by Harlan Kennedy


It was madness, music and merriment as the circus came to town. When the band lining the Lido struck up, there were tears among the cheers. Tears of loyalty, love and devotion. For we all recognized the tune. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?…” Or in the Italian version of the Beatles lyric, sung by a dozen moved and musical voices in that crowd, “Sara piu bisogno? Sara piu di rogno?” (Literally: “Will there be more need, will there be more dishes of delicious cooked kidney….?”)

Yes, the Venice Film Festival was in its 64th year. It was also in its 75th, but that figure refers to the date of its birth, 1932. 64 is the number of festivals, in a world and a century so often interrupted by history, that have actually happened.

This event is still a carnival. It still has its travelling acts, those Hollywood stars who jet in each year to join the mostra as if it was a dutiful but beautiful part of their workload. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley, Ewan McGregor, Richard Gere and Bill Murray were among the guests this year.

It still has its clowns jumping through paper hoops (the critics). Above all, it has its lions and these in turn have their tamers.

Marco Muller, chief whipcracker and placer of head in leonine jaws, was in his fourth and last contractual year as festival chief. But the bulletin-board voting sheet, stuck up in a sunny space near the festival café, a sheet on which we could each put a tick against our listed favourite for 2008 (Jean-Luc Godard 12 votes, Attila the Hun two), had Muller at the top for a renewed tenure.

Why not? He has been outstanding. Year after year, he has brought top-quality meat to be thrown to the lions. This year’s competition programme seemed almost too tasty. How would we be able to suffer for art – so necessary for an Anglo-American critic with a puritan conscience – when the movies were mostly in English and were directed by the likes of Brian De Palma, Paul Haggis, Kenneth Branagh and Ang Lee?  Okay, Lee’s film was Chinese, and was quickly dubbed BLOKEBACK MOUNTAIN, meaning the bloke who went to Hollywood was back in his family homeland. But the rest were treats for the linguistically lazy.  

But if our subtitle abilities were underused, horizontal scoping was demanded and demanding. Our eyes had to dart from side to side constantly in De Palma’s REDACTED, seeking the telling details, always there amid the minefields of info in this brilliant Iraq war drama that uses, or replicates, a mass of multi-format styles. It was the early favourite for Lionisation at Venice. It is De Palma’s own best film in decades.

Video war diaries, blogs, CCTV footage, embedded reporting. The prolixity of techniques, combined with headlong complexity, rejuvenates this director’s storytelling flair. Last year at Venice he seemed a man of stiffening artistry, lost to his inveterate thriller fetishism (THE BLACK DAHLIA). This year he was the first hot helmer out of the blocks. REDACTED recounts a rape-and-murder binge by four US squaddies – ravishing a 15-year-old Muslim girl one night and killing her family – and invites us to see the film as a mid-east version of CASUALTIES OF WAR.

There are no stars, though. And there is no glib unity of perspective. The chaos of the battlefield is matched by the welter of perceptual instrumentations which modern technology has offered the outsider as ‘ways in’ to understanding war. In REDACTED we are never watching, we are always eavesdropping. We are never witnesses, we are always voyeurs. We understand – because we are almost sucked into living it – the ease with which decent youngsters become in every sense demoralised: first robbed of morale, then mugged of their moral sense. They can no longer tell good from bad in a world where good and bad actions both are empowered. Stunningly acted by unknowns, and virtually reinventing the remit of the topical American feature film, De Palma’s movie made him the comeback kid of Venice 2008.    

It is far more daring and radical than Paul Haggis’s Iraq-themed IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH. Not bad as a thriller a thèse and better than the preachy pomp of the Oscar-winning CRASH – this army-base whodunit is about the off-limits killing of an Iraq-returned soldier. Was he murdered by vicious townies or fellow jarheads? Do we blame life or the war? Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon are the main cast members wanting to know. The film is deftly scripted. But after the bold tearing up of the style-book in REDACTED, it plays a bit like Agatha Christie meets Aaron A FEW GOOD MEN Sorkin.

The US/UK movies flooding the competition in week one also included two Kens and a Clooney. Ken One was SLEUTH, Kenneth Branagh’s remake of the Shaffer-Mankiewicz thriller, with Michael Caine trading up into the Olivier role while Jude Law plays Caine’s old part of the cuckolding intruder in a celebrity writer’s life. Harold Pinter’s script is pithy. Branagh’s antsy, multi-angled direction is less so. Ken Two was Loach’s latest. IT’S A FREE WORLD is another soapbox opera from the Cannes laureate and fulltime leftist, this time about the exploitation of foreign workers. It’s a bit same-again, though newcomer Kierstan Wareing, wearing dark-rooted blonde hair that may have excited the envious admiration of the Golden Lion and his team of coiffeurs, brings feistiness to the system-combating heroine.

And Gorgeous George?  No recent film festival has run its course without a visit from the salt-and-pepper sexpot. He seems able to replicate himself in every major European city. MICHAEL CLAYTON, written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who scripted all those BOURNES from which no braincell returns, is a dapper law-and-skulguggery thriller. It has about as much business in a festival competition as a packet of candy in a cordon bleu meal. But it’s fun.

A courtroom setting, and in its fashion a thriller format, distinguish Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12. Russia’s ex-Venice victor with URGA (1992) has remade, of all things, 12 ANGRY MEN. (Whatever next? Sokurov’s SERPICO?) But Mikhalkov cleverly extends Lumet’s jury-room suspenser to two and half hours, sprinkles it with grand performances (including his own as foreman) and gives each character a psychologically or sociopolitically charged confessional scene, so that 12 is as much about a society in the dock – modern Russia – as about a murder trial and a turnaround among good men and true.

All these movies were academic, anyway, once we had seen LA GRAINE ET LA MOULET (THE GRAIN AND THE MULLET). Abdellatif Kechiche – the name is a hurricane sneeze – is a Tunis-born French filmmaker who may be the next big thing in art cinema. His last movie L’ESQUIVE (GAMES OF LOVE AND CHANCE), which won a suite of French Cesar awards, was an immigrant love story with the grace of Rohmer and the vitality of Godard.

At Venice the new film, rejected by Cannes when its running time was three hours, still came in at two and a half. It could be shortened, but so could WAR AND PEACE. Would it be better shortened? Not necessarily. Kechiche’s film benefits from the hammer-blow remorselessness, the boundary-breaking emotional attrition, of the best scenes in this tale of a French-Muslim patriarch (Habib Boufares), whose fishing-industry job in a seaside town is threatened and who tries to save his near and dear by opening a floating couscous restaurant.

Might it all go wrong? Might turkeys have a bad time at Thanksgiving?  The writing is on the wall early and it’s in fluent Franco-Arabic. It says that North Africans are not welcome in France, unless they can dissolve their identities in the Gallic gene-and-culture pool. So the stormy clannishness of this big family, their outward solidarity set off by infighting, marital intrigues and generational tensions (all vibrantly sketched), is a catalyst for disaster, waiting to happen. 

The restaurant’s opening night – a sustained hour of drama and unravelling – is one of the great scenes of tragicomedy in modern cinema. Think of VIRIDIANA’s Last Supper and blend it with the picayune chaos of THE FIREMEN’S BALL. The film’s other ancestor is Italian neorealism, with a climactic scene involving the hero-patriarch which breaks the heart even as it wears the unimpeachable imprimatur of the everyday.

Wonderful performances enrich the deeply-worked script and story. The old man’s ex-wife (Bouraouia Marzouk) is a Mother Earth who still cooks the extended family’s feasts, her couscous a secret weapon – or not so secret – in ensuring nuclear togetherness. The old man’s new partner (Hatika Karaoui) is an ageing sorceress whose nubile, hotheaded daughter (Farima Benkhetache), outwardly rebellious if inwardly loyal, saves the day, or nearly, by bringing a gust of native culture into the banquet. Belly dancing! This shindig, obsequiously sown with invited bigwigs and provincial Chauvelins, has the doom of multi-ethnic appeasement upon it. Yet Kechiche’s characters come close to making the impossible work, to making one jealously insular ancien regime, France, extend the hand of welcome to another, even older, even wiser in the tribal schisms of the human spirit.

When fiction becomes too frightening – because it amplifies truth into the epiphanic – filmgoers can always retreat into fact. Is there anything more comforting than a biopic? It wraps us like a warm blanket. We’re cosy in the confines of the known, the particular, the unchanging.

So, conversely, the bold filmmaker knows that to make a biopic grabby and surprising he must put everything back the opposite way. He must dose his movie with seeming fiction. He must bring back lies and order up truant fantasy. In Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan celebration, I’M NOT THERE, he must entrust the role of the folkie to six different actors, each playing a different essence.

Will the real Dylan please stand up and walk towards us on twelve legs? The balladeer-arthropod is duly enacted by Haynes’s half-dozen. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere are starrily among them, but the winning mimic is Cate Blanchett, who not only has Dylan’s features (wolfish cheeks, hooded eyes) but seems to have spent a lifetime studying his body language. Everything is perfect, from the hunch-shouldered self-compression of the introverted Dylan, a human tortoise repelling world and media intrusion, to the snaky sidewindings of the celebrity who knew how to have a funky time slipping through adoring crowds or sidestepping paparazzi.

I’M NOT THERE, though, is more than serial mimicry. It bids to suggest that instead of a simple integer an artist is the sum of many parts, some of them incarnations of the new, some of them pre-existences that shaped their successor as seasons shape landscapes. So Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a Dylan idol and in Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID a screen companion to Dylan the actor. Marcus Carl Franklin plays the boy Woody Guthrie, a train-hopping mini-hobo bringing the spirit of country-and-southern to the underprivileged north. And as if to prove that life imitates art – or that critics can be unwittingly infected by a film’s mischief-making – on the outer fringes of the film’s dramatis personae dwells Julianne Moore’s hilariously well-observed Joan Baez, a role enacted, according to one reviewer of a prestigious newspaper, by ‘Marianne Moore’. Ah the past and its bards and visionaries! How can we escape them? Why should we want to?

Filmmaker Peter Greenaway cannot escape Rembrandt van Rijn. The British bricoleur is almost an honorary Dutchman – he has lived in the Netherlands, his producer comes from there – and northern European painting has been an obsession. NIGHTWATCHING is a Rembrandt biopic with a difference, indeed with about a hundred. Westerners weaned on the Alexander Korda flick, in which Charles Laughton played the painter as a mad overgrown baby with a visionary gleam, will take a while to adjust to Martin Freeman. A sitcom actor (THE OFFICE) and minor film player (HOT FUZZ, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY), he seems lightweight for the role. For an hour he plays Rembrandt as a stand-up schismatic, scattering dissent and iconoclasm under the guise of proletarian good cheer. He isn’t far from being Tony Hancock in a Netherlands version of THE REBEL.

Then it gets deeper and darker. Rembrandt paints ‘The Night Watch’, his scandalising group portrait of local dignitaries playing at being home-guard heroes, the ridiculous posing as the sublime. In the process he exposes a possible murder plot. The sky falls in on him. He loses money. He is unhappy in love: his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) dies and his remaining passions settle on his servants (Jodhi May as Geertje,  Emily Holmes as Hendrickje).  He is beaten up and nearly blinded.

Greenaway – we can’t help feeling – loads the tragic dice: Rembrandt did, after all, keep painting and making masterpieces. But the sturm und drang allow Freeman to re-colour his performance with swirling emotional hues, to deliver well-scripted speeches and to present a portrait of the artist as riven martyr.

NIGHTWATCHING is his best film since THE PILLOW BOOK. It reminds us that this British director is still a formidable artistic energy-flow for whom the world  – he included – seems unable always to fight the right channels. Here the artful sets, magisterial lighting and densely written dialogue all raise this painterly biopic to a higher level than the usual dauber’s progress. And they hoist exalted and exalting questions about art’s place in society and society’s place in art.

The Mostra’s place in Lido life, during two weeks in September, is indisputable and unavoidable. There was a diaspora of lions this year. The gold-painted jungle cats fashioned by Italian movie designer Dante Ferretti, which stood in serried pride outside the Palazzo del Cinema during the last two years, were now scattered all over the island, or those parts near the cinemas. You could be eating a sandwich and casually lean one arm on something convenient – it turned out to be a lion’s snout. You could say “Sorry” to a figure you accidentally bumped into on your way into the festival palace – it would be a lion. A friend had an entire conversation with a supposed human interlocutor, on a dark evening after a movie, and it was a lion.

There was another widely enjoyed eccentricity this year. Who or what is LK Ching? In that poster-sheet poll for next year’s festival director, a poll whose latest vote numbers were diligently scrawled each day in bold black ink, Marco Muller remained neck and neck with the said Ching – whom absolutely no one had heard of. By festival’s end, the magnificently unknown Ching had actually overtaken Herr Muller, though theories abound that Muller has a Chinese passport and alias and was himself ‘Ching.’

I don’t believe this. I no more believe it than that a Sinophile conspiracy existed to ensure, through the presence of Zhang Yimou as jury president, that for the third year running at Venice a director of Chinese origin won the Golden Lion for best film. After Ang Lee in 2005 (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) and Jia Zhang-ke in 2006 (STILL LIFE), it was Lee again who strode to the platform to collect the gong for LUST, CAUTION.

He is starting to become known as Gong Lee. Born and raised in Taiwan, and lifted to international fame in Hollywood, Lee comes from Mainland Chinese parents and returned to China for his new film. It was a shock to supporters of the tipsters’ favourites  – THE GRAIN AND THE MULLET, REDACTED, I’M NOT THERE – that the jury picked this jewelled, erotic, but sometimes oddly novelettish espionage epic. Newcomer Tang Wei plays a Shanghai Mata Hari, a theatre student who offers herself as bait in a resistance gang’s attempt to entrap and assassinate a Chinese collaborator with occupying Japan. He is played by Sino-superstar Tony Leung with a slicked back hairstyle, smouldering charm and eye-whacking period suits.

When he wears them, that is. In the sex scenes the film does not so much smoulder as threaten intercontinental conflagration. Tang and Tony go to it with a will, without a stitch of clothing, in positions not approved by the World Missionary Society. There are prolific hints of S-and-M. The shocked American authorities have already delivered an NC17 rating. Ang Lee, blithely throwing fuel on the publicity flames, hinted that the sex scenes were performed by the actors for real.

It was not the only surprise prize. Amid a roar of polite incredulity, Brad Pitt won Best Actor for doing nothing much – though his petitpoint work with face and voice can be underestimated – in the main role of Andrew Dominik’s THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.  Pitt is alluringly grizzled and ironic, over the two-and-a-half-hour story, as he teases his ex-cronies into preparing for him the immortalising execution, the mythopoeic quietus, that he knows is only a matter of time.

Cate Blanchett’s silver goblet for Best Actress was well deserved. So were Brian De Palma’s Best Director Silver Lion for REDACTED and the split Special Jury Prize honouring I’M NOT THERE and THE GRAIN AND THE MULLET.

Nothing became the Venice Film Festival better than its leave-taking. We who watched the awards show will remember the strangest sight and sound of all. A frail Catherine Breillat, the jury member chosen to come to stage-front to present Abdellatif Kechiche with his guerdon, chose, all of a sudden, to engage the Frenchman in an extended dialogue about the film’s meaning and symbolism.

At the back of the stage an aghast lineup of emcees, VIPs and dolly-bird hostesses stood about, politeness preventing intervention during these minutes in which the night’s vacuous words of congratulation were replaced by dense engagement with a movie’s actuality. Breillat was finally coaxed back to sanity. Kechiche was urged towards the photographers. A moment of content had disturbed the form, a scintilla of substance had short-circuited, almost, the show. Now it could go on.

And it will. And it should. And we love it, in folly as well as in fulfilment. Floreat la Mostra. Book my gondola for 2008. LK Ching (all rights reserved).






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved