by Harlan Kennedy



We came by camel, swaying across the parched valley floor that was once the Venice lagoon. Rusting ferries, canted at angles, lay bedded in old mud swirled across by a chiffon of sand. Peeling gondolas lolled amid skulls and bones of longdead fish. Behind us, spectral on the skyline, the pitted monolith of the Campanile eyeballed the giant skeleton of St Mark’s Cathedral.

When we swayed in sight of the Lido’s Excelsior Hotel, festival director Moritz de Hadeln came to greet us. Shimmering through the haze, clad in robes of a desert chieftain, he welcomed us with sherbet, coconut milk and a slaughtered goat. Our long journey was over. The Venice Film Festival was beginning…

You think it couldn’t happen? At the 60th Mostra del Cinema it almost did.  The Lifetime Tribute Award went to Omar Sharif, for services to shimmering across deserts. The Lido di Venezia was recovering from its worst heat wave since records began. (And Venice has been record-keeping ever since that great weathercaster Galileo – yes, him again – first climbed the Campanile with his telescope). Tropical jellyfish were jumping out of the sea and onto the beach. And motion pictures as diverse as the Franco-American TWENTYNINE PALMS, the Danish THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, the Iranian SILENCE BETWEEN TWO THOUGHTS and the British CODE 46 – my four favourite pics in the Wacky Lion stakes – all propose a world ruled by drought, global warming or a deepening division between the haves and have-nots.

With other Venice pix they suggest more yet: that something other than water and climatic clemency is running out. Namely our faith in traditional movie storytelling. The Hollywood dollar may still read “In plot we trust”, backed by larky narratives like Sir Ridley Scott’s MATCHSTICK MEN and the Coen brothers’ INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. (Two comedy-thriller flickerbooks, shown here out of competition, in which “What next?” remains the energising page-turner). But in TWENTYNINE PALMS, the competition’s mid-festival stunner and my personal Golden Kennedy winner, the enigmas and ellipses of Europe are moving in fast on Southern Cal.

Europe’s pitchman here is minimalist Bruno Dumont. Remember him? French auteur? Man whom I and the Cannes jury hailed for his weirdly visionary HUMANITY back in 98?  That was in the teeth of booing and jeering punters who couldn’t handle Bruno’s slow-paced tale of a dysfunctional cop delivering Mickey Finn stichomythia in semi-static takes somewhere in Brittany.

Dumont’s at it again here. But instead of Mickey Finn dialogue, or rather on top of it, we get a baseball-bat wallop of an ending, preceded by action so strong on atmospheric actionlessness that we are mesmerised. The characters are a magazine photographer (David Wissak) scouting locations in the southwestern desert and his emotionally volatile Russian girlfriend (Katia Golubeva). By day they rumble over sandtracks and rock roads in their red Hummer. By night they R and R in seedy motels. They make out in pools or amid desert pinnacles. Sometimes they quarrel. One night they split up, then reconcile. The ice between them is as strong as the fire, or is it that each element needs the other? And then again is that need enough to keep his macho privacy compatible with her anxiety-to-share, which freaks out whenever frustrated.

No love story was ever closer to a fear story, right from the off. And when their Hummer gets bumped from behind in the midst of nowhere in the final reel in the broiling sun in the mother of all wildernesses, it’s time for terror. Think DELIVERANCE crossed with LA VIE DE JESUS (Dumont’s debut). “TWENTYNINE PALMS should be an ecstatic and hallucinatory journey”, says the director. It is, Bruno, it is. And the desert between LA and Palm Springs never looked more out-of-this-universe, from the psychedelic lyricism of the first scene’s white windmills to the feral high noon of the close.

In CODE 46 the desert laps Shanghai. It’s a Sino-Futureworld built by Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom for Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. They caper dystopically through a tale of sex and industrial fraud set in a multi-ethnic China where cities are oases in a dustbowl world, just as love is a waterhole in a society autistic with automatism. (Discuss). We’ve been here before with sci-fi, of course, and likewise with Shanghai. The town looks just like the jazzy megalopolis, animate with neon ideograms, that Ridley Scott conjured for BLADE RUNNER. Here, though, you can’t forget the eerie incongruity of that encroaching droughtscape. Nor the sense that this is another plot whose slenderness and tokenism, its been-there-done-that forebodingness about the future, creates by luck or skill a compensatory space for mood, atmos and exospiritual embellishment.

The drought in A SILENCE BETWEEN TWO THOUGHTS is multi-meaning. Iran’s Babak Payami proposes a stricken village whose land first dried and crops failed when a religious tyrant took power. The main character (Kamal Naroui) is the tyrant’s official executioner, first glimpsed as a study in chilling solipsism, raising and firing his AK rifle twice in slow succession in the film’s opening take. We hear only the thud of two off screen bodies. A third woman is spared to become his bride – her virginity would only send her to heaven – and the film flowers surreally, like a desert plant, into a fable about political despotism, human redemption and the conflicted heart and mind of a man who has sold himself, he realises too late, to the most plausible political bidder.

Payami made the grimly droll Venice hit SECRET BALLOT (2001), about the impotence of democratic ideals in a demagogue state. He’s unlikely to renew his passport to Ayatollah favour with this bitter drama about the rule of faith and unreason: a film he won’t confirm, but also won’t deny, is a parable about Iran’s own Islamic Revolution. Luckily his actual passport is Canadian-Iranian, so he can move around, unlike his movie, whose negative has been impounded by the censors. Venice was left to view a blurry but defiantly powerful video version.

No film festival is complete without Lars von Trier. In THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS the mad Dane with dogs on the brain – from DOGME95 to DOGVILLE – cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of W.A.R. That’s Wilful Aesthetic Relativism, as demonstrated in this eccentric nonfiction impromptu which shows Trier himself commanding fellow Danish director Jorgen Leth to remake Leth’s own modestly famous short film THE PERFECT HUMAN, a droll, mock-scientific look at the human body in action and repose.

Leth must remake it five different ways, with rules and handicaps imposed by Lars. Use 12-frame shots in one version; make another as a cartoon; shoot an eating and drinking scene in a third amid hungry onlookers in a Bombay slum. Each time Leth fails – we watch him report back to his taskmaster – Trier says “You must go back and do it again (in Bombay)” or “I shall have to punish you, Jorgen”. The ultimate penalty is to compel Jorgen to make a version any way he wishes. Hilariously this proves the worst: a po-faced moodpiece starring Patrick Bauchau. the actor who makes Wim Wenders pix even more low-key than they’d be without him. THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is a hoot. We always knew Trier had an obersturmfuhrer tucked inside him. It’s sporty of him to let it out and to let us watch it perform. 

In the gospel according to Lars – to resume our over-theme – the cinema’s traditional norms and forms are bones in the desert and movie narrative a skeleton needing new armature. Even human compassion needs a fresh wardrobe or war chest. We must test-obliterate the clichés of human sympathy with scenes like the, frankly shocking, one of Leth’s chowdown in a Bombay ghetto. We’ve all got empathy drought, in this crazy world. Gotta built new wells and wadis. Gotta put in new perspectives. Gotta start, also, from the reality that this is a desert.

Grim new worlds encourage backlash nostalgia, of course, and Venice offered lots of that. I don’t mean the usual Trimalchian buffet of old De Sica, Fellini and Rossellini pix – they come with the territory in any 60-year-old Italian filmfest – but such arresting wallows in cod-Proustian remembrance as Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS, Tsai Ming-Liang’s GOODBYE DRAGON INN and Takeshi Kitano’s ZATOICHI.


·       THE DREAMERS. 1968? If you remember it you didn’t live through it, goes the gag. But try being beaten up by the Paris cops and not remembering it. Bertolucci and screenwriter Gilbert Adair, adapting his own novel, use the evenements de Mai as backdrop to a kinky threesome tale. Callow yank Matthew shacks up with rich twin siblings Isabelle and Theo in a Paris as purulent with ooh-la-la possibilities as in LAST TANGO.  Sex, Maoism and moviemania – lots of each. (They meet up outside the Cinematheque amid crowds protesting the famous sacking of Henri Langlois). The good news is that Bertolucci equates the revelation that the initially incestuous-seeming brother and sister are actually virgins with the unformed naivety of their and their generation’s Little Red Book politics. Tally-ho! Bernardo is chasing Godardot again 30 years after THE CONFORMIST. The bad news is that the movie still spends too much time beating the undergrowth for shock value, frantic to summon erotic piquancy as if we’d all leave the theatre without it.

·       GOODBYE DRAGON INN. Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang copped the Golden Lion back in 1995 for VIVE L’AMOUR. He’s a Taoist teaser, as high on minimalism as a haiku poet. Nothing really ‘happens’ in this droll, deadpan diary of a movie theatre’s last days. Closure looms, but the aging screen still shrieks out costume pageantry (the 36-year-old cult actioner DRAGON INN) while the AC/DC patrons cruise corridors dark with gay promise and a clubfooted girl janitor clumps Beckettianly through miles of backrooms, tending toilets or re-positioning roof-leak buckets. It’s funny and narcotically nostalgic. Multiplexes, let’s face it, will never be like this. At the same time the picture’s plotlessness starts to strain even the devout, even at a modest 82 minutes.  Perhaps Tsai should have put in a little more meaning and message: more than the fetching submission that old cinemas are lost temples and what will happen now to all that pagan worship and votive eroticism? 

·       ZATOICHI. Samurai comeback! Takeshi Kitano is a hard act for Takeshi Kitano to follow. But he tries. Just as DOLLS wrongfooted fans of BROTHER, ZATOICHI is a surprise swerve, a dummy dribble, after DOLLS. Kitano himself stars as the blind warrior-masseur beating seven hells out of the Ginzo gang in 19th century Japan. The fight scenes are crunchy and cataclysmic, with digitised blood fountaining all over the screen. But there are also torpid human interest interludes and a dun-brown colour palette. (What happened to the rainbow revolution of DOLLS?)  Kitano seems not to know quite where to turn when he also packs in slapstick comedy and an all-dancing musical finale worthy of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN SAMURAI. He’s good value himself of course: old tic-face with a blond hairdo. And perhaps – just perhaps – he’s out-Dada’d us all, taking the past and pushing it forward into a polymorphous vaudeville future beyond even Postmodernism.


In mid-festival we were still awaiting the surefire crowd and jury pleaser that would clinch top prize. Jerry, a colleague, said to me one day, “I’m still not over the moon about any competition film.” To which I answered, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”

And we did. What a constellation. Nic Cage, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Tony Banderas, Sir Tony Hopkins, ‘Gorgeous’ George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Douglas, Emma Thompson. Each evening journalists watched the stars’ limos stream past the little wood, the Bosco dei Derelitti, where the said hungry journos queued at foodstands for pizza slices and cold beer. Occasionally a celebrity would toss a chicken-bone through the tinted window and a scramble would ensue. Sometimes a colleague hungrier than others would cling on to the limo’s fender as it swept towards the waving spotlights of the Palazzo Grande. In front of the cinema the offending hack would be prised off by brutal security guards, then led back to his feeding area.

Happily I won a VIP pass in a raffle. I avoided this ordeal, though there were others on offer for the privileged. Woody Allen opened the festival by saying “I never watch any of my films” and exiting stage right before the curtain could rise on ANYTHING ELSE. The poor genius had already done his duty by sitting through an opening ceremony longer than any in the history of mankind. It lasted just over an eternity by my watch. It contained speeches from everyone in northern Italy with a dinner jacket, an invitation and the power of voice.

Intolerable cruelty? No, that was still to come. And as rendered by the Coens it was joy unconfined. Clooney and Zeta-Jones star in the funniest movie since mirth came into being 12 billion years ago, formed from hot gases as energy turned to matter somewhere near Sunset and Vine. (This is a scientific fact). Lawyer comedies were never better than INTOLERABLE CRUELTY surely, even in the days of Hepburn and Tracy, of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Plautus and Terence. (Not to be confused with Philip and Terrance of the 2000-years-later SOUTH PARK).

Hollywood delivered again with 21 GRAMS, though it is moot whether a film directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu from a script by fellow-Latin Guillermo Arriaga Jordan, albeit starring Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts, should wear the label ‘Made in Tinseltown’ or ‘Mex and Match’. The plot is a wild cocktail of mayhem and mischance, birth and death, karma and causality: a SHORT CUTS shaken and stirred by a director who has seen too many soap operas but knows that the ‘all human life’ formula can do for great art as well as daytime drama. 21 GRAMS almost sat up and begged for an acting prize, which it duly won. Sean Penn got the guerdon.

Yes, plots still exist, drunk on their own eventfulness, even in a world where the sophisticated art future may lie in Lacuna Land: that desert country where lakes have dried but designer mirages, teasing and teleological, provide deeper satisfaction. At Venice the conflict between old and new styles was at its most compelling in Marco Bellocchio’s BUONGIORNO, NOTTE (GOOD MORNING, NIGHT). Italy’s longserving radical sheikh, he of CHINA IS NEAR and FISTS IN THE POCKET, still patrols the beautiful, terrifying wastes of human idealism.

Here the kidnapping and murder of Italian premier Aldo Moro are dramatised, that traumatic act of the last Terrorists‘R’Us era before this one – the 60s/70s – when the west’s own guerrillas took lethal head-shots at authority. Bellocchio puts us not just inside the ground-floor apartment but inside the ground-zero minds of the half-dozen youngsters who seized Moro from his motorcade, imprisoned him in a cubbyhole behind a bookshelf, and after long weeks in which everyone from the press to the Pope cried out for his liberation executed him. The girl terrorist (Maya Sansa), a little predictably, is the one privileged here with finer feelings: she pleads for Moro to be spared. Elsewhere the film’s unyieldingness is its strength. It’s a story of the eternal, unresolvable standoff between fallible democracy and those who will pay any price – or exact it – for their vision of political Utopia.

Everyone thought Bellocchio would get the Golden Lion, not least as an Italian in an Italian fest with an Italian jury president (Mario Monicelli). Instead an outside bet overtook on the inside track and suddenly everyone was exclaiming, “Ooh look the Russian film has won!”

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN is a feelgood film about feeling bad, a tragedy of loss with a winning humanity. Maybe audiences watching the troubled reunion between a mysterious father and the two sons he hasn’t seen for 12 years – and is he really their dad despite mum’s assurance? – were predisposed to emotional meltdown by the extra-filmic actuality of one actor’s death. On screen the trio’s ill-fated fishing trip ends in fresh bereavement. Off screen Vladimir Garin, playing the older son, drowned in a lake near the very one where the film was shot, attempting a ‘dare’ similar to the one with which the story opens.

Even without that aide-pleurer this is a poignant film, pitch-perfect in mood, tempo and atmosphere. Zvyagintsev’s mise-en-scene honours the poetic potential of the original screenplay by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexandr Novototsky with its reverberant musings on parent-child love in an orphaned post-communist country. (Do we detect the emergence of a Russian cinema leitmotif? For a compare-and-contrast treatment of a near-identical subject consider Alexandr Sokurov’s FATHER AND SON. That grabbed the International Critics Prize at Cannes for a movie with an echoing character figuration if more eccentricity in the treatment.) This is an excellent opportunity for Pres Vladimir Putin to create a film prize with lots of money attached to it and give it to Zvyagintsev to make more films. That’s a long sentence, but it’s over now.

The jury wasn’t all-wise. It also gave Best Actress award to Katjia Riemann, trying to stay afloat in the sudsy conventionality of Margarethe von Trotta’s ROSENSTRASSE – a history lesson about Gestapo-bereaved wives protesting for their husbands’ release during the Third Reich – and donated Best Director to Kitano for a movie he could, and possibly did, do in his sleep.

Nothing went to two more piquant Oriental flicks, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE from Thailand and Im Sangsoo’s A GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE from Korea. First is a quirky neo-Godardian romance between an on-the-lam guy and off-the-street gal who prattle jazzy non-sequiturs when not observing gnomic, art-movieish silences (they must both have seen BREATHLESS too many times). Ratanaruang, who made 6IXTYNIN9 and MON-RAK TRANSISTOR, paints striking compositions even when not knowing quite what to do with the figures in them.

A GOOD LAWYER’S WIFE is a tale of sex on the side, with an extended look at a family that stays together by sleeping apart. Director Sangsoo delivers his unfaithful hero’s frustrated wife into a teenage neighbour’s arms. Soon the sexual positions are permutating even while the plot goes into virtual standstill. Not, as they say in SEINFELD, that that’s a bad thing, especially when presented with a film of pixie wit by a filmmaker clearly worth watching. 

In fact standstill is more or less where we came in. Storylessness as the storytelling of the future. Narrative deserts as the El Dorado of the next generation: that Utopian future when teenagers will proudly wear T-shirts with the imprint “I (Heart) Beautiful Stasis.”

As if to honour and acknowledge that script for revolution the festival closed with Jim Jarmusch’s COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. Ten essays in honed inconsequentiality parading as a feature film. A screenplay going nowhere with wit, gall and impious purpose. (But isn’t that what life does?) And a cast of the cinema’s best losers, including Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Steve Coogan and Roberto Benigni, acting their socks off to persuade us that nothing in the world is more fascinating than – nothing.

Perhaps it is time for cinema to join that august crew of colleague arts, including painting, music, poetry and the modern novel, which insist that the human story is too rich and complex to be tackled merely by the telling of tales. I shall be back for more – or less – in Venice in 2004. Summon my camel-powered gondola.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.