AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL – 1986
DEATH IN VENICE
by Harlan Kennedy
Take a beautiful tree-girt island. Some Adriatic sun. A view of the world's most beautiful city across the lagoon. Italian wine, food, and charm. And the facilities for an international film festival. And how do you screw it all up?
You appoint Gian Luigi Rondi as festival director. And then you make sure he doesn't have enough money to run the event.
The Venice festival is in chaos; sinking slowly but surely under the weight of bureaucrats, mini-Mussolinis, young Fascist-for-Christ ticket-takers, and other power-crazies attracted by the perverse challenge of running a major festival in the least festive way.
This dispatch comes straight from the front line the day before the Mostra Del Cinema ends. Critics have already been dropping like newts. Some are rumored to have been strangled by the Mostra's excess of red tape, their bodies stowed in a cellar of the Hotel Des Bains, famous setting for Death in Venice. Others are said to have accidentally set fire to their hotel rooms in an attempt to burn the candle at both ends. For the festival schedule – programmed for maximum sleep deprivation – requires one to go to bed at 3 A.M. and get up at 7 A.M. in order to see all the major films.
This year's Venice fest, the 43rd, may be the last in terms of being a major international event. Projection is poor, sound is poor-to-lousy, and inadequacies rage. Chief shock this year was that the screening venues on the festival island have shrunk to three. (Compare the 30-odd of Cannes and 20-plus of Berlin). There is no attempt to renovate two old auditoriums in the Palazzo Del Cinema (they are now reportedly patronized by rodents); nor to open up the public screenings in the outdoor Arena to critics and fest guests; nor to bring back the giant movie tent that imperfectly – but surely improbably – held overflow viewers last year. However, more screenings in Venice and Mestre have been opened to the public.
To match the incredible shrinking screen space on the fest-hosting Lido, there is an incredible shrinking programming imagination. Rondi offers a competition mainly composed of old masters past their prime and young newcomers who seem unlikely to reach any prime at all. Outside the competition the sideshow events are like condemned fairground stalls, which have run out of treats and prizes and attract only the homeless and desperate. There is a "Venezia TV" section for clapped-out teledramas, some networked long ago; a "Spazio Libero" (Open Space) section for any movies seeking an identity outside the competition; and a Glauber Rocha retrospective impossible to attend if you go to the competition films.
Most of this would constitute a mere hard luck story and incite pity rather than anger. But there are also overstaffing and incompetence at Venice which amount to a joke or a scandal. (Take your pick.) In any situation where one ticket-tearer, or catalogue-keeper, or press-key-issuer would suffice at other fests, Venice will treble the number. Most of what little fresh funding there is must go toward paying these superfluous flunkies and toward lashing out luxuries for a 14-person jury (14?! There were only 12 Angry Men), rather than toward providing good films and enough places to see them.
For a while, I happily jostled for seats with the paying public. They cheer and "bravo" a good movie. And whistles, catcalls, and boos are never far from their lips when a film is a pretentious stinker. An Italian audience is the most honest I know. I would trust my life to them – and did.
But Italian film critics are something else again. Every day in my presence they would bitch, moan, and complain about the films or the festival. But the next day, when you read their columns, a miraculous change had occurred. Praise galore flowed from their pens. The resemblance between their real selves and their public selves is much the same as that between a "real" criminal and his photo on TV or in a newspaper. Every saving quirk of honesty, or humor, or humanity has been bled out from the synthesized portrait. Still, they have to be invited back next year; wined, dined, and ensconced in comfortable hotels at the festival's expense. It's understandable. It's also part of what's wrong with Venice. There's no such thing as a free lunch (dinner, hotel...). You have to pay the piper.
And chief piper is Rondi: a figure conspicuous at Venice by his absence or seigniorial remoteness. There is much speculation that he is a modern E1 Cid, strapped to his horse (or desk) long after the vital spark has departed. As if to dramatize his elusiveness, the one official meeting penciled in between Rondi and the press took place on the morning before the festival began: I myself finally caught a brief glimpse of him one day in the Excelsior bar, as I was on my way to the toilet.
And then there were the movies. These, if not individually as notable as in some years past, at least had an odd generic interest. The films at a film festival don't usually come with a single prevailing theme; though critics try their damnedest to impose one. "This year at Cannes vegetarian anarchism was in the air... " "Berlin was abuzz with mythocentric Trotskyism...," etc.
But just for once, at the 43rd Venice Mostra, there was a leitmotif you couldn't ignore. Every other movie seemed to be a duet between old and young: parent-child tussles or across-the-generations sex stories. When not goggling at Marcello Mastroianni being attacked by a nude nymphet in Theo Angelopoulos' O Melissokomos, you stumbled over the prone body of Donald Sutherland as Gauguin, being swarmed over by the jeunes filles of post-Impressionist Paris. Not a pretty sight. (That film was Henning Carlsen's Oviri [Wolf at the Door]). No sooner did you leave Ken Loach's Fatherland, about a young East German coming to terms with his ex-Fascist dad, than you walked into Markus Imhoofs Die Reise (The Journey), about a young West German coming to terms with his ex-Fascist dad. (And never the train they meet?)
All meat and drink to this critic. He has long believed that the world's socio-psychological obsessions wash in waves over the world's movies at any given time, often near invisibly and always near unconsciously. With the world ruled over today by Reagan and Thatcher (not to mention Signor Rondi), who's surprised that mythicized mums and dads crop up in today's pics?
As well as the parent-kid movies, the old-young love stories have a similar provenance. Indeed the Angelopoulos film, like most of this Greek helmer's pictures, has political allegory written all over it. Mastroianni wears a walrus mustache and a rueful look as the old beekeeper whose life is disrupted by a strip of a girl (Nadia Mourouzi). She follows him; she bunks up in his twin-bed hotel room (bringing a lover so Marcello can watch); she makes him leave his wife and ignore his bees; she finally crawls over him and near-rapes him in an empty theater.
In short – and we've
see it before in Euripides' The Bacchae – the young Greece makes the
old Greece mad before it makes it history. Sex, jeans, and rock 'n' roll
bring death under the guise of liberating delirium. All this to a narrative
style as slow as the seasons and as exclamatorily bare as Angelopoulos' previous
It's not quite clear whether the filmmaker thinks his hero should stick to his honey and his glum life, or smash his way, as he does, into new experience. (Literally, in one scene he drives his van into the window of a cafe where the girl is sitting.) Trouble is, we don't care much either way. The pace is leadenly hieratic, and Mastroianni as a Greek beekeeper is about as convincing as Laurence Olivier would be as a veteran Brooklyn Dodger.
0r as Donald Sutherland would be as Gauguin. In this Danish-French biopic by Henning Carlsen (of Hunger) we are in co-production Paris. Accents clash like knives and forks as a multi-national cast sets about Christopher Hampton's English dialogue. And the famous names fly about like bats: "Here comes Degas"; "I'd like you to meet Mr. Strindberg"; "Do you like Monet?"
We catch Gauguin in 1893 between visits to Tahiti, when he isn't doing a lot of painting but is doing a lot of talking about painting. He also beds his models. But he draws the line at the 14-year-old Judith (Sofie Grabol), his landlady's daughter, who falls in love with him and whose diary punctuates the film in voiceover extracts.
Here, as in Angelopoulos' film, the young generation is knocking on the door of the older generation's soul asking to come in. But this time the older generation has fitted burglar-proof locks. Gauguin-Sutherland preserves his soul by refusing the young access. It's a Loony Tunes movie, but there's clearly something interesting buried beneath the awful dialogue and the fancy-dress period. What to make of Max Von Sydow in mustache and rearing red wig as Strindberg?
Jostling with these up-market Lolita stories were different generations of war films: ones in which the young-old tension exists between fathers and sons rather than sylphs and senior citizens. In Britain's Fatherland, Trevor Griffiths (of Reds) scripts the tale of an East German rock singer (Gerulf Pannach) whose subversive songs get him kicked out of the GDR. It's a choice between two years in prison or exile. This provides a perfect opportunity to track down Dad, who is missing-presumed-hiding in the West after a dodgy wartime record.
Once over the border, our hero gets involved with a record company and with an attractive young French plot device (Fabienne Babe). She is implanted in the movie to befriend him and guide him to his father, whose wartime Gestapo work helped decimate her family. The film moves, with arthritic inevitability, toward the parent-son confrontation: in which Dad's past proves to be not one of blanket villainy but a patch-quilt of loyalty and betrayal, of being manipulated as much as manipulating.
Griffiths' script is at once tendentious and indigestible. The message is simple-minded and leftishly à la mode – that all power exploits and corrupts, whether emanating from Hitler's Germany, Ulbricht's GDR, or Roosevelt's America. But the dialogue and narrative arteries through which the message runs are clumsily overintricate. They give director Ken Loach no chance to exercise the free-running humanism that infused his Kes or Looks and Smiles.
Markus Imhoofs Die Reise is another "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" pic. Daddy in this decade-hopping Swiss film is a Nazi poet whose son (Markus Boysen) reacts against his Third Reich childhood by becoming a radical activist verging on terrorist. Then dad snatches his kid from his raving red mother – she's about to join the PLO – and runs off with him on a journey of self-discovery. Resembling a mixture of Fatherland and Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities, this is an appealing tale finally sauced by too much déjà vu.
Two generation-gap films in Venice, however, got the recipe wholly right: Bertrand Tavernier's Around Midnight and Maria Luisa Bemberg's Miss Mary.
Tavernier's movie reminds one instantly of Paris Blues: mainly because it is every good thing that Martin Ritt's Seine-side jazz odyssey wasn't. There, if you recall, Newman and Poitier blazed away on the metalware between bits of wet love story and trips around tourist Paris. "Gee, is that the Eiffel Tower?"... cut to smoky dive and "Bee-ba-ba-bee-boo!"..."Hey, guys, that must be Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame"...back to smoky dive, and "Bop-bop-bee-da-da-wah-WAAAH...."
Darkly surreal, Tavernier's Paris is built on a soundstage of doyen art director Alexandre Trauner and the hell with the Eiffel Tower. Hither comes drink-wracked tenor sax Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon), a veteran with a burnt-out voice that sounds like Lionel Stander after speech lessons from Brando's godfather. But he plays like an angel!! And he strikes up a friendship with a young French hero-worshipper (François Cluzet), an Algerian vet with his own cargo of pain, who becomes the hero's pal, nurse, confidant, and apartment-sharer.
There is a lot of bebop – be warned, non-addicts – but at least in this film we discover what makes all those smoky dives so smoky. It's genius burning itself up. For Dale, finding new avenues of beauty each night is a guaranteed form of torture and slow exhaustion. We hear it in the parched voice, we see it in the weary gait and patrician fatigue. The old man is propped up by the youngster – Boswell to his Johnson, Sancho to his Quixote – then he goes back to New York to play a few last clubs, take a few last drugs (he's sworn off drink in tribute to Cluzet's friendship), and finally die. Around midnight is when the day ends and jazz begins, when the body tires and the soul takes wing, when men die but memories stir into legend.
Tavernier paces the two-and-a-half-hour film as if no one is going to hurry him – not even producer Irwin Winkler, famed for such tender movie largos as Rocky IV. Trauner's sets and Bruno De Keyzer's photography create a visual purr from the rain-slick streets and false-perspective vistas, and after Sunday in the Country and this, French cinema has found in Tavernier a genius of mood.
Maria Luisa Bemberg's pic is a wackier affair. Lording it over the Argentine pampas is the mock-Tudor mansion where Julie Christie comes to be governess to young sisters. She's the title's Miss Mary. Soon she discovers the discreet charm of the Argentinian aristocracy. Mum is a pale and angular weirdo who keeps playing the same dirge-like tune on the piano. Dad is a ladykiller who's lethal around the billiard table. Mum's younger brother – mustache, specs, cigar – looks like Gaucho Marx. And as for the kids, they are not above giving Miss Mary an arrival gift of a perfume bottle containing a warm and golden liquid of human origin. "Hmmm, sniffs Christie with distaste, "Argentine perfume!"
Since the movie's framed by black-and-white montage sequences of political unrest during the years of the story (1938 to 1945), Bemberg is doubtless intending a larger blast at Argentine life and society. "The family-symbol of the oligarchy" intones the press synopsis, portentously, apropos our main characters. But if they are meant to be looking down the barrel of the director's satiric rifle, they show not the least fear or remorse. The film is a romp, Christie's acerbic English propriety the perfect foil to a gang of nutty decadents whom one would be sorry to see overthrown by any revolution. They should be put in a museum. Come to think of it, they have been put in a museum – the living one of cinema.
At the heart of this film, as of most Venice movies, is the notion of the young getting ready to assume the mantle of the old. In Ken Harrison's On Valentine s Day, three generations of genteel Texans (c. 1917) yammer their way through writer Horton Foote's talky family saga. In Jacques Doillon's La Puritaine, Michel Piccoli stages – literally, with a troupe of actors in a theater and a lot of cutesy trust games and impromptus – a welcome for his returning prodigal daughter. And the screw-loose heroine of Mai Zetterling's truth-based Amorosa, based on the life of schizophrenic Swedish writer and early feminist Agnes Von Krusenstjerna (Stina Ekblad), is taken in hand by older husband-mentor Erland Josephson. The irony here is that Josephson turns out to be just as mentally unstable as she: an irony but hardly a surprise, viewing the actor's track record as a crackpot specialist for Bergman and Tarkovsky.
With all these generational polarities going on, it became a relief to see a film about peers. Eric Rohmer's movies are always a breath of spring. In Le Rayon Vert (U.S. title, Summer), he improvises dialogue, uses 16mm that says never mind about artistic visuals, and casts an unknown young leading actress – yes, another unknown young leading actress – who delivers the same high-octane tears and IQ performance as her predecessors. Marie Riviere seeks romance through the long weeks of a summer vacation and finally finds it: via Jules Verne, la nouvelle cuisine, and the spectrology of sunsets.
Alain Resnais' Mélo was rapped by many as "filmed theater" being a set-bound version of Henry Bernstein's play about love and adultery in Twenties Paris. It comes complete with a between-acts curtain and credits on a turning playbill. But spitfire performances from the current Resnais repertory troupe – Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Pierre Arditi – help subvert the proscenium mold. And so do Resnais' occasional darkling dives into surrealism.
Mélo was shown out of competition in a competition that sorely needed it. Also fuori concorso was the annual consignment of big American commercial movies: Aliens, Ruthless People, Heartburn, Legal Eagles, and the like. These might have imparted some life to the main event.
The 14-person jury, after many a comfortably upholstered deliberation in the Excelsior, finally gave the Golden Lion to Rohmer's Summer. I thought (and so did virtually every other critic on the Lido) that it should have gone to Tavernier's Around Midnight.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1986 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.