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Midway in Venice, Considering Kitano’s “Zatoichi,” Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” and More

Midway in Venice, Considering Kitano's "Zatoichi," Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" and More

Midway in Venice, Considering Kitano’s “Zatoichi,” Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” and More

by Leslie Felperin

A scene from Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi,” which is screening at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.

It’s midway through the Venice festival and as if the organizers knew visitors to the Lido would be needing a pick-me-up by now, they’ve programmed a few bracing tonics. Monday kicked off with a bang and flurry of swordplay with the press screening of Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi,” the director’s first period film and a magnificent synthesis of the complex, reflective but multi-storied work he assayed in his last Venice entrant, “Dolls,” and the kinetic flair for violence that made his earlier films (“Violent Cop,” “Sonatine”) internationally famous. Kitano stars as the eponymous blind samurai who comes to rescue a town like something out of a Kurosawa film (the script was written, for once, not by the director himself), although the swooning execution and black humour is pure Kitano. The film is hotly tipped to win a prize in the main competition.

Monday also saw the screening of “Code 46,” the first crack at science fiction by quicksilver genre-hopping Brit director Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People,” “In This World”). The latter is set sometime in the future in Shanghai, and stars Samantha Morton (“Morvern Callar”) and Tim Robbins (“Quarterback Princess”) in a love story with a timely subplot about viruses. The print about to be shown is so hot off the editing suite that the sound hasn’t even been burned onto it and will be played over a synched up CD.

Also screening Monday, as your correspondent was filing her copy, was Ridley Scott’s out-of-competition “Matchstick Men” offering a bit of big-budget glitz with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell playing con artists. No doubt Warner Bros. will be hoping this one will go over better than Miramax’s “The Human Stain,” the Anthony HopkinsNicole Kidman vehicle which was booed (but also tepidly applauded) when it screened for the press on Friday. The adaptation of Philip Roth’s prize-winning novel seemed melodramatic and tawdry when purged of all the bite of Roth’s surrounding prose. 20th Century Fox’s screening of “Le Divorce,” from the Merchant-Ivory team, fared a bit better and generated a nasty catfight among journalists scrambling to get interview slots with Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson.

In the indie-sector POV, things were looking more lively. The festival built up a fair head of steam over the weekend, with the premiere of “Lost in Translation,” Sophia Coppola’s sophmore follow-up to “The Virgin Suicides.” Ecstatically received at its press screening, the story of a lonely middle-aged movie star (Bill Murray) and directionless younger woman (Scarlett Johansson), both married, who sort of fall in love at a top-grade Japanese hotel plays like Brief Encounter 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Neon-streaked, hip but effortlessly so, funny and plangent all at once, it’s the standout contender so far in the Upstream section of the festival, the strand introduced two years ago supposedly to highlight edgier, more experimental fare than the auteur-packed offerings in the main competition, although no one can really see much difference, content or aesthetics-wise, between the two strands. Rumor has it that the programmers spread the strongest films evenly between the strands this year in order to give the Upstream section a better profile, and give the best films a better chance of winning something.

Also showing in the Upstream section this weekend was “The Tulse Luper Suitcases: Antwerp,” the second installment in Peter Greenaway’s mammoth digitally shot project. Having seen the first installment, “The Moab Story,” in Cannes I gave the new film a body swerve and have yet to meet anyone else who went to sample its charms, although I did catch Peter Greenaway’s press conference where he once again shared his thoughts with us on the death of narrative, cinema, celluloid, et al.

Competition titles showing over the weekend included “Les sentiments” by Noemie Lvovsky, which generated warmish buzz, while Christopher Hampton’s “Imagining Argentina,” starring Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson was greeted with robust booing from the ladies and gentlemen of the press, particularly a closing scene featuring Banderas strumming a guitar blithely in jail after suffering untold horrors at the hands of the authorities, including the rape of his wife.

The press screening for “Imagining Argentina” was immediately followed by the first for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” and with many audience members staying on in their seats while hundreds more poured into the PalaGalileo cinema. Chaos ensued as newcomers fought to find free places to sit. Rather than eject the overspill the theatre staff let anyone who wanted to lie on the floor in front of the first row, chiming nicely with the scenes in the film of cinephiles also lying on the floor of the Cinematheque Francais in The Dreamers’ recreation of Paris circa 1968.

The film’s opening section was its strongest. Focusing on a ménage a trios between a young American student (Michael Pitt) and a semi-incestuous boy-girl pair of French twins (Louis Garrel and Eva Green), all of them obsessed with movies, the film mixes in archive footage of the protests against the Cinemateque closure that year with recreated crowd scenes (complete with Jean-Pierre Leaud playing himself addressing the throng cut alongside the archive footage of him then). Meanwhile, the first act is generously peppered with assorted film clips as the trio lives out their lives in movie references. (A highlight is an attempt to break the record for racing through the Louvre set by the trio in Godard’s “Bande a part.”) But once the characters are becalmed by sexual shenanigans in their apartment so too is the film, before the street literally breaks through their window in the final reel. Though not a return to “Last Tango in Paris” form, “The Dreamers,” with its strong performances and mesmeric atmosphere, is nevertheless several cuts above Bertolucci’s recent output (“Stealing Beauty,” “Besieged”).

Other highlights of the festival so far have included Jurgen Leth and Lars von Trier’s fascinating and amusing documentary “The Five Obstructions,” in which von Trier, acting as a kind of cinematic therapist to the older short filmmaker, sets Leth assorted whimsical impediments as he tries to shoot five different remakes of his classic 1967 Danish short “The Perfect Human.” Guy Maddin’s New Territories’ entrant “The Saddest Music of the World” provided the diverting sight of Isabella Rossellini playing a double amputee in Maddin’s latest slice of classic cinema pastiche meets Bunuelian surrealism.

Meanwhile, down at the Excelsior the Festival has set up an industry area for the first time in the hopes of getting some kind of market feel going and festival where notoriously little buying or selling goes on before the industry really gets down to business in Toronto. A dozen companies or so have stands, but a source representing a national European film export union tells me things are very quiet indeed. “Yesterday was a very busy one,” he reported dryly. “We had two visitors and one was looking for the Poles.”

[Leslie Felperin is a writer based in London. She is covering the Venice Film Festival for indieWIRE.]

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