AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1992 - THE 49th INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
TO REGRET VENICE
by Harlan Kennedy
It took Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers, to sort out the Venice Film Festival. Seething with political turmoil, even after the five-year reign of the popular Guglielmo Biraghi, this movie junket needed a strong hand. Pontecorvo reached the Lido with landing craft and commandos on 1 September 1992, 09:05 hours. He sent his troops through the booby-trapped streets and terrorist-riddled houses. Semiologists waving lethal creeds or screeds were rooted out. Mothers and fathers holding screaming experimental short films were hustled off to interrogation HQ (Excelsior Hotel, basement).
Above all, Generale Pontecorvo claimed he wanted more entente with America at this canalside kinofest, not always known for giving a warm welcome to that country's films and critics. So lo! Brian DePalma arrived bearing the strange and beautiful Raising Cain. And Alexandre Rockwell came with In the Soup and Howard Franklin with The Public Eye, and Jack Lemmon wowed the crowds and won Best Actor bauble with Glengarry Glen Ross.
Ponty also brought a bright bunch of European and Eastern films to Italy. Bertrand Tavernier, Zhang Yimou, Agnieszka Holland, Otar Ioseliani... this was an ad hoc, last-minute, almost-didn't-happen Mostra del Cinema? That's what everyone said, and since Pontecorvo is a fest boss with only a year's remit, no doubt they'll say it again next year when the revolving-door job falls to, say, Michelangelo Antonioni or Umberto Eco or Tiberius Gracchus.
But we have a theory about the Venice festival. Like the town itself, it teases us with the mirage of imminent demise. Almost swallowed each year by the waters of incompetence, bureaucracy, and infighting, it keeps bobbing up to surprise us with survival. Meanwhile, cinema's whole life flashes before it and us. This year the American films aired at the very first Venice fling back in 1932 were reshown, including pix by Hawks, Capra, and Borzage. In screening rooms alive with the cicada noise of whirring projectors – or was that the beating of my own heart? – these films reminded us of the simple glory of that factory town called Hollywood before the age of color, widescreen, and paramilitary talent agencies.
Simplicity was the conquering virtue at Venice '92. Pupi Avati's Fratelli e Sorelle (Brothers and Sisters) was an early cult favorite, a tale of Italian-American life in St. Louis, Missouri. Avati no doubt found this bilingual backwood while making his ill-fated biopic Bix. When Italian sister number one (Anna Bonaiuto) comes to America to see sister number two (Paola Quattrini), spurred by a broken marriage in the Old World, she brings two teenage sons and a bewildered, prismatic set of expectations. The film's vision matches hers. Everything is in flux, from neighborhood reality (a film crew has taken over the suburban street) to marital security (Quattrini's unhappy with husband Franco Nero) to the wakening sexuality of the heroine's children.
Avati comes at every scene from a pixillated angle, like an Italian Miloš Forman. When a woman drops dead at her 25th wedding anniversary the stunned husband numbly tries to keep the party going. Franco Nero's work partner makes demented, funny passes at the new arrival from Italy. And the two young brothers compete for the favors of a plain but available cousin. It all ends in farce, tears, and a rueful glimpse of maturity.
Daniel Bergman's Sundays Child from Sweden has the same kaleidoscopic cohesion. With screenwriter father Ingmar Bergman ransacking his childhood memories again, one feared Best Intentions II: The Inaction Continues. But we're ambushed, just as we were in BI-I, by moments of shocking incandescence. Young Ingmar, here called Pu (Henrik Linroos), is already storyboarding his life at age 8: the artist's cold science is at work as the boy stands under a late-afternoon tree watching the room-to-room actions of his home and its human contents, as if all were a doll's-house and he a surveyor from Lilliput. Later he flashes-forward to his own life 40 years hence, as an older Ingmar refusing the olive branch of his dying father.
The film's cruel filial justice prevents it from being the "ooh aah" scrapbook it might have been, with its summer dresses swishing the gilded countryside and with Thommy Berggren as Pa trailing strawberry-flavored memories from Elvira Madigan. Most brilliant of all is the story-inside-a-story of a watchmaker driven mad by the ghost-girl trapped in his grandfather clock. He hangs himself, Pu is told – and Pu later meets the corpse swinging hideously, with pendulum motion, in the forest. Symbol of the artist's search for order undone by his own inner demons? Or an image of that severe, un-exorcisable father, whom Ingmar is still trying to reach in art after failing to reach in life?
Human beings picking their way through wish-fulfillment rewrites of history were plentiful at Venice. If Edith Piaf had been in town warbling her famous no-regrets ditty, she'd have been carted off by the festival's culture police. Regret movies were in.
Sample one: Otar Ioseliani in La Chasse aux Papillons, regretting the unlearned lessons of this diaspora century in the fitfully funny tale of two White Russian sisters living, and in one case dying, in an art-strewn French château. At funeral-time the relatives surge round, from as far as Moscow, millennial vultures ready to pick at the past's carcass. But even they are pushed aside, one invasion ousting another, by the more modern terror of a Japanese business firm taking over the pile, equipping it with computers and electric gates, and selling off the art. (And you thought Yellow Peril alarmism was confined to Hollywood!)
Regrets movie two: Ousmane Sembene's Guelwaar, in which the father of African cinema shakes his locks over superstition and sectarianism in a Senegal village. Sembene directs dialogue scenes like an acting coach urging on first-timers. But there's always been mischief in this faux naïveté. Guelwaar is painted by numbers both stylistically – with crackpot color coordination in the burning Bush – and thematically. Sembene counts off his casus belli like a man relishing his heretical rosary.
Regrets movie three: Illusion plays havoc with reality in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. Here the father of modern Irish cinema rhymes love and war in the moody tale of an IRA terrorist (Stephen Rea) honor-pledged to tryst with a murdered British soldier's girlfriend. All is not what it seems, and then some. Sexuality, like civil war, is a terrain full of guerrilla surprises and brute disenchantments-legacy of an age in which frontier posts have loudly splintered, not just geo-politically but gender-politically.
R.m.4: Luis Puenzo's The Plague, in which the Argentinian filmmaker regrets the follies of a tyranny-riven modern world and the filmgoer regrets entering the cinema. What could be worthier than trying to update Camus's 1947 fable of post-Nazi pestilence in North Africa to a junta-haunted South America? And what could be clumsier than the result: a portentous co-production set in an identikit urban war zone, with William Hurt, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jean-Marc Barr, Robert Duvall, and others trying to keep the rats out of their dialogue.
As for Bertrand Tavernier's L627, this is a keener, more interesting failure. Coscripted by BT with a real drugs cop, Michel Alexandre, the 1 ½ -hour narcotics saga was shot with Steadicam verve on real Paris streets. Add a charismatic ugly-mug hero (Didier Bezace) and a series of vivid walkie-talkie, will-they-won't-they bust scenes, and it should be a winner. But the structure is wrong. Instead of upward and onward, the film moves round and round in huis clos circles. This may reflect the eroding police routine of danger alternating with deskwork, but it numbs the spectator. All one ends up seeing is an arthouse Hill Street Blues.
But then American screen culture and its empire were the debate topic of the fest. On one side was Signor Pontecorvo, making cooing noises in the USAs direction and trying to restore Venice to parity with Cannes in the WE ♥ HOLLYWOOD stakes. On the other side were the non-U.S. celebs and helmers on the Lido, missing no chance to curse Tinseltown from afar. They showed how loudly they could do so in a daylong talkathon on "artistic freedom" held at the Hotel Des Bains. (Los Angeles will host a Mark-2 model of this confab in autumn '93.) Here everyone from F. Rosi to B. Tavernier to Costa-Gavras complained about the way Yank software, large-screen and small, is spreading viruslike across the world.
So much sound and fury, so much topsy-turvy logic. Foreign directors and critics, instead of getting angry at their own screen culture's lack of commercial appeal, get angry at their adversary's success. In terms of audio-measurable response, U.S. movies, even in a Venice year when the re-Americanization policy has barely started, played most others off the screen. The laugh count was higher than anywhere else in Rockwell's In the Soup, the gag count was highest in Raising Cain, the purr count was highest in Patriot Games. But like a hotel guest who resents the noises of amorous gratification in the next room, Europe bristles at such audible delight stemming from another culture.
We doubt that Venice will ever learn; and we speak as an American critic who finds no invited room at the inn every time he returns. As usual, I crossed continents to pitch sleeping-bag and tent on a humble beach, while native critics crossed a few hectares to be hosted in four-star hotels. My own dissertation prepared for the artistic-freedom powwow was therefore entitled, "Xenophobia siege-culture cinema, or: How do you pretend that a KEEP OUT sign is a welcome mat?" But I wasn't allowed to speak.
Instead I conducted my own beach symposium on an equally hot topic, "the emancipation of feminist cinema:" This took stock of the numerous movies at Venice by or about women. Contributions were invited from directors like Kyra Muratova (The Sentimental Policeman), Agnieszka Holland (Olivier Olivier), Sally Potter (Orlando), and Zhang Yimou. The new film from the director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern is The Story of Qiu Ju, a minor-key Mother Courage about a peasantwoman (Gong Li) seeking justice when her spouse is assaulted by the village head-man. Though it won the Golden Lion, the movie's pietistic humanism smacks a little of those old Maoist flix that had titles like "Shanghai Woman Heroes Save the Harvest" or "Lu Li Builds a Village Pond." Qiu Ju has even been blessed by the Chinese government, hitherto famous for banning its director almost every time he left his house. That said, the new pic does have a dotty Capraesque charm and a redeeming habit of surrounding the doctrinaire central story with buzzing subplots.
Is anyone out there still afraid of Virginia Woolf? Clearly not Sally Potter, whose movie of Orlando was the surprise hit of the festival and the pre-Zhang Yimou tip for top prize. The British helmer previously known for career suicide bids like The Gold Diggers (Julie Christie adrift in a nonnarrative Yukon) claims she spent four years preparing this film. It shows in the result: a lissome picturebook version of Woolfs fantasy about a hero/heroine who changes sex as often as he/she hops centuries.
Tilda Swinton, last year's Venice Best Actress (Edward II), collaborated on the project and took the lead role. Swinton's staring, high-cheeked, quasi-albino features make Orlando a strong emotional epicenter in this experiment in social-historical seismology. We begin in Tudor England on a frozen Thames: skating waiters and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. We sashay through Augustan London, swapping bons mots with Pope & Co. Turning into a woman, we fall in love in the Victorian age (Billy Zane as a raven-locked Byronic centerfold). Then we whiz through World War I – bomb – dropping and baby-birthing – into what Potter clearly, lyrically sees as the high noon of feminine freedom. That is, Now. Under a tree sits Swinton, faddishly androgynous. Up in the sky cavorts a pop-video angel warbling the coming-of-age of gender politics.
This might all have been idiotic: a Brechtian pageant combining playroom polemics with sun-blinded utopianism. Instead it's as lightfooted as anything Venice offered. Part of Potter's speed may be explained by her having been bitten by the Greenaway Style in early scenes – all those ruffs and Old Master compositions – and by the fact that she then runs like hell from any followup bites. If the Tudor scenes are outtakes from Prospero's Books, the deadpan intellectual farce of the Augustan section is more Monty Python-meets-Eric Rohmer, and the Victorian love idyll is a masterpiece – mistresspiece – of ironized female romanticism all Potter's own. The film casts its heroine, political defenses down, on the carnal pyre of love from which she then rises a tempered, strengthened phoenix.
The film's style, already deft in its ellipses, here finds an inspired shorthand. One aftermath-of-lovemaking shot takes the form of a landscape pan along Swinton's motionless flank from hip to watching head, while the foreground blurs with the gentle rise and fall of her sleeping lover's shoulder. Mutely lyrical in itself, this shot could serve as the whole film's symbolic key: a shaping consciousness tenderly watching the passivity of unconscious bliss. For the film's Orlando, like the novel's, is male and female, active and passive, couchant and rampant, real and symbolic, divine and human. Potter's triumph, and Swinton's, is to make their heroine both a recording angel and a picaresque, plausibly bewildered Everyperson. In the old Hollywood mantra, "all human life is here": but what a saving on the casting bill when you can put it all into one character.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1992 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.