VENICE 2000: "The Circle" Spins for Gold, Ed Harris Defends "Pollock," and "The Last Resort" Readies for Toronto
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/8.23.00) -- The Venice Film Festival is winding down, and the transition into its dénouement is palpable. Screening rooms are emptying out, as guests, exhausted by 10 days of films, conferences and late-night events, go to bed early or climb aboard homebound planes. The more celebrity-driven events have passed, culminating with one of the more luxurious parties Wednesday night to honor Nicolas Roeg's experimental documentary "Sound" about German supermodel Claudia Schiffer. The beautiful blond held court outside of the Fortress Saint Andrea, the small island just off the Lido where Casanova was imprisoned. A bonfire burned and DJ spun tunes, as rock god Mick Jagger made an appearance just long enough to congratulate Roeg and his muse and greet other guests, like Faye Dunaway and Adrian Utley of Portishead, who composed the film's score.
With few splashy premieres left ("The Cell" had its grand opening last night and screens once more on Thursday), attention turns to the festivals quieter moments: the side bars, sleepers, and small slices-of-life that are more likely to be overlooked by the masses. Yesterday, audiences had the pleasure of seeing one of the more talked-about films of the festival, "Dayereh" ("The Circle"), by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Popular opinion has it that the delicately paced meditation on the plight of women in Iran is considered a strong contender for the coveted top prize, the Golden Lion. Beginning with a woman bemoaning the birth of her granddaughter, the cinematic collage follows a group of women, in "La Ronde" fashion, as they struggle just to survive in a society that places unlimited restrictions on women without men.
At a press conference today, Panahi spoke about his initial inspiration for the film. "I read that a woman had killed her two little girls and then committed suicide, and that stayed with me." He went on, "When I was studying at the university, I delivered my dissertation at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on the same day my wife was giving birth. I rushed to the hospital, and my mother told me my daughter was born. She was upset that it was a girl. I thought, I've already got a boy. Now the family's complete. But she was very upset. Twelve years have gone by, but this episode stuck in my mind and ended up in the film."
Bombarded by questions about his difficulties getting government approval for the film, Panahi finally snapped that he didn't want to talk about censorship anymore. "This has been a very difficult situation," he said. "The labor was lengthy and difficult and then the baby was born, and I'd like to feast on its future rather than focus on its past. I'd like it to walk on it its own legs."
Also standing on their own and true to their reputation for excellence in making poignant small films about real people, two French directors contributed petit gems that are unlikely to be seen beyond the festival circuit. As part of the Critics' week series, Abdel Kechiche's "La faute a Voltaire" sheds light on the wearisome life of the immigrants we see peddling roses in the restaurants of Paris. Sami Bouajila is captivating as Jallel, a young Tunisian seeking his fortune in France. As he tries everything from a green-card marriage to selling reading poetry for money in the Metro, Jallel perseveres and even finds moments of peace in solidarity with others in his same pitiful boat. While the film is uneven and runs long at points, its moments -- like Elodie Bouchez, Jallel's unstable girlfriend, rolling single roses in cellophane while he sleeps -- are priceless. Also notable is Xavier Beauvois' "Selon Matthieu," in which an angry young man (a soulful Benoit Magimel) attempts to avenge the possible suicide of his father, by sleeping with the wife of the boss who had fired him.
The biggest surprise of all is a film not in competition, "The Last Resort" by Pawel Pawlikowski, winner of the award for Best British Newcomer at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which follows a young Russian woman (Dina Korzun) and her son (Artiom Streilnikov) as they move to England expecting to hook up with her English fiancé. When he doesn't show, they find themselves essentially imprisoned in a beachside hell for immigrants seeking asylum. Their search for money and escape, as well as the relationship that forms with the sweet manager of the local arcade (Paddy Considine) provides one of the more provocative and restrained love stories in recent memory. On its next stop in Toronto, the film is sure to be pursued by distributors.
On Thursday, the spotlight turned on Ed Harris, who arrived for the premiere of his directorial debut "Pollock," in which he plays the painter whom executive producer Peter Brant calls "the James Dean of American artists." Actress Marcia Gay Harden, screenwriter Barbara Turner, and several of the film's producers accompanied him. At a press conference today, after blushing about his inability to figure out how to work the microphone or hear the simultaneous translation of Italian questions in his headphones, the intense producer-actor-director explained what first attracted him to Pollock as the subject of a film. "There's something about his life and his struggle as a person on the planet that struck me," he said. "I think Jackson had a difficult time being on the planet, and he found art as the one place where he found some solace, some peace, some expression where he felt worthy as a person."
Questioned about what it was like directing for the first time, the actor recounted an anecdote about director Oliver Stone. "At an Independent Spirit Awards luncheon in LA," he recalled, "somebody asked him what it was like making 'Platoon' or how he did it, and he said, 'inch by motherfucking inch.' At the time I thought he was a bit arrogant, but after working on this film, I know exactly what he meant."
When a journalist called Harris' version of "Pollock" discovering drip painting reductive, the director challenged him to come up with a better way to have depicted it. "No, I'm serious. Tell me," he insisted. When his critic suggested recreating the "orgiastic process" of creation with special effects, Harris responded, "When I paint in the film, I'm painting for me. I'm trying to paint something that means something, that's intuitive, that's coming from somewhere other than my brain. That's what I'm trying to do as an actor, as an 'artist' when I paint in the film. I didn't want to use camera tricks to create some fantastical mind trip, trying to get inside someone's mind, which I think is an impossibility."
Asked about his process and his desire to direct again, Harris responded quite poignantly, "I have had the pleasure of working with some wonderful directors: Victor Nunez, Agnieska Holland, Louis Malle, Philip Kaufman, Peter Weir. And I probably learned a lot of things from them that I didn't even realized I had learned. And as a director, I just took a deep breath and said, 'here we go.' I don't claim to be a director. I don't want to start a career as a director. It's more about if I find something I feel passionate about. It's more about need. That was Pollock was about. He needed to paint, and I needed to make this film."
Bolstered by the passion evident in the best of the films on display this week, festival guests like myself get set to return to the real world (or Toronto). But first, those lucky enough to get their hands on a coveted ticket to the MTV party at l'Arsenale di Venezia will dress down for a change and spend the night rockin' to the tunes of Kylie Minogue, the Groove Armada and Venice fashion, slamming back bellinis 'til the wee hours.