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Venice Film Festival Fulfills Expectations, but the Films? Not So Much.

Venice Film Festival Fulfills Expectations, but the Films? Not So Much.

“And yet we come back,” a colleague remarked as we stood with about 60 or 70 others waiting for a boat to take us from the airport into Venice — a boat that might come soon or not, a boat that, when it did arrive and we made it to the head of the line, was not the one we wanted and was already full besides. He sighed, smiling sadly. “Why is that?”

At that moment, no ready answer suggested itself. Perhaps because last year’s program had been so spectacularly good, neatly shoring up the deficits of Cannes. “Black Swan,” “Silent Souls,” “Post-Mortem,” “13 Assassins,” “Incendies”… every day seemed glorious, somehow.

This year’s lineup looked less promising – but that, too, was to be expected. Like some hellish lover, Venice gives you just enough to keep you coming back, but never quite enough to stop your eye from wandering, wistfully, whenever things get tough. As, inevitably, they do. No other major festival has the power to infuriate as quickly or as thoroughly as this one.

Case in point: You turn up to collect your accreditation – but don’t have the confirmation form printed out to show the guard at the door. If you had the form, the guard would then hand you a red pass that would allow you entry to the bureau in the Palazzo del Cinema (less than ten meters from where you’re currently standing) to collect the badge that would in turn allow you to attend the festival.

But you have the code on your phone. You show it to him. No, you need the form printed out. Won’t your passport suffice? It will not. And anyway, he adds, even if you had the form you wouldn’t be allowed in, because you have a suitcase with you and no suitcases are allowed inside the Palazzo del Cinema; you’d have to leave it in the baggage area.

“Where is that?” you ask. He points beyond the maze of scaffolding, the timber structure still mostly unfinished with the festival’s opening less than 24 hours away. ‘Is it open?’ He shakes his head. ‘So then?’ And he shrugs: That all-purpose Italian response. “It is a problem,” he says.

It is a problem. This should be the festival’s motto.

(So you return, some time later, with an email printed out – though, as an experiment, you’ve actually printed a message from your sister, chatting mostly about her kids, your dad’s health, a mutual friend. The guard at the door barely glances at it and waves you inside; the token gesture – of authority, of obedience – is sufficient.)

Year after year, Venice exhibits the kind of chronic mismanagement you might expect from some African republic in an Evelyn Waugh novel. The pointless bureaucracy. The weird mix of officiousness and thoughtless disregard. The rules made for no reason, serving no discernible purpose. One hesitates to use the rather-too-modish term “first-world problems,” but it’s hard to know what else to call these. They are many and are frustrating only in the sense that we are here to work, and that work is constantly stymied.

And yet we come back. Why is that?

George Clooney might have been wondering the same thing at a press conference for “The Ides of March” that, while lacking much of the usual Venice shenanigans (no one stripped off this time to profess their amore), consisted nonetheless of little more than a string of ladies taking turns to tell him that he was, in fact, really, really great – so much so, perhaps he should run for president?

His film, meanwhile – serious, principled, perhaps a little too much in love with its own high-mindedness – barely rated a mention, despite its maker’s valiant attempts to steer the conversation back in its direction.

If I was ever-so-slightly disappointed with “Ides,” it was partly because its message (politics will tarnish even the most idealistic souls) hardly struck me as any sort of revelation. But it was also because it failed to deliver what I desired most (and here I must defer to the inspired phrasing of British critic Guy Lodge): a long-awaited “schlub-off” between its chief supporting actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

I have a friend, an Asian cinema specialist, who’s forgotten much more about Chinese cinema than I’ll ever know. And for years I’ve argued against his disregard for the Sixth Generation director Lou Ye (currently banned from shooting in his homeland), who he claims is “basically just a sell-out, making Western arthouse films for Europeans.” I love “Suzhou River” and “Purple Butterfly,” and the first two-thirds of “Summer Palace,” too much to agree.

After seeing ‘Love and Bruises,’ though, I don’t think I’ll argue with him any more. For one thing, this cross-cultural amour fou (Chinese woman, French man) felt oddly anonymous, the kind of “exotic” softcore any Frenchman – Jean-Claude Brisseau, say – could toss off in his sleep.

Lou hinted that he understood the invidiousness of his position. In one scene, he had his female lead visit something (a film? a play? it was obscured by a jump-cut) with a French classmate, who complained to her afterwards, in Mandarin, that whatever they saw was ‘not Chinese enough.’ Meant, presumably, to deflect criticism against his own foray into the West, this was in fact what Confucius might call Having It Both Ways.

Corinne Yam’s Hua was beautiful and inert, a study in self-abnegating passivity presumably meant to signify something quintessentially “Asian.” Tahar Rahim, as Mathieu, played easily the worst onscreen boyfriend since Gerard Depardieu’s Loulou.

Ah, but with a difference. Loulou had a few undeniable qualities – charisma, for one thing (in those days, Depardieu possessed a certain brutish allure) and a gutter-level cunning. Mathieu, by contrast, had only that boundless sense of injustice that cleaves to the truly stupid. “You women,” he whined at one point. “You always betray me.”

That was pretty rich, considering he’d just allowed Hua to be raped by his best friend – something you’d think might constitute something of a dealbreaker. (“See, that’s the problem with raping women,’ a friend remarked to me afterward. ‘It just makes them fall harder for you. Because apparently THEY LOVE IT.”) Likewise, discovering – as Hua did – that one’s new boyfriend has a pregnant wife with whom he shares an apartment.

But her forgiveness knew no bounds; she took understanding to some new, martyred level. After the screening, my (female) neighbor tried to assure me that no, no, “She had agency” – the kind of phrase I can’t believe people actually say aloud. I just walked away.

Which is not to say the film was entirely without virtues – Yu Lik Wai’s cinematography was lovely, at least when the camera wasn’t jerking like a fish on a line. Lou has never been strong at endings; after the first acts, his films tend to trail off into muddled uncertainty. But for a film depicting an insatiable sexual passion, it was oddly tame: no glimpse of bush, for example, and not so much as a hint of cock, erect or otherwise.

Still, with its combination of wobble-cam and pervy-yet-unsatisfying sex, it completed one of the most unfortunate transformations of the past decade, as Lou finally became what his last film, ‘Spring Fever,’ had implied: His country’s answer to Mike Figgis.

So where was the great film, the one that would silence every complaint? Polanski’s “Carnage” was funny and fleet, despite the softness of its targets (the urban bourgeoisie) and the unevenness of its cast, ranging from a strangely off-key Kate Winslet to a sly, scene-stealing turn from Christoph Waltz.

Despite some inspired blocking, you felt the staginess of the material at every moment – and I would have preferred James Gandolfini (who appeared in “The God of Carnage” on Broadway) to John C. Reilly – but it was at least entertaining. In a way that the latest from Philippe Garrel – “That Summer,” a banal slice of post-nouvelle vague solipsism, starring his petulant, dead-eyed son Louis – most definitely was not. Remarkably, it had not one new or interesting thing to say about its ostensible subject: the pull of desire and disgust between men and women.

“I found out he uses whores,” Monica Bellucci’s character confides to another woman. “He says he’s not interested in conventional bourgeois notions of monogamy…” Seriously? Forty years since Garrel’s debut, and this is the best he can come up with? These tired, shopworn banalities?

And then there was Madonna’s “W.E.” Which has to be seen to be believed, since even the most well-chosen words falter before its galactic-level awfulness. Yet there I was, like everybody else, positively glued to my seat throughout. Not since Lee Daniels’ “Shadowboxer” have I seen something so utterly wretched on every level, yet so absolutely compelling. From its script, packed with howlers (“Well, if it isn’t Sotheby’s favorite ex-researcher! How’s it been going since you married that hotshot doctor of yours, huh? Mrs. Married Lady.”), to production design so fussy and overwrought it made “A Single Man” look like Loach’s “Ladybird, Ladybird.” It’s a new high-camp classic — like “Johnny Guitar,” except without the talent.

Few things are as grating as bad taste masquerading as good taste, and there is a lot of that here. But whatever you do, don’t accuse its maker of being shallow. No, this is a film with Something To Say: Specifically, that Edward and Mrs. Simpson were IN NO WAY Nazi sympathizers.

This, despite a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary, including but not limited to: their post-abdication visit to Berlin in October 1937, during which both Edward and Wallis gave Nazi salutes to Hitler (curiously unmentioned here, despite the wealth of flashbacks and shifts in locale); FBI records from 1941 showing that Wallis had maintained regular contact throughout the previous year with Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, one of her former lovers; and Edward’s rather injudicious decision, after settling some civil unrest in Nassau during his brief tenure as Governor of the Bahamas, to blame the strife on communists and “men of Central European Jewish descent.” (Wallis, meanwhile, though depicted here dancing gaily with A Black at a party, was more succinct about the local population, calling them “lazy, thieving niggers.”)

So: inept, gauche and mendacious. In this light, Madonna’s decision to thank, in the closing credits, both John Galliano and, I kid you not, Leni Riefenstahl (whose name she misspelt) makes a kind of sense. Edward and Wallis were “the greatest love story of the 20th century,” she would have us believe. But that whole Nazi thing? It is a problem.

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