised to find a 2GB data stick, compliments of RAI, possibly Silvio Berlusconi's most public organ. Two days later, it abruptly stopped working; all data stored there was lost. (One hates to point out the obvious - that it was hopelessly corrupted - but hey, I'll take my symbolism where I can.) In fact, I considered myself lucky to have escaped so lightly. To judge from RAI's TV programming, had it given my laptop a virus, it could only have been herpes.