VENICE 2001: What Do Women Want? Venice Showcases Female Talents
by Pat Thomson
Venice 58 is looking like a good year for women directors, who seized a respectable number of slots in key festival sections. In the official competition, there's Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay!") with the well-received "Monsoon Wedding," as well as Claire Peploe, a long-time director, producer, and the wife of Bernardo Bertolucci, who's here with a gender-bending costume drama "The Triumph of Love." The Cinema of the Present section includes four films helmed by women: Sandra Goldbacher's story of female friendship "Me Without You"; Marion Vernoux's delightful roundelay of couples "Reines d'un jours"; Teresa Villaverde's "Agua e Sal"; and Jill Sprecher's look at the accidents of fate, "13 Conversations About One Thing." What's more, four out of seven directors in the Critics Week are women, including U.S. indie Katherine Lindberg ("Rain," not to be confused with Cannes hit "Rain" directed by Aussie director Christine Jeffs), Raquel Branco ("Rasganco"), Veronica Chen ("Vagon fumador"), and Yan Yan Mak ("Gege").
Gender, of course, is no guarantee of quality, originality, or anything else, for that matter. But it does hold out a promise, one that's very alluring for female viewers who find themselves constantly rolling their eyes at the femme fatales, bimbos, sex kittens, pistol-packin' mamas, over-the-hill dames, sexless mothers, and mysterious Others who dominate the screen.
Occasionally that promise is met with flying colors. "Me Without You" is one such case, a film that rings true for every woman who's ever had a best friend growing up. Set in the 1970s and '80s, this low-budget British production from the director of 1998's well-received "The Governess" follows the story of two girlfriends who are inseparable pals when young, and the tensions that occur as they mature into entirely different sorts -- one studious and sensitive, the other promiscuous and controlling. The film captures the rapture and intensity of adolescent bonding, but it also shows the jealousies and hurt that girls contend with when their best friend is prettier, smarter, or in some way, overshadows them. It also captures the lasting damage mothers can inflict on a girl's self-image ("Don't we look mousy?" says one mom to her daughter upon seeing her best friend dressed up for a party). And it shows the manipulative side of women who try to prove their self-worth through their powers of seduction. "We set up the film not to idealize or sentimentalize women, but to show the light and dark of friendship," says Goldbacher. "Me Without You" does just that, hitting all the right notes as it plays women's tune.
Another standout by any measure is Vernoux's "Reines d'un jour" ("A Hell of a Day"). It, too, doesn't shy from women's foibles and faults, though it enfolds them in a winning comedy of manners. A merry-go-round of interweaving stories, the film includes characters like Hortense, an insecure but self-obsessed mother who's juggling two extramarital affairs and proceeds to barrage coworkers and clients with her petty questions ("Should I call him? Should I let him call me?") And there's Marie Larue, a freelance photographer who discovers she's pregnant from a one-shot affair and whose flip attitude creates new obstacles for herself. Vernoux sees the film as a "collage" of "our more intimate miseries, the ones that make us laugh when we look back on them, but at the moment bring out compassion." That mix of laugher and empathy is the key ingredient to the film's success -- and is particularly welcome given the number of dark, downer films at the festival (Lingberg's "Rain" among them). What's more, "Reines d'un jour" has style to burn. Director of photography Dominique Colin makes wonderful use of varying camera speeds, particularly in capturing the moods of Paris, and Vernoux laces her film with quick fantasy sequences that take us inside the mindset of her crazy, very human protagonists.
Having its world premiere is Sprecher's "13 Conversations About One Thing." Using a similar structure of interlacing storylines, this indie production is less a comedy of errors and more a multiple rendering of the basic philosophical question, "What do you want in life?" It's the kind of question a mid-life crisis can trigger, or else some unforeseen twist of fate, as is the case with Sprecher's characters. Sprecher herself went through one such twist of fate when she suffered a serious head trauma after being mugged, an event that works its way into the script. As a director, however, she had a happier turn of fate after winning a cash prize for "Clockwatchers" at the Turin International Festival of Young Cinema in 1997, which enabled her to write the script for "13 Conversations." Now at Venice, Sprecher is hoping fortune will smile rather than laugh at her (to quote one of her characters) as she sets out on her quest for distribution. See indieWIRE's complete review of the film at: