Venice 2004: Mueller Examines Line-up of Cutting Edge and Classic Contempo Cinema
by Anthony Kaufman
"We tried to stay loyal to Venice's heritage," says incoming Venice International Film Festival director Marco Mueller, "and what the Venice Film Festival always was and has always tried to be: a mix of auteurs, discoveries, and the artistic/commercial tip of the mainstream iceberg."
Mueller only took the reigns of the 61st edition of the Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica in March. An Italian-Swiss film producer ("No Man's Land," "Blackboards"), film festival veteran (he has also run Locarno, Rotterdam and Pesaro film festivals past), and speaker of 10 languages, the multi-talented Mueller has a four-year commitment to overhaul the festival, and add stability to the fall's most prestigious European film event, which launches on Sept. 1.
This year's line-up portends good things to come for Mueller's tenure; the main competition features an array of art-film heavyweights: Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Francois Ozon, Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Im Kwon-taek and Mike Leigh, just to name a few; while the "mainstream iceberg" is reflected by a bevy of paparazzi-pleasing U.S. titles ("Shark Tale," "Manchurian Candidate" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"). "You can stay independent, even when you work inside the studio system," Mueller told indieWIRE, defending the pronounced Hollywood presence. "Even in the case of the blockbusters, they are still blockbusters with a twist."
While Mueller resists identifying thematic strands in his first Venice line-up, he notes, "There are several important directors who prove to be very strong classic storytellers, but structurally, the films are daring and full of twist and turns, from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Claire Denis to Wim Wenders."
Continuing about Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Café Lumiere," a contemporary ode to filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, commissioned on the eve of the Japanese filmmaker's centennial birthday, Mueller explains, "He has fulfilled the contract; it's a family history; as usual, there's an elder daughter who doesn't want to marry; but it's very much Hou Hsiao-hsien-esque. He tries to do things that very few people would dare to try."
"And then other on the hand," explains Mueller, "we have a very strong group of filmmakers waltzing the thin line between documentary and fiction, and it's not the Michael Moore affect and it's not neo-realistic mannerism," he clarifies. "It's much more of an observation of how reality produces more fiction than the people who invent fiction." Mueller calls it a very strong group, including Italian filmmaker Gianni Amelio's "The Keys to the House," a drama based on the prize-winning novel "Born Twice," about a father raising a handicapped boy, which was "drastically changed" by the real-life young boy who plays the lead role, according to Mueller.
The 50-year-old cineaste also cites Wim Wenders's "Land of Plenty." German New Waver Wenders' first fiction feature since 2000's disastrous "The Million Dollar Hotel," chronicles a psychologically disturbed Vietnam War veteran (John Diehl) who believes, post-Sept. 11, that the U.S. is in a state of war, and his niece (Michelle Williams), a devout Christian woman who has recently returned from missionary work in Africa. Once called "Angst and Alienation in America," "Wenders' film works beautifully as a science fiction film, but also a film that is made within the moment of the encounter between fictional characters and real characters and real surroundings," Muller says. Addressing the film's "restlessness" and "roaming around the country," he adds, "it's probably the only way to understand post-apocalyptic America."
For Mueller, it was important to dismantle previous festival sidebars "Upstream" or "New Territories," formerly devoted to more experimental work. "The people who invented the sidebars really wanted Venice not to be just Venice, but to be a super-Locarno and a super-Rotterdam, but that was fundamentally wrong," he says. "You ended up creating a golden ghetto: why would you have an Upstream competition when you already have a competition?"
For instance, Claire Denis' latest "L'intrus" ("The Intruder") -- an avant-garde narrative about a man who is trying to reconcile his past with his present -- plays in the Toronto Film Festival's experimental Visions program, but will compete alongside more conventional fare such as Mira Nair's "Vanity Fair" and Jonathan Glazer's "Birth" in Venice's main competition.
This year's competition will also unveil Jia Zhang-ke's latest "The World," the critically renowned underground Chinese director's first state-approved project. Partially set in the Window to the World amusement park in Shenzhen, which features miniature replicas of famous landmarks and buildings from around the globe, "The World," says Mueller, "is not just about a theme park called The World, it's really about the world." Mueller compares Jia's ambitious DV vision to Edgar Reitz's latest installment of his landmark look at German history and society, "Heimat 3," because of the way these films "focus so much on the particular that they land on the discourse of the universal."
Reitz's work also serves as a touchstone for one of the festival's biggest discoveries, according to Mueller, the only first film in the competition, Swiss entry "Tout un hiver sans feu" ("An Entire Winter Without Fire"), from Polish-Swiss director and Krzysztof Kieslowski protégé Greg Zglinski. "It was a revelation for all of us," says Mueller. "Besides 'Heimat,' it's the only film that really tries to represent the contradictions of contemporary Europe, and talk about the countryside and the city, the cottage industries and the heavy industries. It was a major feat, to have a film that was really talking about where Europe is going."
Mueller credits the strength and direction of this year's festival, in part, to two Venice fest veterans, Carlo Lizzani and Guillermo Biraghi, who directed the festival in the 1980s. "They really managed to balance all the elements in a way that the results were always dynamic. I also copied them by gambling on young consultants," he continues. "Normally, you have these respected old film critics and most of the people working with me this year are under 40. I'm the old man."
Whether Mueller has successfully injected a renewed sense of youthful vigor to the Lido remains to be seen, but he believes the festival is perfectly situated between the cutting edge and the classic. "I always think of the Venice festival as a contemporary art gallery," he says, "where you have the innovative new trends and the most mature stage in artists' individual paths."